China’s Social Media Militia Engage on Command

How the entertainment industry has become a battleground for China’s legions of paid posters?

In 2010, when Laoxie was a 23-year-old middle school dropout drowning in debt, the wannabe writer took an unexpected job: posting fake reviews online. Posing as a customer, he churned out hundreds of comments a day, gushing about products he had never tested. Laoxie had joined the ranks of the wangluo shuijun, or “internet water army.” China has innumerable organized groups of these unscrupulous paid posters, ready to inundate the internet for whoever is willing to cough up cash.

Similar examples exist in other countries: A recent New York Times investigation revealed how celebrities and businesses pay for bots to increase their follower counts. And during the 2016 U.S. presidential election, hackers with connections to Russia manipulated Twitter bot networks to spread contentious posts and fake news.

But by contrast, China’s water armies comprise real people and are better-coordinated than internet trolls or China’s own brand of keyboard warrior: “little pinkos” who fanatically defend their motherland. And water armies are also not to be confused with groups who are paid to post nationalist comments.

Water armies were born in the early 2010s on online forums and shopping websites such as Taobao, China’s eBay-like platform. In recent years, the entertainment industry has become their main battleground, where celebrity agencies and die-hard fans are willing to shell out millions of yuan to generate buzz. Entertainment agencies can hire water army troops — ranging from a handful of people to hundreds, usually operating under the guise of online marketing companies — to bump up film ratings, become followers of a celebrity, or smear a rival’s reputation.


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This is original content by Sixth Tone and has been republished with permission.