In wake of hacking, popular blogger blasts Tencent over content protection

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Tencent has promised to upgrade its security after prominent blogger Sanbiao revealed his account on the company’s Open Media platform had been hijacked.

However, rather than appeasing the blogger, a statement from Tencent on the matter prompted Sanbiao to issue a sharply worded rebuke that criticized how Tencent manages its massive online media ecosystem that encompasses WeChat, QQ, and other platforms.

On Tuesday, Sanbiao—who runs public WeChat account “Sanbiao Longzhenmen”—posted on his account that his Open Media account had been hacked. The platform aggregates articles from independent writers and corporations, and also syncs content across 10 of Tencent’s most popular platforms.

As of Wednesday morning, Sanbiao’s WeChat post about the hacking incident had been viewed over 100,000 times.

According to the article, in late February Sanbiao logged into his seldom-used Open Media account for the first time in months, only to discover that articles on science, technology, and the humanities had been replaced with entertainment news and celebrity gossip. The name of the account had also been changed to “Entertainment and Lulu” (our translation), and his profile picture swapped for that of a young woman.

Tencent staff told Sanbiao his Open Media account information may have been leaked in a website hack last year. In a surprise twist, however, posts written by “Lulu” earned over RMB 75,000 (roughly $11,000) in two months, as shown in the account balance. Prior to that, the Open Media account hadn’t earned any money.

Sanbiao attributed this to the account operator’s sheer volume of content—some five articles a day—as well as Tencent’s method of compensating content producers, which rewards those who write often and on popular topics. He concluded by saying he’d be willing to try out the money-making method himself.

Back and forth

In a response both posted on Weibo and shared with TechNode, Tencent’s marketing and PR general manager Li Hang attempted to address the issue.

Li confirmed that at the end of 2018, Open Media account information had been leaked from a “well-known third-party website,” although he didn’t specify which site. He also said that groups, rather than individual writers, may have been behind the incidents of stolen accounts, referring to Sanbiao’s suspicion that “Lulu” was part of a larger entity.

Tencent will upgrade Open Media’s login system and continue to crack down on stolen accounts, Li wrote. In order to fight the problem of plagiarized content on the platform, Tencent will also create an “expert committee” of opinion leaders—similar to a panel already in place for WeChat’s public accounts—to help protect authors’ rights to original content.

In addition, Li said, while Open Media’s compensation continues to be calculated based on views, Tencent has launched a program to push forward high-quality content from top producers.

The response left the blogger Sanbiao underwhelmed, however, and he clapped back on Wednesday afternoon with a post titled “Behind the Lulu incident is Tencent’s loss of assets” (our translation).

For one, he cast doubt on Li’s vague claim that only a “small portion of Open Media accounts” were hijacked, citing friends and readers who also had reported being hacked.

Apparently referring to the “loss of assets” in the title, Sanbiao also challenged whether Tencent’s initiative to promote top content creators while continuing to reward user traffic would address issues of quality. “KPIs are the root of all evil,” he wrote, in an apparent reference to commonly deployed key performance indicators such as clicks and views. He added that algorithms aren’t enough to reward talented writers who don’t produce the most viewed content.

“We have no way to make a business organization do that we think is right, but in the long-term, positive and sunny choices will give them a different kind of reputation in history,” he concluded.

WeChat’s woes

This is far from the first time writers have made such complaints about Tencent’s content ecosystem. Rewarding quantity over quality are issues plaguing all major content platforms, of course, although WeChat in particular has come under attack in recent months.

Media organization Mimeng, which rose to prominence with clickbait titles on love and relationships, shut down its flagship public WeChat outlet in late February over a false story published on one of its accounts. Phoenix News and news aggregation app Jinri Toutiao also vowed to block Mimeng accounts on their platforms.

On microblogging site Weibo, however, commenters were skeptical whether Mimeng—or at the very least, its business model—would stay down.

As one self-dubbed “WeMedia” writer posted, “when one Mimeng falls, 10 million Mimengs will stand up, just like zombies.”

In January, a journalist for Chinese outlet Caixin also accused a popular WeChat account of plagiarizing her original research for a story. The writer defended his work, adding that he’d incorporated an emotional appeal to readers that wasn’t in the Caixin report.

Content entrepreneur Li Zixin, who sources original work from first-time writers for his platform “China 30s,” told TechNode in February that he feels “ordinary media’s significance is declining even further” nowadays. On WeChat and elsewhere, “if it doesn’t have solid content or some views, then I think it’s very easy to get passed by.”

He believes that readers’ mindsets are the one of the hardest barriers to overcome. Most “don’t care whether the origin [of information] is firsthand or secondhand,” leaving room for profit-driven content “factories” to thrive. “This will result in some damage to the industry,” Li said.