Chinese “black PR” firm controlled hundreds of verified Weibo users, raked in millions

Mr. Tang, one of the bosses of the black PR firm, being questioned.

Mr. Tang, one of the bosses of the black PR firm, being questioned.

As China’s war on rumors continues, it seems black PR firms — firms that spread rumors and false reports about competitors for clients — are getting busted left and right. The latest is a massive firm uncovered in Wuhan that reportedly controlled 312 verified Sina Weibo accounts, as well as hundreds of other verified accounts. The company’s total audience? A shocking 220 million followers.

Needless to say, there’s a lot of money in that scale of promotional reach, and the company reportedly brought in profits of over 1 million RMB ($163,000). Of course, that’s all over now — the Wuhan police shut it down and arrested 27 suspects after a three-month investigation sparked by a tip they received back in May. The company’s office was hidden away in a Wuhan apartment building, unmarked by any kind of sign, but police also arrested marketing workers in several other cities across the country.

While it was operational, the firm — which was called Shui Jun Shi Wan — billed itself as China’s largest internet promotions company. It claimed to have “business cooperations” with (among other websites): Baidu, Tianya, Sohu, Tencent, Sina, and Youku-Tudou. Although this may have been mostly boasting — the company likely had no formal relationship with any of those companies, though it may well have exploited corrupt employees at any or all of them — it’s clear that the scale of this thing was absolutely massive.

And chances are there are numerous other companies like it out there, still operating as we speak. It’s enough to make you wonder if you can trust anything you read online these days. (We promise that Tech in Asia has not been infiltrated by black PR agents, though).

(And yes, we're serious about ethics and transparency. More information here.)

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