Chinese police shut down ‘water army’ of internet trolls paid US$4.3 million to blitz websites and social media

  • Authorities in Jingzhou say family-run operation was paid by public relations companies to send online army to shut down negative comment about clients
PUBLISHED : Thursday, 13 December, 2018, 2:47pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 13 December, 2018, 10:11pm

Police in central China detained 30 members of a “water army” – paid internet trolls – who made 30 million yuan (US$4.3 million) by deleting negative posts about clients who included “well known listed companies”, Chinese media reported.

The case, which involves four public relations companies, was the biggest of its kind in the province, the Hubei public security bureau said on Wednesday.

China’s water army has flooded social media with positive posts about the government and attacked Beijing’s critics. Its activities also include manipulating information about private companies or deleting negative reviews of goods and services.

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Authorities in the city of Jingzhou began investigating the case in May 2017 and discovered a family-owned operation led by a woman called Wu and her brother, who were arrested in Guangzhou in August this year.

Trolls were paid hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of yuan to delete posts, Hubei’s state-run Chutian Metropolis Daily reported.

Wu fled to Japan to avoid arrest and from there instructed workers to cease operations and destroy their computers, Shanghai-based news portal reported. It did not say why Wu returned to China.

Using information from confiscated computer hard drives, police discovered four public relations companies using Wu’s services, paying her a total of 20 million yuan to delete negative posts about their clients.

Eleven people from the companies were arrested, according to the public security bureau.

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Companies often bribed staff at websites to delete negative reviews about them in China, Xinhua said in February. When bribes fail, some hire a water army to flood comments sections with comment and content such as pornography to trigger mass deletions.

The Chinese government intensified its crackdown on trolls after a cybersecurity law was introduced in June last year. According to the Xinhua report, 200 suspects have been arrested and more than 5,000 spam accounts deleted.