How To Get One Million Internet Hits
(yWeekend) Tianya and MOP expose the "one million fake hit rate" for <Those Events Of The Ming Dynasty>. By Ma Jun (马军). March 15, 2007.
<Those Events of the Ming Dynasty> was an alternative historical account that became popular last year. Recently, netizens uncovered that when it was first posted at Tianya, MOP and other websites, the author <Bright Moon of Past Years> was suspected of manufacturing the "one million hits" for the purpose of hyping the work! During the investigation by the yWeekend reporter, the Tianya and MOP administrators both confirmed that the "one million hits" were manufactured.
On March 10, 2006, a person named <Bright Moon of Past Years> wrote a long historical essay titled <Those Events of the Ming Dynasty> and posted it at Tianya and other websites. It was received well by netizens and gathered several million hits. When the work was published in book form, it brought 200,000 RMB in royalties for the author.
The doubters say: the one million hits were manufactured for the purpose of promoting and selling the published book. On the front cover of the book, the promotion headline was printed: "Hit rate of more than 1 million per month." This trick was copied from Taiwan two to three years ago, and this is now a newly fashionable method in the publishing industry.
Many fans of <Bright Moon of Past Year> dissented: how come none of the doubters could produce any evidence?
When the Tianya and MOP administrators were interviewed by this reporter, they seemed reluctant to talk about the request to "produce the concrete evidence."
On March 3, a post appeared at the Tianya forum with the title: <Why are Ming Dysnasty and the fraudsters so popular -- a classical case in which fakery succeeded in the Internet age>. The post claimed:
The fraudster known as <Bright Moon of Past Years> did not lose his reputation. Instead, he has become ever more popular. His Sina.com hit rate is faked and he has no restraints. At a daily rate of 400,000 faked hits, he has climbed past the 10 million mark.
The debate over the "one million fake hits" triggered the <Bright Moon Gate incident>. Last year, the Tianya forum users witnessed a series of actions -- 刷尸 (which involves posting disgusting photographs of corpses from traffic accidents into your post comments in order to drive readers away); 刷屏 (which means flooding your post comments with content so that the really meaningful stuff gets buried in the avalanche of useless information); 洗版 (which means inserting repetitious comments in order to frustrate readers); 倒版 (which means voting the forum administrator out by numerous posts) ... these actions may be quite confusing to outsiders, but the various principals are able to enumerate and describe in detail. These actions were the results from the "one million fake hits" incident.
From the viewpoint of the website, how do Tianya and MOP look at this "one million fake hits" incident? This reporter interviewed the administrators at these two websites.
According to the Tianya administrator, the <Those Events of the Ming Dynasty> definitely had anomalous effects while it was being carried on Tianya and the hit rate had been 'manipulated.'
Yun Ke is the editor of the Hainan Tianya Online company as well as a Tianya forum administrator. He told the reporter: During the two weeks before and after May 1, <Those Events of the Ming Dynasty> suddenly accumulated 2 million hits. When they came back from vacation, they were shocked to see that.
"The post appeared in a forum section about history. The section is fairly specialized and is not usually very popular. Even the best post does not draw more than 100,000 hits. If something can reach 1 million hits within a week at Tianya, then the hit rate is extremely anomalous."
Yun Ke personally studied the hit rate and he sensed that something was wrong. "Something was definitely wrong in there."
The Tianya forum has the ability to remember the IP addresses of the users, so Yun Ke looked at the IP addresses in order to see where the hits are coming from. He said that the unusual large numbers came from the same IP range, which meant that the people were in the same office or the same building.
Furthermore, some of the fraudsters used Internet proxy servers to disguise their whereabouts. But even though this is more difficult to investigate, it is still possible. They found out that the overseas ID were coming from Portugal or Brazil, but all through the same main computer.
During the initial surge in hits, the ratio of comments-to-hits was also unreasonable. Later on, the fraudsters saw that too, and therefore they injected large numbers of comments in order to smooth out the data. Therefore the comments contained large numbers of meaningless items devoid of any technical merit.
