The delicate dance between consumers and enterprises continues online. Companies are constantly trying to control their message, their competitors always attempting to distort it, and consumers always struggle for even the semblance of truth. Enter the new age of comment payola.
There have been no earth-shattering developments in this area over the past few days, but I did come across an excellent piece in China Daily by Duan Yan on the subject that is a good introduction and draws out some of the key issues.
Posting negative comments on the Web about products and services is fast becoming the most popular channel for Chinese consumers to vent their spleen. Yet, behind this veneer of free expression lies a murky world of cyber bullies and unscrupulous webmasters who are manipulating the media to either promote or smear a company’s image for profit.
[I]t costs just a few hundred yuan to bribe staff at a website or forum to delete posts, and if that fails, “paid posters” – netizens hired to leave fake comments and delete genuine ones – can use software to copy the official documents and identification that websites need before they agree to remove a comment.
First of all, let’s admit that this is serious business. Web forums are incredibly popular in China, and many people will go first to their BBS of choice to get consumer information before making a purchase. One reason for this lies in the dearth of neutral, trustworthy sources of consumer information. In the U.S., I think of Consumer Reports or the Department of Commerce. China government agencies are understaffed, sometimes compromised by political influence, and simply ill-equipped to play a wider role.
In making this point, Duan also hits on the lack of legal remedies for consumers:
The growing demand for deleting posts deals a real blow to the ongoing efforts to protect consumer rights in China. Many have turned to the Web to air their grievances because the other mechanisms on offer are slow, complicated and ineffective.People unhappy with products can file complaints with industrial and commercial bureaus, but as there are few institutions that provide independent tests, it is difficult for customers to back up their claims, especially when it comes to property, automobiles and electrical goods. Legal procedures are also expensive and time-consuming.
There are of course several laws in China that protect consumers (e.g. Consumer Law, Anti-unfair Competition Law, Anti-monopoly Law), but the time and cost associated with civil litigation makes this option untenable for most people. Moreover, it’s not always just about recouping losses or revenge. Some consumers sincerely want to warn others away from shoddy or defective merchandise, and online fora are perfect vehicles for doing so.
Many websites understand business reality and competition and therefore provide a process by which companies can have negative posts taken down:
Posts can be deleted legitimately when a company or individual provides a copy of their ID card or business license, while many websites, including Baidu Post and tianya.cn, have issued statements saying they provide the service for free.
I find it a bit odd that this type of procedure is somehow deemed “legitimate” while other, irregular (i.e. paid) methods are categorized separately. Before we get to the money issue, though, I would like to note that nowhere in Duan’s article, or many others I have read, is there a discussion about whether such takedown systems should be available at all.
Here’s the point. If a court can hold a site liable for negative comments, then yes, the site should implement a takedown system. But should the law allow for such an abridgment of consumer speech? Shouldn’t we encourage more consumer speech and let the market (readers) sort out fact from fiction (paid or otherwise)?
Indeed, if you have paid negative commenters on one side, and paid/unpaid takedowns, and even paid positive comments, on the other side, it’s difficult to say that the current system is doing much to preserve the truth anyway. Maybe the only way to fix all this is with a real-name system that mandates a registration system for commenters. That’s probably not a popular solution, but what is the alternative?1
So what to do with paid comments, both positive and negative? This is becoming quite an interesting industry in its own right, and arguably distorting the market:
Several chat groups on QQ, the instant messaging service, have even become mini-trading centers where PR firms regularly advertise for paid posters, otherwise known as shuijun, the “water army”.However, industry experts argue that the use of shuijun undermines consumer trust in the Web, as well as underlines the need for stricter policies to protect the rights of netizens and ensure fair competition.
Perhaps looking at this from an unfair competition perspective makes sense. The spirit of this approach, or at least the beginnings of one, can be seen in Article 9 of the Anti-unfair Competition Law:
Managers shall not use advertisement or the other methods to make a false propaganda for the quality, composition, function, usage, producer, time of efficacy and place of production of commodities.
Advertising company shall not be an agent of, or design, or make, or propagandize false advertisement, if it know or should know the truth.
The law was last amended in 2003 and is in need of another go-around. The article quoted above is really designed to ensure that companies do not make false claims about product quality, certifications, or efficacy without being able to back them up — this is also supported by China’s Advertising Law and related regulations.
Paying for negative comments, or for having such comments deleted, was certainly not envisioned when the law was drafted. It’s a brave new world out there for consumers and enterprises.
Consumers need information, so they post comments. Companies pay for favorable comments. Competition continues to tighten up, so other enterprises pay for negative comments. Still others, in response to the negative comments, pay to have them removed. Round and round we go, with the snake continuously eating its tail and spawning yet another response.
The following quote from an interview conducted by Duan reveals that the value of this information in signaling consumers is also short-lived, which in a way brings us back to square one:
“Deleting news articles is difficult, but deleting posts from online forums is very common nowadays, only the price changes,” said Li Haigang, founder of Caogen PR, an Internet marketing company. “If one of my clients gets negative posts on certain online forum, everyone would say, ‘Oh, they are in trouble’ – but only because this forum charges more than the others.
- My best-case scenario is unfettered online speech for consumers, but I don’t think the government is moving in that direction. [↩]