Social media manipulation is not a new concept now considering content seeding and social media data purchasing have proved to be highly effective digital marketing tactics. This concept has evolved to a rising industry in China, with many trickier tactics, called water army.
The concept of Water Army
In China, online paid posters and social media bots boosting fake data are termed Water Army (水军, /shuijun/). Anything – a piece of article, a celebrity’s social media account, a TV show, a movie, etc. – flooding with fake data is labeled as water-injected.
The water army concept was first introduced to online forums and e-commerce websites, notably Taobao, in 2010. Being an inclusive technique for public relations and media manipulation, the water army concept has been developed into an industry in which a company can earn 7.6 million RMB (over $1M) within three months providing water army services.
Many water army businesses in the guise of online marketing companies provide all kinds of software to replicate accounts and spam specified content in a short time, with extremely high efficiency. As the bots could easily be detected, high-level water armies – real people, mostly the unemployed, low-end migrants, housewives, and students – are hired to comment or post predefined content on online platforms.
Water armies appear in various industries, especially the entertainment industry in which the capability to generate buzz is vital. Popular online platforms such as Weibo, Douban, Zhihu, etc. have become battlegrounds of rampant water army troops.
The inflated numbers
Weibo, the largest social network in China, is among the platforms most affected by water armies. It’s the most popular platform for celebrities, film crews, and brands to interact with fans and promote their projects. As the ability to generate buzz becomes an essential criterion to measure a celebrity’s commercial value, every single metric in social media presence, from followers, comments, shares to hot searches, can be monetized.
According to industry insiders, there is at least 30% of the content on Weibo is water-injected. The basic “zombie” followers with no avatars and content can be sold at little as 10RMB ($1.5) a thousand. The price list can go on with higher quality followers – 12RMB ($1.8) for 1000 followers with avatars and a small number of followers, 10RMB for 400 active followers, etc.
While celebrities generating traffic is relatively harmless to most people, investors and advertisers got hit the hardest by data fraud. It becomes a troublesome task for them to make sure their money won’t go to waste due to inaccurately accessing a celebrity’s popularity and inadequately allocating budget. Besides, the negative impact of data fraud has reached the boundary of industry ethics and hindered the healthy development of the market.
The false beliefs
Many celebrity studios and entertainment agencies are willing to spend millions to generate positive online feedback for their songs, movies, etc. The water armies will post online comments or reviews with particular content on Weibo or entertainment review websites like Douban to lure moviegoers to the cinema or purchase a song.
The traffic and profit gained from successful marketing strategies may not have anything to do with the quality of the products. This causes the entertainment industry to gradually go to a dead end. The excessive pursuit of traffic and immediate benefit hinder celebrities from striving to advance themselves and finding their true values. The profit-oriented producers invest more money and effort on marketing, particularly water army, instead of the quality of the products themselves. However, illusion and false values don’t necessarily help in the long run.
Furthermore, some entertainment companies use water armies to slander their competitors’ reputations. This tactic is highly effective in influencing public opinions. In many cases, people who don’t know the truth can easily hop on the bandwagon when there are loads of negative comments about a certain celebrity or work. It works the same way with the repetitive patterns that are used by marketing accounts to manipulate public opinions.
The services provided by water army companies are not only limited to posting comments and articles but also removing negative posts and news articles. It could cost a few hundred RMB to bribe staff at a forum or a website to delete posts. If that doesn’t work, it’s said posts can be deleted when the companies provide copies of official documents and identification that websites require.
While being a legitimate marketing strategy if being operated to an acceptable extent, water army could create a significant negative impact on the online communities when it goes reckless and uncontrollable. People may feel overwhelmed and find it difficult to put any trust in the information they consume on the Internet. A large number of purposeful and even untrue posts are spread on social networks, which not only prevents people from seeing the truth but also misleads them and causes negative social consequences. The misuse of water army underlines the need for stricter policies to protect the rights of netizens and ensure fair competition.
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