Internet Water Army
On the Internet in China, an Internet Water Army or Wangluo shuijun (simplified Chinese: 网络水军; traditional Chinese: 網絡水軍; pinyin: Wǎngluò shuǐjūn; Wade–Giles: Wang-luo shui-chün) is a group of Internet ghostwriters paid to post online comments with particular content. Internet water armies were born in the early 2010s. These paid posters can post news, comments, gossip, disinformation on some online platforms such as Weibo, WeChat and Taobao, China's eBay-like platform. In this "astroturfing" (meaning "artificial grass-roots") technique for public relations and media manipulation, online Chinese companies employ people to make postings on social media in order to change public opinion. It has been developed into an industry in which a company specializing in internet water army can earn 7.6 million RMB within three months and has made over 2500 transactions.  The private Internet Water Army operations parallel the official 50 Cent Party propagandist Internet commentators hired by the government of the People's Republic of China or the Chinese Communist Party.
Chinese "Internet navy" Wangluo shuijun were preceded by government and private organizations that paid professional Internet commentators.
Governmental programs of social media manipulation are found worldwide. China's 50 Cent Party (named from the 0.5 yuan payment per posting) trains and employs tens of thousands of online commentators to promote the PRC party line and control public opinion on microblogs, bulletin board systems, and chatrooms.
The social media marketing business model did not originate in China, and is a worldwide phenomenon exemplified by companies such as FansandInvites in the US, SocioNiks in the United Kingdom, and uSocial in Australia. For instance, uSocial sells their customers Digg votes, Twitter followers, and Facebook friends; Hamilton Nolan, a blog editor at Gawker, revealed a marketing agency that offered bribes – first $130, then $175 – for linking their clients' websites. Adario Strange reported on Internet advertising companies trying to game Digg's ranking system through paying registered users for votes. For instance, the Subvert And Profit website claims "25,000 users who earn money by viewing, voting, fanning, rating, or posting assigned task", with payments ranging from $0.40 (e.g., Facebook) to $1.00 (e.g., Digg).
Chrysanthos Dellarocas, a professor of Management at Boston University, said: "Online forum manipulation strategies can take many forms, and firms (or, depending on the context of interest, political parties and special interest groups) are getting more sophisticated about them by the day. The simplest firm strategy is to anonymously post online reviews praising its own products, or bad-mouthing those of its competitors. There is ample evidence that such manipulation takes place." For instance, Amy Harmon reported about a computer glitch on Amazon.com that suddenly revealed the identities of thousands of people who had anonymously posted book reviews. Several prominent publishers and authors, such as John Rechy, had "pseudonymously written themselves five-star reviews, Amazon's highest rating," and Amazon consequently stopped accepting anonymous reviews. Some marketing firms monitor online forums to ascertain influential contributors, who they offer free samples and special invitations in exchange for writing favorable reviews.
The Chinese name combines the modern word wangluo 网络 (lit. "internet") meaning "network; Internet; the Net" with the archaic term shuijun 水军 (lit. "water army") "navy; marine units" – the more common Chinese word is haijun 海军 ("ocean army") "navy". This shuijun "water army" metaphor refers to "the large number of people who are well organized to flood the Internet with purposeful comments and articles." The Chinese etymology of shuijun meaning "navy" instead of "water army" is translated in the Shuijunshiwan 水军十万 (lit. "navy 100,000") company slogan: "Thousands of navy, for your assignment."
Besides the literal "Internet Water Army" or "Internet Navy," other English translations include "Online Water Army," and "Army of Water", plus explanations of "Internet ghostwriters", and "hidden paid posters". Adam Clark Estes describes the name, "If the term "Internet troll" conjures up unintimidating images of angry, acne-faced computer geeks, the phrase "Internet water army" just sounds horrifying, like a force of besuited villains from a graphic novel. In reality, it's not that scary, but the continually booming business for paid spammers and mission-driven trolls is definitely unsettling."
Xinhua News Agency reported on a new Water Army title, "zombies" (Chinese jiangshi 僵尸) who are paid followers of Sina Weibo microblogs, and "can be bought and sold online for as little as 4 yuan (63 cents) a thousand."
