Although they sound like a new villain from a Hollywood movie, they are less scary in person. They are soldiers of propaganda, using whatever free-speech tools they can muster to win the hearts and minds of a voting public. But this is not a political tale, rather, it is a commercial one; and the votes are cast with Ren Min Bi (Chinese Yuan).
So, where does this “Water Army” come from? In fact, it is a Chinese term which has been causing difficulties for consumer protection around the Chinese Internet. Imagine you go to a forum online and look for information about insurance, a new car, or even a toaster. Hundreds or thousands of these soldiers are hired for cheap, usually ￥0.7 RMB ($.01) per post, and begin a campaign to sway public opinion toward or against various products. In a country where the average worker makes 20-25RMB ($3) per hour, it is economically feasible for Water Armies to exist. PR firms hire them online and pay them electronically. As a result, particular brands can raise awareness through alleged customer “feedback” or other chat discussions. With over 400 million Internet users in 2010[*], there are bound to be pockets of armies gathering across the Middle Kingdom.
Take a look at one example of a blogger using Water Armies recently. This blogger wrote about the concept of The 50 Cent Party (a digital, political “army” deployed since 2004) and Water Armies on his blog. Then, with the help of a time machine and over 3000 of his best friends, he was able to secure 3,332 responses from April 14 until the day of posting this article. (There’s no way I’m linking to his blog, but you could Google search the headline to check it out.)
In the end, it is quite a “clever” way to play the Internet, although this fraud is beginning to be confronted by the national government in China. It is hard to avoid the double standards involved when it is well known that the the 50 Cent Party also contributes to molding public opinion through a water army of its own.
The question is… Should these armies exist? Do netizens even have a say about it? If it is acceptable, then what is the future of social media for business?