Internet Crime Gangs Manipulate Public Opinion

(CCTV Economic 30 Minutes)  Internet Triad Organization Manipulates Public Opinion: 50,000 yuan can influence court verdict.  December 20, 2009.

According to the Chinese Internet Network Information Centre, there are 338 million Internet users in China which covers 22.6% of the population.  This percentage is higher than the world average.  The Internet has almost become part of our lives.  If I tell you that many of the news and information on the Internet, especially the Internet posts and comments, may be inaccurate, will you still be as interested in the many sensationalistic exposés?  During an investigation about hot stories, our reporter discovered a grey industry lying underneath the waterline.  Let us see what this is about.

In July 2008, the Qihoo 360 company formally introduced a free anti-virus software while promising to provide permanent anti-virus service.  This made Qihoo 360 the most watched company in the anti-virus software business.  But immediately came doubts about the secrets behind Qihoo 360.  On July 29, a post titled <The confessions of a former veteran workers at Qihoo 360> began to show up at the major forums.  The author described his departure from the company due to a series of problems over there such as "Qihoo is secretly collecting personal data from its users."  Once the post appeared, it quickly drew several hundreds of thousands of page views and comments.  Although Qihoo 360 claimed that the post was fabricated by a competitor, it was hard to tell what the truth was.  In late October, this post became hot again.

Qihoo 360 public relations director Tu Jianlu: "The two posts which was written in imitation of a former Qihoo worker must have been posted several thousand times."

Qihoo 360 found it perplexing that a post from an ex-worker could appear in several hundred forums overnight as well as generate an incredible number of comments.

Qihoo 360 public relations director Tu Jianlu: "Since we introduced the free anti-virus software on July 17 last year, we have come across several hundred thousand negative and malicious posts of this nature on the Internet."

They were even vexed by the condemnations and curses that have shown up in the official Qihoo 360 website.  Their technicians found that these posts have certain intriguing characteristics: they basically came from newly registered users who don't come back afterwards; and they are always attacking the company and they show up at various forums.

Qihoo 360 worker: "The publication of so many posts with basically the same content within a short period of time clearly shows that someone is behind this.  We can check the IP addresses of the writers and we find that they have the same one or two IP addresses.  Or we can go to a page and see dozens of comments which were posted in the same second in time."

Actually, this was just one many Internet attack incidents.  From the debate over anti-virus software to the "boycott Wanglaojie" incident to the "water source gate" at Master Kang to the real Kaixin versus the fake Kaixin to the video copyright battle between Sohu and Youku, the netizens have witnessed an endless stream of Internet battles.  The netizens make posts, comment, condemn, even curse each other.  They create an explosive atmosphere in the virtual world.  Yet, what is behind this battle of saliva which is getting more and more vociferous and outspoken?

Qihoo 360 public relations director Tu Jianlu: "Ordinary netizens could not have done it.  They cannot make a post which can reach into hundreds, even thousands, of forums.  I think that there has to be kind of Internet triad organization behind this.  Only a professional organization can achieve this kind of result through efforts behind the scenes."

The notion of an Internet triad organization sounds refreshing because we really have not heard of this before.  We are familiar with triad organizations in our real lives, especially the Chongqing anti-criminal-organization campaign which made us see how these triad organizations can destroy the economy, production and normal living.  A triad organization is a malignant tumor of society and it must be rooted out.

Is there such a thing as an "Internet triad organization"?  What is an "Internet triad organization" anyway?

Reporter: "Is there such a thing as an Internet triad organization as Qihoo 360 says?  When we see the disputes and attacks on the various forums and blogs, is there really some organization manipulating things artificially?  In order to understand this issue, I used search engines to compile the most popular posts at the various forums and blogs.  I also used software to create a time curve for the number of posts by day."

The sample of twenty incident that the reporter used included social incidents that drew a high degree of attention, such as the Huhhot jail break, the Peking University system of accepting recommendations from school principals for admission purposes, the Sohu-Youku copyright dispute, the water source problem at Master Kang, etc.  What are the propagation characteristics of these incidents?  What are the problems?  The reporter interviewed Chinese Academy of Sciences Graduate School of Business Administration vice dean Lu Banfu.  As a renowned Internet economist, Lu Banfu told the reporter that some of the propagation patterns are consistent with the laws of communication.

Chinese Academy of Science Graduate School of Business Administration Internet economist Lu Banfu: "The story of swine flu breakout among university students was normal.  When news like that break out, people pay attention at first and then the story dies down gradually.  The next peak was clearly due to the other media such as print and television which enhanced the communication effect.  Then it became a standard curve."

According to dean Lu, it is normal for a hot topic to reach its peak in three days.  It would be abnormal if it continued beyond that.  If there is suddenly another peak without any special reasons, then this other peak was artificially manufactured.  His analysis of the time curves showed that the stories about beverage additives at Wanglaoji, the exposé from the former Qihoo 360 worker, the water source for Master Kang and so on showed clear signs of artificial manipulation.