Several names of Internet Water Army companies, such as Shuijunwang.com and 51shuijun.net, use the homophone shuijun 水君 "water gentleman" instead of shuijun "water army; navy", which is subject to Internet censorship in the People's Republic of China.
Paid postings involve thousands of individuals and posters use different online IDs. Every day, around 40 percent of the trending hashtags on the social media platform are created by Internet water armies. The content is usually well-prepared and there is a quality control team to check whether the postings meet the customer's standard. Some companies hire Internet water army to leave good comments under their selling products' feedback, and some singers or film stars also pay them to be fake followers on Weibo, the Chinese twitter. The price for posting good comments and bad comments is different and it depends on the content. If there are negative reviews about a product or some gossip targeting a person, he needs to pay the Internet water army for screening and deleting those negative reviews.
There is some difference between internet water army and 50 cent party. The concept of 50 cent party is narrower since it only refers to paid posters who deflect political discussions and post any positive and supporting reviews related with the central government. According to a Harvard study in 2017, it is estimated that there are 448 million social media comments fabricated by the "50 cent party" hired by Chinese government. These comments avoid touching upon controversial and sensitive issues.
There is no limitation to joining the Internet water army. Low-end migrants, housewives and students are the main force.
There are basically three types of Internet water army. The first type is the one which voluntarily spreads the posts promoting social justice. The second type is the one mainly hired by the government or state-owned companies to promote propaganda or ensure social stability. The third type is the one working for private companies, such as public relations companies, to pursue their own interest.
Many tactics of Internet Water Army companies are typically considered acceptable[by whom?], these include word-of-mouth marketing, viral marketing, marketing buzz, seeding agency, and e-marketing. Some other tactics are considered unacceptable, these include spam in blogs or "comment spam", social networking spam or "social spam", and content farms. Techniques also include two forms of the Internet slang "puppetry": sockpuppetry (the use pseudonyms to distance yourself from your actions, especially if the pseudonym is non-obvious and so designed to deceive) and meatpuppetry (a sockpuppet whose sole reason for participating in a discussion or forum is to support, or express agreement with, a friend)
A 2010 news story on China Central Television listed three customer services of Internet Water Army companies: (1) Promotion of a specific product, company, person or message; (2) Smear/slander the competitor or adversary or competitors’ products or services; (3) Help delete negative or unfavorable posts or news articles.
Pricing for "Internet Navy" tactics varies. Shanghai Daily quoted Tang Jing, an employee of the Web PR company Shuijunshiwang.com, that prices range from a "basic zombie" for less than 5 yuan ($0.79) per 1,000 on the internet marketplace Taobao to an "A-level zombie" having "the characteristics of a real person, with a photo, self-description, tags of categories and its own fans" for 120 yuan ($18.86) per 5,000.
Cheng Chen, a computer science researcher at the University of Victoria, and three colleagues made an academic study of Internet water army activities. To learn how online Chinese ghostwriters operate, Cheng registered undercover with an Internet PR company that trained and paid him to make social media postings. Each mission had a project manager; a trainer team that plans schedules, distributes shared user IDs, and maintains quality control; a posters team, typically college students and unemployed people, that gets 30 to 50 cents per validated post; a resources team that registers and collects online user IDs; and a PR team that maintains relationships with social media webmasters.
Online marketing in China has become a big and profitable business and has spawned many Internet public relations agencies. Internet water armies working for these PR firms not only advertise products but also to remove any negative feedback that they find.
In recent years, many celebrity agencies in the entertainment industry and their die-hard fans have been willing to spend millions of yuan to hire Internet water armies to generate positive online reviews for their songs, movies, etc. These Internet water armies can range from a handful of people to hundreds, of people and often help those celebrities to inflate their social media accounts' followers with thousands of completely useless followers. In addition, some entertainment companies use Internet water armies to bump up film ratings and smear a rival's reputation.
For many people who join the "Internet water army", they think online paid postings is a new type of online part-time job opportunity and is an easy way to make money. With the ubiquity of personal computers and smart phones along with easy-to-use microblogging platforms, the entry barrier is low. The income of Internet water armies is a primary reason why many people choose to join them, more than 60% of Internet water army members earn more than a thousand yuan per month by posting and deleting reviews.