At the history section of the MOP forum, the webmaster Liu Bo (nickname "January 29") confirmed to the reporter that someone had cross-posted <Bright Moon of Past Years>'s <Those Events of the Ming Dynasty> to the MOP forum. For the first few months, it behaved normally and the hit rate grew to around 80,000. But after the third month, the hit rate soared suddenly from 80,000 to 2,000,000 in a space of less than 20 days.
"There was nothing special happening during that period. There was no reason for such a sharp rise. This is ridiculous. They were being a bit too obvious in stuffing the forum." But Liu Bo did not delete or freeze this "anomalous" post. At the time, certain fans of <Bright Moon of Past Years> were causing trouble at the Tianya forum, and perhaps Liu Bo could foresee that this would lead to complications at MOP too. So he used the simplest way of dealing with this -- as webmaster, he issued a warning:
"I solemnly warn those people who are flooding this post with hits. Do not create fake hit data for the sake of promotion ... the hit rate at this post has been extremely anomalous. Without being placed on the top of the page and without many comments, the hits were growing by 100,000 per 24 hours. This is absolutely impossible ... I hope that those people who are doing this had better stop. The essay is a good one, but the booksellers should not create fake hits for the sake of profits. If you continue to ignore this warning, I will delete the post."
Significantly, after Liu Bo's warning went out, the hit rate for the post returned to normal immediately. For the next two months, the hits grew by around 100,000. "Now that is a more normal hit rate," said Liu Bo.
The MOP Hodgepodge leader Du Puiyuan supported what Lu Bo said. He said: <Those Events of the Ming Dynasty> received some attention from fans, but it definitely got some fake hits -- "the fraudsters attempted to use the 1 million hits to attract even more eyeballs. First of all, this was unfair to other posts and disrupted the normal order at the forum. We must protect fairness at the forum, and so we must deal with them," said Du Puiyuan.
After issuing the warning, Liu Bo also went to study the databank at MOP and confirmed that he was right about his initial judgment. A large number of hits were manufactured.
But Liu Bo refused to inform the reporter about where those hits came from or who did them. He said that one reason for not offering the data is that the event occurred more than six months ago and it takes a lot of effort to look the data up. Secondly, he does not want to get swept into the maelstrom. Therefore, Liu Bo will not provide the data to either friends or reporters; he will only do so if the legal process is invoked and the police ask him for it.
So who did it? Liu Bo said: "Without someone behind it, this is very hard to do. How can there be a group of people who have nothing to do except click on a page from dawn to night?" The Haikou police had taken in one person for investigation of "flooding websites with hits" but he was just one of the leaders. There are 20 to 30 more core members spread across China who work together.
Yun Ke said: "Based upon the origins of those anomalous hits, apart from the old man in Haikou, the others were mainly from around Guangdong, plus some in Beijing."
But from Tianya's Yun Ke, MOP's Liu Bo to the first Tianya netizen who reveal the case, they all told the reporter that they have no proof that <Bright Moon of Past Years> had personally participated in the fraud.
"Someone was packing the forums. But we cannot be certain that <Bright Moon of Past Years> was the main instigator." Yun Ke said that even though he cannot say that <Bright Moon of Past Years> was engaged in fraud, he is certain that a small number of fans as well as other people with ulterior motives generated those fraudulent hits for the post.
"Even if <Bright Moon of Past Years> did not personally participate, he definitely knows about it." A netizen who went through <Bright Moon Gate> said.
On March 10, one year after the <Those Events of the Ming Dynasty> was first posted, Sun Satellite TV invited <Bright Moon of Past Years> to participate in a program. More than 20 fans were also in attendance.
After <Bright Moon of Past Years> finished recording the program, this reporter went up to ask him about his views on the post about the "fraudulent hits." He was smiling at first, but became uncertain when he heard the question. He asked the reporter: "This was over a long time ago. Why are you still after this?"