Chinese Academy of Science Graduate School of Business Administration Internet economist Lu Banfu: "The story about the additives went like this.  It should have stopped after the first peak.  But then came a second peak which occurred several weeks later.  This was a clear sign of artificial manipulation.  Unless there was something like an CCTV news investigation to bring up the story again, there cannot be a second peak.  When there was no further media exposure and a second peak occurred, it was clearly artificial manipulation."

Dean Lu told the reporter that what ordinary people think as occasional exposés or stories that came as a result of watchdog journalism are often manipulated by hidden forces.  In recently years, traditional public relations activity has rapidly moved to the Internet and Internet marketing services have emerged.  Certain companies that are registered as "public relations company" or "marketing companies" not only provide services to bring brand awareness or equity protection, but they can also make Internet posts to defame or smear others at the order of clients.  In the last three years, these companies have become more and more powerful.  Because they work in the dark to attack the opponents of their clients, they are also known as "Internet hit men."

Reporter:  "For example, with respect to the hot discussion topics at certain Internet communities, what proportion do you think are manufactured and manipulated?"

Chinese Academy of Science Graduate School of Business Administration Internet economist Lu Banfu: "I have not done any precise calculations.  But I think that 50%/50% is possible.  I cannot say that all hot topics are planned.  But at least half of the hot topics are planned by someone."

We obtain large amounts of information from the Internet, and use the information to decide right from wrong.  If half of the hot topics on the Internet are artificially manufactured according to Professor Lu Banfu, then where is the true Internet public opinion?  Who are these powerful Internet promotion companies?  How do they guide and control the direction of public opinion step by step?  Our reporter reached out to some of these so-called brand marketing companies to find out.

The reporter located some of these Internet marketing companies on the Internet and contacted them in the role of a client.  The reporter used QQ to tell them that our company was looking to bid for a contract and a well-known company in the industry is our most powerful competitor.  Therefore, our wish is for the Internet promotion company to hype up negative information on that competitor at the key moment of the bidding process in order to put the competitor on the defensive.  The receptionist clearly knew what the deal was.  Finally, our reporter got to meet the marketing director at this company.  He said that there is nothing hard about doing this.

Internet marketing company's marketing director: "You only need a budget of 20,000 to 30,000 yuan to find out the negative news and pick one or two aspects to hype up.  Within the next two weeks, the number of negative entries will increase by 500 to 600.  In the end, if you search for that company on the Internet, the first few pages will be these negative stories.  This is the best result that can be achieved within one or two months.

As to which issues get hot easily, the marketing director was very confident.

Internet marketing company's marketing director: "It must be highly credible.  It could be the internal management within the company.  Or else it could be the chain of capital ties.  It is something that is fatal to a company.  It should make people afraid.  It could be about them colluding with someone else illegally.  It could be company workers exposing their internal secrets.  It could be them doing something wrong in the food or beverage.  We know how to select these raw materials.  Basically, it is all the same generic stuff." 

The reporter then asked how much more this piece of negative news can do if the investment is increased.  This marketing director said in a light-hearted fashion: "I have at least 100 web masters.  I basically have the contact information for all the web masters at the portals.  I have resources that I can use at each of them.  For example, my own workers also serve as web masters.  Basically, each of my workers holds four or five web master positions and they maintain those forums which we regularly use."

The reporter spoke to many other Internet promotion companies and heard the same kind of promotion.

Internet marketing company's marketing director: "I have twenty teams underneath me.  Each team has at least 50 people, and each of those persons has many user ID's at the various forums in China.  We can control them.  That is why we can enable many companies to let their positive news get blanket coverage overnight."

According to these Internet promotion companies, they use various methods to control all the major forums in China.  They are able to do practically anything that they want with respect to manipulating public opinion.

Internet marketing company's marketing director: "We can magnify certain negative news stories in an unlimited manner.  In one night, we can make sure that the negative information about your competitor will be all over the Internet."

Reporter: "In one night?"

Internet marketing company's marketing director: "One night will do.  This is leveraging someone's error and guiding netizens to follow our direction."

But after these forum masters make their posts, how can they draw the attention of the many netizens and create a discussion?  After visiting many Internet promotion companies, the reporter found that almost every Internet promotion/PR company has to hire many people to make waves for their clients.  Sometimes, hundreds or even thousands of people have to work together.  These temporary workers are known inside the industry as the "navy."

Reporter: "Do you have a navy?"

Internet marketing company's marketing director: "Definitely.  If you give me two weeks' advance notice, I can assemble 100,000 persons.  The navy is shared by everyone.  Today, it is no exaggeration to say that 30% to 40% of the contents at the forums are coming out through this type of company."

At the groups and forums, if you enter the word "navy" or "Internet hit men" and search, you will find various kinds of employment news at groups with titles like "Number One Internet Promoter", etc.  The reporter joined a few of them at random.

Reporter: "When I entered a group that is hiring people for navy work, I felt as if I have just entered a bustling marketplace.  After I entered, I saw some of the assignment notices.  As soon as the assignments were posted, they were signed up within tens of seconds by the users.  Let us see how the navy works."