After Cybersecurity Law came into effect in June, 2017, Chinese government paid more attention to crack down on fake news and rumors online. China is battling with the Internet water army.
In 2017, Chinese Internet regulator imposed strict bans on hiring paid posters as a part of a sweeping campaign to tighten the Internet control. Police arrested more than 200 people in 40 water army cases and closed 5,000 paid poster accounts since May, 2017. In June, a man was sentenced to five years and nine months in prison and fined 920,000 yuan ($135,000) for generating fake transactions and product reviews on Taobao. This is the first judicial case that a suspect was charged with this offense in China.
In July 2018, the producer of Asura,a Chinese epic fantasy film based on Buddhist mythology, said that their movie's rating was brought down by fake comments on an influential rating platform. Therefore, many Chinese young people generally ask their friends' comments about a movie as they know the feedback online is not reliable.
In August 2018, Guangzhou's latest move targeting the Internet water army was about a larger scale crackdown launched by China's public security authority, involving 77 suspects and 4 million yuan ($635,000).
Net marketing companies like Internet Water Army sometimes operate on murky legal grounds, particularly under international law. The US companies Facebook and Digg sent cease and desist orders to the Australian company uSocial, which ignored them and continues to market "friends" and "votes".
Internet Water Army practices often result in privacy violations or damaged reputations, and the 2009 revision of China's Tort Liability Law stipulated that in such cases, "the victim has the right to inform the Internet service provider (ISP) to delete harmful postings and that the ISP must face joint liability for damages if it fails to act." China's State Council Information Office announced in 2011 that it "is working out laws to regulate the increasing numbers in the "Internet Army." Wang Chen, director of the office, announced that the Chinese government has paid constant attention to the posters and commentators, who have been found damaging social order both in the real and the virtual world."
In 2007, the cosmetics firm Doctor Bai and health-food company BiosTime both sued the consumer protection website 315ts.net for posting fake comments about their products. "Judges eventually ruled in the website's favor because there was no evidence to suggest the posts were not genuine." According to a 2010 China Daily report, Mengniu Dairy denied paying a Wangluo zhujun company to spread false rumors about dairy products of their competitors Yili Group and Synbutra International. The Shanghai Daily reported in 2011 that the online shopping website Taobao shut down over 200 Internet Water Army companies selling microblog followers.
Internet water armies are a big threat for cyber security. IT researchers have experimented with statistics and software to detect paid commenters from real-world ones.
Some scholars adopt Dirichlet process mixture model (DPMM) based GSP algorithm to detect Internet water armies from Tianya forum. They use DPMM to get effective analysis of the Internet water army's user behavior and use the sequential pattern mining algorithms to detect those paid posters' accounts.
An information technology engineer, blogging as "Chen Chuanliang Peter", claimed to have developed software that differentiated paid blog "followers," and found that about 17 percent of followers on Sina's ten most popular microblogs "never interacted or responded to those they were following. In other words, they were zombies."
Cheng Chen et al. chose a detection case study of online comments about the 360 v. Tencent conflict between two major Chinese IT companies, each of which was suspected of paying for posts. In 2010, Qihoo, creator of the anti-virus software 360 Safeguard, claimed that Tencent's instant message client Tencent QQ secretly scanned users' hard drives. After Tencent blocked users of 360 software from using their QQ messaging, controversy erupted on social media websites. Cheng's researchers analyzed two large datasets of 360 v. Tencent postings, over 1000 comments from 200 users on Sohu.com and over 20,000 comments from 500 users on Sina.com. They concluded, "Although both 360 and Tencent claimed that they did not hire online paid posters, we now have strong evidence suggesting the opposite. Some special patterns are definitely unusual, e.g., many negative comments or replies came from newly registered user IDs but these user IDs were seldom used afterwards. This clearly indicates the use of online paid posters." The researchers designed and validated detection software, and concluded, "Our test results on real-world datasets show very promising performance."
- 50 Cent Party
- Trolls from Olgino
- Web brigades
- Public opinion brigades
- State-sponsored internet sockpuppetry
- Little Pink
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