I listen to This American Life a lot, and for the longest time at the end of each show Ira Glass would say, "This episode of This American Life is bought to you by Reputation.com." For long have I pondered what exactly what it is that Reputation.com does. Do they Google-bomb Google or do they have sophisticated private eyes track down people who post libel and make them take it down?
What they do is their trade secret, and it costs anywhere from US$3,000 to $15,000 a year, but in China a country infamous for its "human flesh" searches, hiring online fans and defenders cost only a few bucks.
According to the Reuters and Xinhua news agencies, China's internet population is at about 505 million, and of that 505 million a whooping 250 million or so are connected to online social media sites such as RenRen.com (Chinese Facebook) and Sina Weibo (Chinese micro-blogging site, kind of like Twitter). On top of the individuals who hold these online profiles there are also companies that have public pages to spread the word about their products.
It's long been an open secret that the Chinese government employs netizens to post positive things about the Communist Party and the government, but that was with government related issues. These government "defenders" are often called the "5 cent brigade" （五毛当), for the amount of money the government supposedly pays them per post.
Often time's internet famous in China can equate to becoming really famous and netizens can get paid to talk about and promote products and companies on their personal profiles. So the question now becomes how does a profile gain attention? In China it's as easy as going online to Taobao.com (similar to eBay marketplace) and doing a search for "fensi "(粉丝) or "fans" in Chinese. A quick search on Taobao looking for fans brings up a lot of hits.
One Taobao store offers 1000 fans for 4RMB and 10000 fans for a 36RMB. That's 10000 people "liking" your profile for a measly $5.71!
Kotaku spoke with one online retailer who's goes by the name of Mao (not Chairman Mao but like Mao like a "cat" - Chinese is a tonal language). Mao says the fans that you hire are a one time deal for Sina Weibo, but the fans for Tencent's QQ Zone are a daily deal.
"Your fans on Weibo push up your number once you have them, on QQ the more daily visitors will push your site up," Mao said.
Unfortunately Mao didn't answer if the fans on Weibo or QQ would interact with the account instead Mao kept pushing more products.
"If you spend 30RMB, I will throw in 5000 more fans."
Mao said that the people who buy from her are often looking to advance their own agenda. The more fans you have on Weibo the more exposure you will get. Some people according to Mao are just looking to look popular but for the most part the people have an agenda.
Another Taobao seller SMRSOL, openly said that she had "real, high quality fans" at the ready. When we asked her what that meant she said that because Sina Weibo requires real name registration, many of the fans that she provides will already be verified accounts.
When asked whether her "high quality" fans would respond and post on profiles that had purchased them, SMRSOL said that it can be done, but she doesn't offer those services.
"If what you posted is interesting, the fans would react, what we are offering is to bolster the number of fans listed on your weibo, if the fans like what you are posting they can and might reply."
In the China Daily article, Chinese internet companies are popping up offering services to delete unflattering online posts and remarks. Deleting posts costs as much as US$158, that includes deleting the responses and comments.
(Top photo: Associated Press)