More than 200 arrests, thousands of accounts and
websites seized for “illegal speculation.”
While Facebook and Twitter have been fighting the scourge of organized efforts to use social media to misinform and use their platforms as part of “influence campaigns,” China is battling its own Internet troll and “fake news” problem, according to a report from Liu Yi Zhan of China’s Xinhua News Agency. But while Facebook and Twitter can only ban accounts, Chinese officials can throw those who participate in “illegal Internet speculation” in jail.
Since last May, more than 200 people in China have been arrested, and thousands of others have found themselves confronted by police. Social media accounts and “illegal” websites have been seized as part of a campaign against organizations literally called “wǎngluò shuǐjūn,” or Network Navy (網絡水軍—literally, “network water army”).These Internet sailors have plied the websites, forums, and social media services of China for the last decade, running public relations and marketing campaigns in support or in opposition to one entity or another. For the most part, these operations have been on behalf of Chinese companies trying to promote themselves—or make their competitors look bad.
Network navies are loose organizations of hundreds or thousands of people recruited through sites targeted at “leisure workers”—people seeking extra money by doing tasks similar to Mechanical Turk jobs in their spare time. The organizers of these groups have typically marketed the services of their workers to companies looking for “grassroots” marketing help—or, more accurately, fake grassroots (“astroturf”) campaigns—on social media services such as WeChat, the Weibo micro-blogging site (China’s answer to Twitter), Dianping (like Yelp), and RenRen (a Chinese Facebook clone). But according to officials at China’s Ministry of Public Security, they have also engaged in the creation of spam email campaigns. fraudulent news sites, and social media trolling campaigns to shape public opinion and punish individuals who have run afoul of whomever pays them.
“The Network Navy has generally engaged in fabricating false information, libel attacks, illegal promotion, and other illegal activities and seriously infringes the personal and property rights of citizens,” a police officer Liu of the Guangzhou Police’s Network Police Detachment told Xinhua.
Network navies generally offer services that include boosting clients’ websites on search engines for specific keywords along with general brand promotion and marketing. But they can also generate “press releases” and set up channels for getting those fake news releases onto major Chinese mainstream media sites—sites designated by the Chinese government as approved news sources. They will deliver followers on social media sites and amplify messages.
And for a greater fee, they will spread negative opinions (or “slander”) about targets, acting as what officials called “cyber thugs”—a “pushing hand” to spread news and achieve an emotional impact—and a corresponding marketing effect. Liu of the Guangzhou Police told Xinhua that network navy salespeople usually can double the price for “content-sensitive posts,” making them highly profitable.
Another profit center for network navies is the deletion of negative posts on social media sites by aggressive use of sites’ moderation flagging, hacking, or paying off insiders with administrative access to various platforms to delete the posts. Usually these services target consumer complaints against a particular company. The cost of getting a post deleted ranges from 300 to 3,000 yuan (about $50 to $500 US). One website operator told Xinhua that he made about 4,000 yuan ($636 US) a month deleting comments, mostly consumer complaints, about product quality.
The first major arrests in the counter-network navy campaign came in July 2017, when law enforcement officers from 21 local jurisdictions carried out a coordinated campaign against a network of alleged network navy piece-workers recruited through a “project” on Sandaha (三打哈, literally “three dozen,” the name of a Chinese poker game). The site claims to be the “largest online promotion service trading platform in China,” recruiting pieceworkers for Internet marketing programs. Police arrested 77 suspected members of the Shuijun Project and seized nearly 4 million yuan (about $640,000 US) as well as computers, mobile phones, flash drives, and bank cards.
Since then, there have been more than 40 more coordinated operations by Chinese police agencies and over 100 million yuan (about $16 million) in cash seized. But the raids haven’t made much of a dent yet—a CCTV reporter found over 2,300 network navy “shops” online, selling “news service” access.