China’s ‘Black PR’ Industry Uses Social Media Influencers to Spread False Gossip

It seems that even the notoriously corrupt Chinese government worries about PR ethics.

Earlier this year we reviewed a telling report on what’s known as China’s “black PR” industry—a game run on the power of blackmail and personal sabotage. It’s all about digital “entrepreneurs” either finding or planting stories about brands, prominent politicians and business leaders online. If the content is defamatory, these men will approach their victims and offer to remove it for a steep fee.

Looks like the business might not stay that way for long. Last week the Beijing Times ran with the headline “Qin Huohuo’s online black society rumor mongering brought under control“, reporting that two of the most notorious web practitioners who ran companies “paid by other companies to artificially generate grassroots online activity for their benefit” had been arrested as part of a general crackdown on corruption. Their services are described as such:

…web marketing, creating online scandals or events, damaging the reputations of rivals or competitors, deleting negative comments from online forums…

That’s not even the worst part.

These companies enlist “influencers”—that’s right, the same social media mavens that brands want so badly—to spread these rumors and give them a veneer of believability. That means politicians, prominent businessmen and even pop stars could be paid to distribute lies about people they don’t even know on Weibo.

In one particularly awful example, a company ruined the Red Cross of China’s reputation by soliciting pop singer Guo Mei Mei to post pictures of her lavish lifestyle while claiming that she worked for the Red Cross. These posts helped fan rumors that she was the mistress of the organization’s leader, who used public funds to shower her with gifts. The government didn’t seem to have much of a problem with this practice, but they cracked down when the offenders dared to insult figures dear to the ruling Communist Party.

The most interesting aspect of this story is the degree to which Chinese consumers can be swayed by “grassroots” Internet chatter, but the whole deal isn’t all that far from American politics. Pitching bloggers or anonymous disseminators to write inflammatory half-truths about your opponents? Please. The one lesson to be learned is that brands working with influencers need to vet them as extensively as possible, because if they’re not credible then the very possibility of damage to a brand isn’t worth the risk.

The question we want to ask can never be answered in public, but we’ll go for it anyway: has anyone ever dealt with these sorts of back-room Bizarro World PR practices, either at home or abroad?