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February 28, 2011

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Water Army pours it on

All it took was an e-mail address and a bank account number - in two minutes I had enlisted as one of China's millions of Internet soldiers. Our mission: manipulate public opinion for legitimate, frivolous, dubious or downright unethical causes.

I was recruit ID 406733 on one website, which I will not name.

I was a hired gun, part of China's so-called Internet Water Army (wangluo shuijun) that can turn a dud into a star overnight, make or break a brand, hype a stock or ruin a reputation.

"The power of the Internet army is the magic of turning black into white in front of 420 million netizens, and moreover, we have to convince them that we are not lying," said a person surnamed Yuan who identified herself as an official with, one of the country's major recruiting websites.

This manipulation - from "stir-frying" overnight stars to extolling shampoos - has virtually swamped the Internet, raised serious ethical questions and prompted authorities to plan a legal counterattack. The State Council says it will draft regulations for the unregulated free-for-all of sleaze and false advertising.

All it takes is clicks and comments, and the business of selling them is highly organized and lucrative for the owners, if not the low-level recruits who get paid a pittance.

Since the Internet is mainly wide open, users anywhere in the world can post comments anywhere about anything. They comment on blogs, post hotel reviews on travel websites and chat about celebrities.

But in China where the number of Internet users exceeds 420 million, about one-third of its population, many of these comments are strategically planned as part of paid advertising campaigns.

A number of paid-promotion websites are sought out by businesses and individuals for particular tasks.

I found more than 10 such websites run by small advertising companies that assign missions to registered soldiers. Some are virus-containing phishing sites trying to steal money from users' bank accounts; some specialize in commerce and companies are their clients; and some will do anything and everything for pay.

Some of these missions are "legitimate" - I was ordered to cut and paste an appeal for donations to help a young girl with leukemia. I was told it was a real girl in real need. But all the soldiers who sent the SOS were getting paid.

I decided to investigate the morass of misinformation.

I enlisted in several websites and undertook various missions. My main job was to add huge numbers of comments about a usually boring post or topic. So I tried to jazz it up and turn it from a real snoozer to a hot topic, getting lots of clicks and attracting other netizens.

The whole process is similar to pouring water into a container to force a dirty, rotten piece of wood (the boring object of my posts) from the bottom to the top. That's why the Internet Army is also called shuijun, or Water Army.

These pieces of wood can be anyone or anything. Online bookstores can hire websites to give positive book reviews; skin care companies can pay to have their competitors trashed; stock brokers pay them to mislead investors; even ex-husbands or boyfriends hire soldiers to ruin the reputation of their ex-wives or girlfriends.

And how successful the "wood" becomes depends on how much the Water Army is paid.

I posed as a businessman and was told by one website that for 5,000 yuan (US$600) I could post a video and turn a hot female colleague into an Internet star. That's enough to buy a posting and 10,000 favorable comments, acknowledged the minimum to make someone a top click.

"Just remember, the video must have one of these elements: sex, nudity, fun or cruelty, but don't overstep the censorship borders," I was told.

In my 30 days in the Army on a website, which I will not identify, I rose from a green recruit to a commander, 10 levels of promotion. I also learned most of the tricks of the trade in manipulating public opinion.

Phony medicine

A small, private health products company was hawking ineffective but expensive medicine purported to cure all kinds of gum disease. But the company lacked advertising funds and a license, so it turned to the Army for help.

Soldiers immediately solved the problem by developing a simple Q&A on the popular interactive platform, Using a fake ID, I was told to pose as a desperate patient with peridontal disease, seeking advice. Then I switched to another ID, pretended to be a dentist and answered the question by recommending the useless medication.

Other soldiers swarmed to the Q&A, adding a huge number of comments to endorse the "dentist." It only took two hours for the Army to establish the illusion that the medication is effective. This Q&A is easily accessible and is expected to influence consumers.

In a case like this, a simple product promotion may cost a company 0.2 yuan for each comment, but there's a lot of bang for the buck and the effect might match that of expensive website advertising.

Moreover, the client company doesn't have to worry about being caught by watchdogs for not having a license or being able to prove the medication is safe.


I (and many others) undertook a mission from a divorced man, who ordered the Army (again, no website name) to damage his ex-wife's reputation on her SNS (Social Networking Services) blogs, such as on and the Sina's microblog.

