The police have arrested a number of suspects in a criminal group responsible for multiple smear campaigns and fake news against high-profile Chinese internet companies including Baidu, local media is reporting (in Chinese). The malicious attacks not only targeted at companies but also their top executives. Police have confiscated the suspects’ computers and mobile phones.
According to local reports, the criminal group used a fake PR agency as a cover for its illegal activities and recruited ghostwriters and media to create and promote fake content targeting specifically at internet companies. The so-called “black PR” (黑公关) campaigns were carried out in an organized fashion. After a “fake post” is published, the so-called “internet water army” (网络水军)—a group of internet ghostwriters paid to post comments—would repost and share on the internet.
A Baidu spokesperson has confirmed the news to Chinese online media Huanqiu.com saying that “the company welcomes objective criticism and discussions, but has zero tolerance with malicious slander and defamation, personal attacks, and other illegal behaviors.” Baidu said it is currently cooperating with the authorities and is working on submitting evidence about these malicious activities.
Black PR is not new in China. Smear campaigns have been used by Chinese companies to take down their rivals. Earlier this year, Tencent reported to police officials that it was under malicious attacks from black PR operatives, who are using false information to tarnish its reputation. Around the same, Toutiao also claimed that it had been experiencing large-scale organized attacks on social media. The alleged smear campaigns led Tencent to sue Toutiao for defamation.
Last month, the government launched a platform, Piyao, aiming to curb rumors and fake news disseminated across the internet. According to official data, Chinese regulators received 6.7 million reports of fake news in July alone.