Search engine Baidu has apologized to the Chinese public after it posted a fake message on its news aggregator in which the writer claimed to be the father of a missing nine-year-old girl whose body was found over the weekend.

Why it matters: Baidu has faced public backlash over trust issues, initially stemming from the company presenting paid ads for health services as search results.

  • Zhang Zixin, the deceased girl from China’s eastern Zhejiang Province, garnered nationwide attention after she went missing on July 4.
  • Baidu in the first quarter this year reported a quarterly loss for the first time since listing in 2005 as the company has attempted to deal with an increasingly competitive digital environment and growing mistrust of its services.
  • Netizens on microblogging platform Weibo have called for greater oversight of Baidu News, where the message was posted.
  • The company has previously highlighted its newsfeeds as a major source of growth.

“No words can express our guilt. We would like to apologize to Zixin’s relatives and to netizens.”

—Baidu statement

Details: Shortly after Zhejiang police confirmed that Zhang Zixin’s body had been found, an unauthorized message about the incident appeared on her father Zhang Jun’s verified Baidu News account.

  • Zhang was taken by a couple from her home outside Hangzhou. Their bodies were found last week after they allegedly took their own lives.
  • Baidu said that it had received authorization to create the verified account so netizens could help the family find the missing girl.
  • The message said Zhang Jun had just found out what had happened to his daughter, adding that he hoped to be Zhang Zixin’s father in his next life so that he could continue looking for her.
  • The plan backfired—Baidu was met with outrage online, prompting the company to delete the post and fire the editor allegedly responsible for the message.
  • Chen Lei, head of the Baidu News, took responsibility for the incident in a post on popular messaging app WeChat, adding that the core issue was with his management of the team.

Context: Baidu has long been criticized for the content across its various platforms. In 2016, a university student died of cancer following ineffective treatments from a hospital he had found through prominently placed ads in Baidu search results.

  • In 2018, a Shanghai-based internet user was directed to medical treatment from a hospital she thought was from the reputable Fudan University Hospital. After undergoing an operation that cost tens of thousands of yuan at a similarly named institution, she found her condition could have been cured by RMB 200 medication.
  • The company has faced backlash for promoting its own results, such as those from its content aggregator Baijiahao, over other news outlets.
  • In July, Baidu and rival 360 Search were censured again for promoting fraudulent college application services in their search results.

Christopher Udemans is TechNode's former Shanghai-based data and graphics reporter. He covered Chinese artificial intelligence, mobility, cleantech, and cybersecurity.

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