We soldiers wove a story full of lies, saying the woman had affairs with several men. This spread across SNS websites. A soldier only received 0.10 yuan each time they forwarded the story, but the consequences of this character assassination was disastrous for the woman who had to "commit suicide" in the virtual world - she logged off all SNS accounts and deleted all information as the story was available to everyone.

But missions can be even more serious when the aim is to cheat a lot of people. These missions are assigned by large companies trying to hype a stock or a product, and they don't mind using the Army to attack their rivals.

Internet battle

In one of the more bizarre missions, one recruitment website ordered soldiers to attack the website of another recruitment site. The mission was to attack a platform by registering and undertaking missions, but delaying them. It's well known that these shill websites survive through their speed and efficiency, completing missions for customers on time. By posing as hordes of rival soldiers and not doing the job, the website's reputation was to be damaged. But our mission failed because there were just too many soldiers who completed the mission before deadline

Poor soldiers

Behind many Internet successes and shifts of opinion are poor volunteers busy clicking their mouses. They can be anyone who wants to earn a little money. Migrant workers, university students, grade school students, white-collar workers - anyone with a computer and Internet access.

They are lured by online recruiting advertisements saying they can earn at least 10,000 yuan a month by just sitting at their computers. In fact, they barely earn 1,000 yuan a month and most receive less than 100, or nothing at all after hundreds of hours of hard work.

They are widely known as the Half-yuan Gang because they are supposedly paid just 0.50 yuan for each post. In fact, they get 0.10 to 0.30 yuan for each post, and balance is earned by the websites.

No one knows how many soldiers there are but one major site claims to have at least 150,000 foot soldiers.

Ironically, the first legion of the Half-yuan Gang is said to have worked for a provincial government in 2004, commenting on news and politics to "guide opinion." The nickname was coined by cynical netizens.

But many companies and individuals saw potential and jumped on the bandwagon. Today the practice is no longer underground, it's very much above ground and legal, if unethical - so far there are no laws against commercial Internet armies.

From raw recruit to petty officer

I join after a two-minute registration on a website, which I will not name. All it took was an e-mail address and bank account number. My soldier ID: 406733. The website is one of the biggest redoubts of the Water Army.

Each soldier gets promoted by logging in daily and completing every assigned task (posting comments), as many as 40 a day. There are 25 ranks from new recruit, who don't receive well-paid missions, to commanders who may check other soldiers' work. High priority missions are assigned to higher ranks, who get higher rewards.

After months of work and promotions, a soldier may become a partner in a website, and even get shares.

A new recruit gets easy missions, such as signing up as someone's fan or praising poorly written blogs.

At first there's no payment, only points toward promotion that will lead to payment. A website says no one can withdraw funds from a bank account until the balance reaches 15 yuan. That means a soldier must complete at least 75 missions, with an average reward of 0.20 yuan each.

Platforms are not chat rooms; soldiers don't fraternize. They are just numbers. No one knows how much others earn or if hard workers eventually get promoted and paid. But whenever a mission is updated on the platform, the number of participants far exceeds the required number.

By day 10, I am a private. After each mission, I provide links to a website where I have done my duty and posted my comments.

Eventually I am entrusted with more complex tasks. Mission: copy-paste on major websites a posting saying a girl with leukemia needs help. Around 12,000 soldiers sent the SOS.

On day 30, I'm a petty officer, promoted to Level 10. That's when our Army website attacks a rival, but fails.

After working for one month, but not 24/7, I have received only 9 yuan. How to douse the Water Army

Now that Internet commerce and promotion have become a free-for-all, the Chinese government is preparing to intervene, though exactly how is not clear.

"The Water Army is damaging social order both in the real and the virtual world," said Wang Chen, director of China's State Council Information Office. It announced in January that the country is working out laws to regulate the Internet Army.

"The country is in urgent need of new laws to combat the Internet Army before they virtually control everything," said Shanghai lawyer Wu Dong, "Although they are not directly damaging individuals' rights online, they are damaging the order of the whole network."

But so far the legions continue to carry out their missions. Although the online real-name registration has been discussed as a possible approach, Wu said that was unlikely to be effective. On the contrary, he said, regulations might even be misused and violate netizens' freedom of expression.


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