If you are a marketing strategist in China who wants to create a negative perception of a competitor, a well-organized industry of “Internet hit men” can create an effective social media smear campaign for US $3,000 to $8,000.
A television story broadcast on the Chinese economic news channel CCTV-2 on 19 December provides extensive detail on what happens when astroturfing, or the artificial manipulation of grassroots activity, is taken to a mercenary new level. A Mandarin transcript of the CCTV report was published on Sina.com, and an English translation is on the bridge blog EastSouthWestNorth.
The word-of-mouth marketing smear campaigns are designed to control major social media forums and manipulate public opinion, and can place hundreds of thousands of comments on thousands of news and discussion forums within a 48- or 72-hour period.
The smear services operate with a well-defined hierarchy. Strategists plan messages and target forums, Web masters control portals, and project directors control dozens of 50-person teams. Each team member controls several user IDs at various forums and portals. By mobilizing 20 teams of 50 people each, a battalion of 1,000 people can use the several user IDs they control to place comments on forums and portals. A cottage industry creates “navies” of individuals, sometimes paid by the post, who generate waves of coverage for paying clients. A cottage-industry freelancer might earn 10,000 RMB – about $1,400 – for generating 100,000 posts. Piece-work rates range from 10 to 50 cents per post, or about 1 to 7 US pennies.
Fees can include investigative research to fabricate a negative story that includes accusations of illegal activity, internal secrets, or quality control practices. Current and former employees of the companies say well-known brands use their services. In one case, company representatives say a campaign successfully influenced a court verdict.
One marketing director bragged that within a period of two weeks, an Internet marketing company can increase the number of negative comments on a specific subject by a factor of 500 to 600. Within two months, a company can make negative information dominate the first several pages of an Internet search for a specific company.
Chinese nationalists sometimes use a similar strategy to skew public opinion, and are called the Wu Mao Dang, or “50 Cent Party,” named for the amount paid per post. Especially vicious Internet vigilante groups, called “human flesh search engines,” humiliate, bully and trample the privacy of individuals tagged for alleged offenses.
I don’t believe these operations would pay much attention to a document like the 81-page guide on transparency in word-of-mouth marketing practices, announced in October by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission. But the need for new FTC guidelines indicates that similar practices take place worldwide.