Authorities in Sichuan Province, southwest China, recently introduced a new type of criminal case, involving the notorious “internet water army,” that is, online criminals who post negative reviews and extort money from businesses to have them removed.
On Sept. 18, the Sichuan Provincial Public Security Bureau opened a case involving five people suspected of extorting 200,000 yuan (about $30,000) from one enterprise using this method.
On Nov. 27, 2017, an WeChat account belonging to a firm called “Chengdu Jizhi Interaction Internet Technology Co. Ltd.” published an article criticizing a famous Sichuan company. The company treated the article as an important public relations’ issue because it damaged the company’s image and branding, and contacted the WeChat account.
The owners of the WeChat asked for a face-to-face meeting. In the meeting, they introduced themselves as being representatives of Jizhi Interaction, and asked the victims to pay 200,000 yuan to have the article removed. The company contacted the police on Dec. 22 after having paid the money.
Police investigation found that Jizhi Interaction is a company dedicated to committing internet fraud. The suspects, only identified in Chinese reports by their surnames, include a writer, editor, and graphics designer. After identifying a target, the three would put together a disparaging article and publish it on social media sites such as WeChat, Toutiao, and Sohu. Other members of the ring would negotiate with the victims to extract money from them.
The “internet water army” phenomenon has been known in its original form, the “wumaodang” or “fifty cent party,” for over a decade. In October 2004, authorities in the city of Changsha established a team of internet users to publish positive reviews of the city across more than 20 prominent forums, while contacting site owners to delete negative content.
In March 2005, China’s Ministry of Education set up internet teams in universities and colleges to publish propaganda content and delete dissenting opinions. In 2007, then-Chinese leader Hu Jintao ordered the Chinese Communist Party to develop internet propaganda so as to guide public sentiment.
In 2016, a Harvard study estimated that every year, paid Chinese internet propagandists created about 488 million posts on social media.
Today, the practice is used not only to spread the Party’s ideology, but also as an illicit means of business. This February, the city of Guangzhou cracked down of an “internet water army” business called “San Da Ha,” which was operating in 21 provinces around the country.
According to the police, San Da Ha had hired a large number of “water soldiers,” who can promote a company or product just as they can smear it. For a fee, San Da Ha workers would help the company boost its sales, spread its marketing information across various sites and platforms, or have negative reviews removed.
For example, San Da Ha would charge 100 yuan (about $15) for 1,000 text messages, and 200 for 2500 cell phone text messages.
The China’s Ministry of Public Security said that by the end of May 2017, it had cracked down on more than 40 “internet water army” cases, involving over 100 million yuan.