The reporter told the group leader that he is a newbie who knows nothing about the duties of a navy person.  The group leader quickly sent over a quick guide and conducted a short introduction.  Five minutes later, a newbie can be a navy person.  The reporter then received an assignment sheet.  If the reporter could complete the assignments listed in the sheet, the group leader will wire the money to him one week later.

The reporter met a group leader named Tongqi.  When Tongqi found out that the reporter had registered many user ID's at the various forums, he gave the reporter a one-time-only assignment of 100,000 comments.  The requirement was very easy.  The reporter had to post those comments at the various forums within the next ten days.  Then he told the reporter that he would make an initial payment of 1,000 yuan three days later and the remaining 9,000 yuan will be paid together.  Within a course of 10 days, if a navy man can make 100,000 comments, he will earn 10,000 yuan.

Reporter: "I chatted with a group leader named Maizi about the navies.  I saw a wage tally sheet in his group share space.  A navy man can make between 10 cents to 50 cents for each comment.  Let us take a look at some of the details of the navy persons under his control, including their assignments."

A navy person named "Mirror Flower Water Moon" completed an assignment to comment on a fight in Chibi town.  On December 2 and 3, he made 1,571 comments and earned 314 yuan.  So if you have time on hand and you have patience, you can earn dozens or even hundreds of yuan per day just by making Internet comments.  No wonder many people want to join.  It is no surprise that while some of these Internet promotion companies have very few employees, they can claim to have 100,000 navy men working underneath them.

Internet marketing director: "We can cover at least 1,500 forums overnight.  At the six major portals and the three major social networking communities, we can create a huge, focused topic."

A former Internet promotion company worker told the reporter that the navy men usually get paid 50 cents per comment, which was why the industry insiders call them "fifty-cent gangsters."  These people include students, part-timers or social idlers.  They may come from all walks of society, but there is a very clear division of labor within the company.

Reporter: "You used to work at an Internet promotion company.  How is the company structured organizationally?"

"For example, we get a job.  We have to plan the execution step by step up to where we get the numerous navies to carry out the job.  We get the job.  We have plans developed by planners.  We have a project manager.  The entire project is a process which this project manager must oversee.  He oversees the Internet posts that are handed out to the agent managers.  My job was an agent manager.  I read the written post and I decide which forums it should go to.  Then I forward the written post and the list of selected forums to the navies."

So this is how an attack post on an opponent, even one that is completely exaggerated and distorted, is packaged by Internet promoters to become the focus of public opinion.  Because of the effectiveness of these methods, clients keep signing up.

Reporter: "You said that you used to work at an Internet promotion company, which is famous in that industry.  What kind of clients do they get?"

"They have many clients.  Actually, many of them are well-known brands."

One Internet public relations company marketing director even told the reporter that through a series of campaigns, they even managed to successfully influence a court verdict.

Internet public relations company marketing director: "People want to see justice rendered in cases that are highly controversial.  If public opinion can be formed on the Internet to create the pressure, the state will have to rule.  What I do is to let the hundreds of millions of netizens become aware of the issue quickly, cheaply and concisely at 50,000 yuan.  The 300 major Internet forums are where most of the core audience are concentrated.  50% of netizens go there."

Hundreds of millions of netizens follow the baton of these Internet maestros to contribute to traffic volume.  Unknowingly, they are led and manipulated, becoming the tools of others.

"In this industry, everybody knows this.  This is an open secret that everybody knows.  Maybe a few netizens still don't know.  They are in the dark but every insider knows, for example, who just did what."

This worker used to be employed by an Internet promotion company, which was paid almost 10 million yuan for proving so-called "360 degree" public relations for a client.  Based upon the latest statistics, the advertising expenditure on the Internet is about 20 billion yuan.  We cannot know how much of this is being spent on attacking competitors and/or unfair competition.

"It costs 300 yuan to issue a news release; 2,000 yuan to issue a blog post written by a celebrity; 3,000 yuan to issue a forum post."

Reporter: "Is it necessary to use blogs?"

"It is very much necessary.  Blogs increases our attraction rate so that we can get into the first and second pages at search engines."

According to the expectations within the industry, Internet marketing will become one of the most powerful marketing tools within the next five to ten years.  Without relevant laws to regulate the rules of the game, we cannot imagine how the Internet marketing industry will move along with the Internet world that it will change.

The Internet is a world that advocates equality and freedom.  Many people prefer to get their information from the Internet in the belief that it is closer to the truth.  The rapidly increasing number of Chinese netizens use the Internet to express their opinion and push civilization forward.

But it is precisely within this most open public opinion space with the least threshold for entry that some people will manufacture rumors to attack their opponents for their personal interests.  As a result, rumors and lies proliferate on the Internet.  Netizens who don't know the truth become manipulated by these people, who have formed an entire industry with its own chain of production to divide the spoils known as "public opinion."

Faced with so much public opinion that is controlled by the so-called "navies" and "Internet hit men" of the Internet promotion companies, we want to say that we need an anti-crime campaign on the Internet as well, so that the Internet can become a platform that truly expresses public opinion.