<Bright Moon of Past Years> denied all the accusations against him. He said that the so-called fraudulent hits were fictional and just smears and libel. He reserved the right to take legal action.
<Bright Moon of Past Years> also denied that the hits had any impact on book sales. But on the cover of the book <Those Events in the Ming Dynasty>, the reporter saw the words "Super-popular magnum opus that had more than 1 million hits per month." It was clear that the bookseller used this as a selling point to attract more eyeballs.
Among those who were buying the book at the signing session, certain people did it for that reason. Some netizen wondered that if the "one million hits" were fraudulent, then does this mean that this was an actual case of commercial fraud?
The reply from <Bright Moon of Past Years> can be summarized in three points: one, the books sells well enough on its own; two, there was no case of "faking the hits"; three, if the one million hits were fraudulent, then Tianya should produce the evidence.
As for his being labeled "a thief of hits," he countered: "They have no real evidence. They generate rumors and lies about me in order to smear me. I will definitely take legal action. I will definitely sue them one by one. But I'm very busy right now, and I have to write everyday. I reserve the right to take legal action."
As for MOP, <Bright Moon of Past Years> said that he has never posted there and it was someone else who cross-posted there. Therefore, he does not know what happened over there.
The self-described top fan of <Bright Moon of Past Years> is a frequent user at Tianya and he is also the administrator of <Bright Moon of Past Years>'s Sina.com blog. He presented his detailed analysis to the reporter. He believes that the ratio between the comments and page views showed that it was not unreasonable to have a few million hits. But Tianya's Yun Ke countered by saying that the comments contained large numbers of garbage comments from sock puppets.
According to a fan of <Bright Moon of Past Years> at the scene, it was enough for him that the book was good. He did not think that it mattered whether the hits were real or faked.
Concerning this assertion, the first Tianya netizen who brought up the "fake hit" issue had the opposite viewpoint: "Whether a book is good or not has nothing to do with whether the hits were manufactured. No matter how well the book is written, one cannot use these dirty fraudulent methods to promote oneself."
During this program, <Bright Moon of Past Years> faced the program host and the audience and spoke about the relationship between moral character and talent. For these fans, they can deal with a good book; but can they accept a failing character?
Actually, beginning in the second half of last year, someone was periodically posting about the "one million fake hits" incident, but most of those posters were transient sock puppets. The most representative examples were <How a "bestseller" was created> in August and the most recent <Why Ming Dynasty and fraudsters become so popular>.
According to the author of <How a "bestseller" was created>, the hit rate incident was directed by book publisher Shen Haobo from behind the scene and this was just a low-cost method for the book publisher to a push new book.
By telephone, Shen Haobo told the reporter: "Someone is spreading rumors." But he cannot sue because lawsuits are complicated; besides, a good book does not fear any rumors and sales would not be affected.
At the Tianya forum, Shen Haobo has followed up a post in which he swore: "If I manipulated the hit rate in any fashion, may my whole family die; if I did not, may your whole family die. That is it. See you in court."
The <Bright Moon Gate> incident was a major event for the Tianya network administrators in 2006: earlier in May, someone at Tianya revealed that the hits for <Those Events of Ming Dynasty> were fraudulent and the <Bright Moon> fans were unhappy. This became a massive Internet brawl, in which almost 10,000 sock-puppet ID's were deleted by the forum masters.
On June 1, someone began to post large numbers of photographs of traffic accident victims in the <Ming Dynasty> posts. During the process, <Bright Moon of Past Years> left Tianya to set up at Sina.com. But his essays continued to be cross-posted at Tianya and MOP.
Certain <Bright Moon> fans were unhappy that the forum masters were biased and they established a special QQ group to disrupt the social order at the Tianya history forum. They initiated a campaign to disrupt the forum and demanded the resignation of the forum masters.
Supposedly, this group established a special fund and claimed that "the first wave of netizen donations is enough to keep the forum master busy for three months."
