The Online Water Army: How Businesses Deceive Chinese Internet Users
The phrase ‘Online Water Army’ refers to the hordes of people out there that are paid to post comments on the Internet. These part-time or full-time workers make use of social media websites, forums and blogs to influence public opinion. They make positive posts about the companies that employ them and attack competitors. They will usually create multiple accounts to spread the same message, giving the impression that there is a general consensus on an issue.
A company won’t just hire one person either. The Water Army is organized. A PR company will hire multiple people to carry out the work according to a specific plan. The work of an individual ‘soldier’, if you could call them that, may involve hyping a product, promoting an event, spreading news, propagating false information about competitors or deleting negative posts. Job postings with “Water Army” in the title are the main subject of some QQ groups, where professional posters await new work.
In the lives of Chinese Internet users, the Online Water Army is everywhere. For example, when checking out a product on Taobao, China’s equivalent of eBay, you can see the reviews of those that have previously purchased a product. The problem is, these reviews may be fakes paid for by the Taobao store owner. Similarly, seemingly authentic blog posts endorsing a product may be paid for without there being any mention of sponsorship. Blog comments, even multiple comments from various users, may be faked.
With the recent ascension of microblogs, spammy tactics have already been quick to adapt. Besides buying posts, you can also buy followers. Just like on Twitter, inflating your follower count with thousands of completely useless followers is quick and requires little time or expense.
Online Water Army ‘Professional Ethics’:
- Never mention who you are working for.
- Create original content. Copying is a quick way to get spotted as a faker.
- Only post places where your post will be seen.
As people are paid to spread information, it should come as no surprise that people are paid to remove information as well. ‘Post deletion’ is so popular that it could even be considered an industry of its own. A Baidu search for “post deletion company” (删帖公司) turns up millions of results including many companies that specialize in the deletion of posts. Their main method of operation is bribing moderators to delete posts – legitimate or otherwise.
Deceptive News Gone Big
In some cases, fake news has exploded to enormous proportions within China and even abroad.
Junpeng Goes Home to Eat
In 2009, the forum post “Junpeng Jia, your mom wants you to go home to eat”. Within several hours, the thread had been seen by several hundred thousand people and had received over 20 thousand replies. The “Junpeng Jia event” was called an “online miracle”. It was later revealed that Junpeng Jia wasn’t a real person at all. He was fabricated as part of a campaign to promote the video game World of Warcraft, by drawing attention to the game’s forums.
In 2010, a post was made on Sina Microblog claiming that “Yili Milk Powder Causes Premature Puberty”. It wasn’t true. It was actually fabricated by competing milk brand Mengniu and a PR firm.
4 people that were involved in this deception were arrested.
The Water Army Isn't Always Bad
Of course, the Online Water Army isn’t always used for unethical reasons. Posters may be given promotional tasks that are transparent and truthful. Posters may make posts on relevant forums and blogs, where people actually appreciate the information about a new product. This kind of unobtrusive and truthful promotion method is clearly preferred by the end readers. Unfortunately, this type of viewpoint isn’t adopted widely enough by the PR and Internet marketing firms that implement these campaigns. In the end, it’s up to Chinese Internet users to use their own judgement when it comes to judging the authenticity of anything they see online.