Although the entire foreign press corps and many Chinese Internet users are focused on the trial of Bo Xilai right now, many newspapers and websites are devoting space to a news story and propaganda campaign about online “rumor mongering”. Two suspected rumor mongers have been arrested.
The front page of yesterday’s Beijing Times 京华时报 carries a headline screaming “Qin Huohuo detained”, leading on to a page ten story entitled “Qin Huohuo’s online black society rumor mongering brought under control”. Qin Huohuo 秦火火 (real name Qin Zhihui 秦志晖) and Lierchaisi 立二拆四 (real name Yang Xiuyu 杨秀宇) are influential web figures detained on Tuesday by Beijing police on criminal charges of “starting quarrels and provoking trouble” and “illegal operation of a business” as part of a “prologue” to a broader State Public Security Bureau crackdown on illegal online activity.
Qin and Yang have since March 2010 headed a lucrative “black PR” business called Beijing Erma Interactive Marketing and Planning Company 北京尔玛互动营销策划有限公司 (no website for which could be found), one of the over 15,000 Chinese “water army” (shuijun 水军) companies paid by other companies to artificially generate grassroots online activity for their benefit. Erma’s client services include web marketing, creating online scandals or events, damaging the reputations of rivals or competitors, deleting negative comments from online forums, and generally creating and spreading rumors. All this is done in cooperation with online “opinion leaders” with large numbers of social media followers, who are be paid to re-post or forward particulars news or stories.
The most sensational claim in the article is that Erma was responsible for manufacturing the Guo Meimei scandal, which “was actually a plot that was planned by Internet marketers and internet water armies”.
The story of the infamous Guo Meimei will likely be familiar to you. On 20 June 2011, Guo Meimei 郭美美 (real name Guo Meiling 郭美玲) posted photographs to Sina Weibo showing off her luxurious lifestyle, while claiming to work for Red Cross China, unleashing netizen contempt at the corrupt Chinese elite. On 21 June, Red Cross China declared that Guo Meimei had no connections with them, and Sina apologised for an error in their authentication system that enabled her to claim association on her profile. But netizens continued to attack the Red Cross and started suggesting Guo Meimei was the mistress of the President of Red Cross China, Guo Changjiang 郭长江, who showered her with lavish gifts bought with Red Cross donations. This scandal singlehandedly devastated the reputation of the Red Cross in China and caused charitable giving in China to plummet. The article states that the rumors spread about the Red Cross and Guo Changjiang were false and part of a deliberate campaign run by Erma, backing up uncorroborated claims made in the China Daily in 2011.
Beijing authorities state that Qin and Yang confessed that this was done to demonstrate the capabilities and increase the reputation and profitability of Erma, as well amplify Qin and Yang’s own online profiles. The report reveals that Erma and particularly Qin are serial online rumourmongers and the source for a raft of scandalous but unfounded allegations that went viral in China, for instance: payment of 30 million Euros compensation to the family of the Italian national Assunta Liguori killed in the ‘7-23’ Wenzhou train crash; Chairperson of the China Disabled Persons’ Federation Zhang Haidi 张海迪 possessing Japanese nationality; and, famous PLA soprano Li Shuangjiang 李双江 not being the paternal father of his son.
The nature of the rumours Erma successfully made viral is testament to Qin’s explanation of industry strategy: you need to “rock” netizens and make them feel as if they are acting as judges of an “unjust society” – only by venting against society and the system can netizens unburden their own resentment of reality and destroy overnight public reputations built over a lifetime.
Most of these rumors are traceable back to their source, but water army companies operate openly on the Chinese Internet and seem to be tolerated if they keep out of political trouble. Indications are that Qin crossed the line in April this year when he published a much-forwarded post attacking Chinese Communist Party propaganda role model Lei Feng 雷锋 as being corrupt and profligate, with contentious if hilarious phrases as: “In 1959, Lei Feng would have needed 90 yuan to afford his high-grade leather jacket, woolen pants, and black leather boots, but his monthly pay was only 6 yuan!” Qin was apparently reported by netizens to the Beijing Public Security Bureau for “making rumors slanderous to the image of Lei Feng”.
The latter half of the article is devoted to revealing how Qin and Yang would use “erotic tricks” to generate online hype for women wishing to become famous. Erma were the masterminds behind the shower video that propelled racy model Gan Lulu 干露露 to explosive popularity and a burgeoning career, as well as the viral social media campaign that shot the famously desperate and deluded “Sister Phoenix” Luo Yufeng 罗玉凤 to fame. Yang was previously the self-proclaimed “sugar daddy” (gandie 干爹) of famous model Yang Zilu 杨紫璐, and claimed to be behind the 2012 “sugar daddy gate” incident, when Yang Zilu incited popular anger and had her Weibo account shut down after claiming that her “sugar daddy” was spending 8.88 million yuan to fly her to the London Olympics on a private jet. Yang Xiuyu is also accused by dancer and model Wang Yuenan 王月楠 of cheating her out of sexual favors and 5000 yuan in return for promised publicity.
While the article deploys extremely severe language to censure Qin and Yang and is very much on the side of the authorities, if what the report claims is true then it reveals the enormous extent to which consumer perceptions can be distorted by deliberate manipulation of grassroots discourse on the Chinese Internet. Interestingly, most of the juicy details mentioned above were omitted from the English language reporting on this incident in the Global Times 环球时报.