In early December, 2006, Tianya filed a police report in which it claimed that a netizen is organizing a "flood" campaign to disrupt the normal operations of the website.
At the time, it was Tianya editor Yun Ke who signed the complaint to the police.
"If they flood the forum every day, we would lose our popularity." Yun Ke told the reporter that Tianya is a private Internet company and the <Bright Moon> fans were harassing the company. Previously, similar incidents never blew up to this extent. This time, Tianya was forced to take legal action.
Yun Ke said that he had no personal grudge and he was only representing the company when he filed the police complaint. From the report, the police established that certain people were causing trouble. However, the police complaint did not refer to the "one million fake hits" because that occurred several months ago. Besides, "the website considered its position and decided that it usually goes through internal procedures to deal with fraudulent hits instead of reporting to the police."
So what is the connection between the police complaint and the "one million fake hits"?
"The core members of those people who flooded the forum as described in the police complaint were basically the same people who faked those hits, according to the operational data," explained Yun Ke.
One of the principal organizers of the campaign was later interrogated by the Haikou police, and he was fan of <Bright Moon of Past Years>.
The Haikou city Internet supervisory bureau deputy director named Yao confirmed to the reporter that this was true.
"After Tianya filed a case report, we thought there was a problem with Internet security. We checked out who was sending out this stuff and we monitored their actions. We found one person who was organizing the activity." Deputy director Yao said that the person admitted that because he was too busy, so he hired two other persons to help him flood the forum. Usually, he showed up after 8pm to go to the Tianya history section to cause trouble. However, he claimed that he did not post any photographs of traffic accident victims.
"After we found him, we tried to educate him. We told him about the laws and regulations about Internet security administration. He promised that he would not personally do or otherwise organize such activities in the future."
Concerning the assertion by the fans of <Bright Moon of Past Years> that there is "no evidence" and these were "false charges," deputy director Yao countered: "If there was no evidence, then how did we find him? And why did he admit to it?"
But the police did not investigate the triggering incident of the "one million fake hits" because Tianya never filed a police report on that.
Yun Ke is confounded by the fact that there the laws in China does not have any explicit statement on this. Whether the netizen who organized the comment-spamming broke any laws is hard to define.
Deputy director Yao thinks that this incident showed that Tianya needs to enhance its administration.
The "one million fake hits incident," together with the later storms of comment flooding and attempts to oust the webmasters -- what do these events meant for the big Internet forums such as Tianya and MOP?
Tianya's Yun Ke believes: The destructive effect that the "one million fake hits for Ming Dynasty" incident is that many people treat <Bright Moon of Past Years> as a model for success. They will follow the same path and use the method to package their own works.
According to Yun Ke, there are at least 10 such writers at the history section who reach the top of the lists through their manipulation. Some have 500 to 600 sock puppets to support their own posts. "I can only contact them several times a month and privately warn them to become less blatant."
MOP's Du Puiyuan said that as soon as the administrator detect an anomaly, they should deal with it as quickly as possible. From the occurrence to the discovery, there is a time lag. Although the administrators have to process large numbers of posts every day, some doers may be detected immediately, but there are also others who are detected much later and they will have garnered their hits by the time that they were stopped.
The "one million fake hit" incident and ancillary events not only revealed the technical vulnerability of the Internet forums, but it also showed the administrative weakness.
For example, it was a group of people who created the "one million fake hits" and they had more people than the Tianya editors (who numbered just over a dozen in total). These people used large numbers of sock-puppets and hits to create a wave of 'popularity.' "It is very difficult for one person to deal with a whole group." Yun Ke said that they were worn out. "For the second half of last year, I almost didn't do anything else. I spent my whole time dealing with them."
Furthermore, even if Yun Ke and them spent a lot of effort to come up with the evidence and publish to show that large number of hits came from a small number of IP addresses, the other side can offer excuses and explanations, such as having been framed by other people, the data were modified by the website workers, etc.