On January 10, a query appeared on Zhihu (知乎), a Chinese question-and-answer community similar to Quora, in which a user identified as “Ant Grass” (蚂蚁菜) — and claiming to be the former moderator of China’s second-largest online forum for sufferers from haemophilia — said that the web services company Baidu had unilaterally cancelled their moderator status in Baidu Forum, dropped in an “official” moderator, and replaced the entire team of forum regulators. Seeking an explanation from Baidu, they had received no response.
Another user responded that the current moderator of a well-known haemophilia chat forum, “Haemophilia Expert” (血友病专家), was in fact an unidentified party that had paid to have executive moderation status. Now, the user said, it “took spending money” to become a forum moderator. This allegation generated a great deal of debate and quickly became a hot topic that spilled over into the news.
[ABOVE: The Beijing Youth Daily reports on the firestorm over for-profit health forums on January 12, 2016.]
Two days later, on January 12, Baidu issued a statement saying that haemophilia forums would no longer be sold to commercial enterprises such as hospitals and clinics, an admission that it had been profiting by offering for-profit healthcare providers unique control over health forums. Finally, moderators big and small who had lost control over their forums were informed that Baidu would cancel all forums that had been established through commercial deals.
The medical forum controversy prompted a response yesterday in the Party’s official People’s Daily newspaper, which said:
In recent years, some internet enterprises have joined hands with unknown “experts,” selling fake medicines, medical supplies and services online — and they employ a variety of tactics. Cheats have ridden on the broad shoulders of technology, and in this way the ruses have become more deceptive and more harmful. This gives all of us a new lesson, new demands and new responsibilities.
One could certainly argue that China’s leaders have set the bar when it comes to manipulating information and creating a bull market for falsehood. In a sense, what Baidu seems to have been doing is not at all different from the state-sponsored project of “public opinion channeling,” or from the way “online commentators” are routinely deployed to trumpet the Party-state agendas.
When truth is devalued to such a point in a competitive commercial landscape, does this not encourage everyone to capitalise on falsehood?
In any case, this is a very interesting example of how we are now seeing newer online services — aside from Weibo and WeChat — drive agendas in China.
“Haemophilia Forum Suspected of ‘Selling Out,’” Beijing News, January 12, 2016.
“Baidu Accused of Selling ‘Control’ of Baidu Forums,” YNET.com, January 12, 2016.
“Hot Topic Health Forums Can Be Bought? Baidu Responds: We Are Stopping All Commercial Cooperation,” Yicai.com, January 12, 2016.
“The Storm Over the Sale of Baidu Haemophilia Forums: How Many Other Forums Have Already Become Commercial Products?,” Tencent Technology, January 12, 2016.
“Notice from Baidu,” Sohu.com, January 12, 2016.