Online marketing tricks rattle trust in Internet

08:12, June 22, 2010      

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Chinese Internet users may become more skeptical following a spate of reports exposing the profit-seeking manipulation of Internet hot topics that are designed to amuse the public, experts warned on Monday.

Many eye-catching hot topics on the Internet are not opinions of web surfers, as thought, but triumphant successes by professional Internet publicity agents taking advantage of the public's attention to make money or seek fame for their clients, the Guangzhou-based Nan Fang Daily reported last Friday citing anonymous sources within the industry, the latest in recent extensive media stories.

The widespread wave of media criticism was led by the flagship newspaper of the Communist Party of China, the People's Daily, which published, earlier in June, a series of investigative reports tracking down the masterminds behind Internet sensations in a bid to raise public concern over the emerging, yet disturbing, Internet marketing and publicity industry.

It has been estimated that at least thousands of small or large-sized Internet marketing companies are operating across the country, with large number of full-time or part-time employees hired to write postings that may catch the public's attention or steer online opinions towards the interest of their clients.

According to the report by the People's Daily, it usually follows a method of three steps to plot a case of Internet manipulation, starting from a large number of postings written by employees to trigger online debate, then causing public concern and media reports, and finally being rewarded with advertising revenues or other benefits.

"These publicity agents falsified or exaggerated so-called online hot topics and then, the sentiment and opinions of the public were 'hijacked'," said Wang Jun, a professor from the law school of Shanghai-based Fudan University.

A case in point is Luo Yufeng, a former supermarket cashier from Chongqing who shot to fame after posting a provocative and narcissistic advertisement for marriage on the Internet last year. Dubbed "sister phoenix" by Internet users, she became one of the top searches in China and was then frequently seen at various entertainment shows.

However, an Internet marketing company recently told media that it had engineered Luo's becoming famous, including composing the ad and then posting it on various popular forums.

Luo had a plastic surgery in March, followed by postings and videos on the Internet that attracted millions of netizens, as well as media coverage. The drama was later exposed by the Nan Fang Daily as publicity campaign for a hospital, which paid 50,000 yuan ($7,300) for the Internet publicity and was organized by another marketing company in Guangzhou.

"Internet marketing is ultimately driven by money and benefits. The case of Luo Yufeng is a typical example," Prof. Wang said.

Internet marketing was believed to have been born with the Internet industry. Interactive in nature and relatively less expensive, it has unique advantages compared with advertising via traditional media.

But experts said that as China has no specific laws or rules to regulate the booming industry, the cost of distributing exaggerated information online was low.

"Netizens have to deal with online information in a calm and rational way, so as not to become captives of Internet marketing," Prof. Wang said.

China boasts 404 million Internet users, or one-third of the country's population. An average of over 3 million postings and blogs are published on the Internet every day, according to the latest white paper on Chinese Internet usage.

Hu Yong, associate professor of journalism and communications from Peking University, urged traditional media, such as newspapers and TVs, not to blindly follow hot topics on the Internet before finding out if they have been posted by marketing agents.

"It might be a challenge for ordinary netizens to distinguish between hype and reality, but it is a necessity for journalists," Hu said in an earlier interview with media.

Internet users interviewed by Xinhua also expressed some concerns, despite the fact that they were often amused by Internet sensations.

"It can be very misleading, especially to teenagers who might not be able to distinguish the true from the false. The industry needs to be regulated, otherwise its credbility may get impaired by those hyped-up sensations," said a college student surnamed Gong in Beijing.

Even some insiders agreed that regulations are needed to help with the survival of the industry. Xiao Guo, co-founder of a new-born Internet marketing company, told Xinhua that the bottom line of his company was do "no evil."

"Any kind of publicity is OK with us as long as it does not hurt others for no reason, but the market is indeed very chaotic," Guo said.

Prof. Wang stressed that codes and principles of traditional businesses should apply equally to the Internet marketing business to safeguard the reliability of the Internet community from being impaired.

"It would be a shame if some Internet marketing agents continue to deliberately manipulate the online community. Their success is at the cost of the public trust," Wang said.

Source: Xinhua


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