Sinopec rapped over online drive to get backing for higher fuel prices
China Petrochemical Corp (Sinopec) has come under fire for trying to manipulate online opinion in favour of fuel price increases amid rising world oil prices.
A Sinopec notice made public on a Shenzhen professor's microblog service last week called for commentators to enter a blog posting contest between February 1 and 11 to argue for fuel price rises. They were told to write no more than 800 words on bulletin boards and blogs - with the best 20 writers to receive rewards.
Reports about the directive have largely been deleted from major news portals, but internet users and media commentators have reacted indignantly to Sinopec's manipulation of public opinion through online commentators known as '50-cent parties' - people hired by the government in order to write favourable comments online to shape public opinion. In some instances, they are reportedly paid 50 fen per posting.
Manipulation of public opinion by internet commentators has become a popular tactic for public relations companies seeking to win over consumers or fight off competitors through online smear campaigns.
Citing Zhang Jun, the police officer in charge of online security in Beijing, Xinhua reported this month that more than half of the online comments were believed to be written by such unscrupulous commentators.
Sinopec and PetroChina, another state oil giant, have been criticised for reaping billions in profits through their fuel duopoly.
A Sinopec official admitted to the Southern Metropolis News that such a contest had been initiated but argued it was designed to improve communication with the public.
The Sinopec directive is particularly alarming because it came amid a growing chorus of calls for a crackdown on unethical online behaviour.
The state-run news portal Cnwest.com said that as a major state-owned company, what Sinopec had tried to do was particularly damaging because it was capable of swaying government policies in favour of vested interests.
Professor Sun Haifeng, of Shenzhen University, who helped expose the directive, said Sinopec's strategy conflicted with strong public disapproval of the manipulation of online opinion. 'The internet is a public utility in the same way as a public road. It's not right for it (Sinopec) to do such things,' he said.