PR Firms’ Staff Jailed for Online Post Deletion Racket
Four public relations firms have been individually fined up to 1.3 million yuan for deleting negative online posts for their clients, in a case that has revealed the scope of a shadowy industry in China.
In the case heard by the Shashi District Court in Hubei province’s Jingzhou city, four PR firms’ Beijing branches, including specific staff, were accused of deleting, blocking or suppressing negative information about big-name clients such as Amway China, Buchang Pharmaceuticals and Furen Pharmaceuticals Group.
During the trial, staff from the PR firms — which included D&S and Shenzhen Jiufu Investment Consulting Co. Ltd. — and their clients testified about the business chain that allows enterprises to buy their way into a good reputation.
The basic process was the same — PR firms would sign contracts with clients to delete negative information online for a fee. They would then outsource the work to internet-scrubbing specialists. The price of deleting the posts varied, and the PR firms would earn huge fees to essentially serve as middlemen.
According to the judgement (link in Chinese), D&S signed three search engine optimization (SEO) contracts with Amway starting in July 2015. The contracts stated that D&S would delete, block, bury, or use other means to clear away negative information about the U.S. multi-level marketing firm on Baidu, China’s most popular search platform.
Jiang Wei, the head of the big data department at D&S and a defendant in the case, explained in his testimony the methods his firm would use to execute these SEO contracts with Amway. Jiang said he found Wu Qiumin and He Wei — also defendants in the case — through QQ, an instant messaging platform. After negotiating a price, Jiang sent the links for relevant posts collected by his department to Wu and He to be dealt with.
The court’s investigation found that Wu and He deleted and blocked more than 1,800 posts for Jiang, who in turn paid them more than 1.43 million yuan. For this “middleman” role, D&S collected more than 5.84 million yuan from Amway China.
In her testimony, Wu told the court that Jiang commissioned her to delete posts and videos with negative information about Amway, Hengchang Huichang Consulting Co. Ltd., 9F Fintech Holdings Group, and other companies on sites such as Baidu’s public encyclopedia and message boards, Tianya’s message boards and Sina blogs. He was paid per post deleted and each site had its own rate.
The other companies named as defendants in the case used similar operations. Zhou Zixiao of Jiufu instructed his team to remove negative posts about Buchang Pharma ahead of the company’s IPO on the Shanghai Stock Exchange in 2016.
Wu and He were also found to have been charging service fees to delete posts on behalf of other businesses. Together, they made 1.93 million yuan, the court found.
The court ruled that all the companies involved had operated illegally by violating national regulations, blindly pursuing profit, exchanging money for the purpose of deleting information on the internet without the authorities’ permission, and disturbing market order. They were fined between 300,000 yuan to 1.3 million yuan. The individuals working at the PR firms were sentenced to between three and six years imprisonment; Wu and He were sentenced nine and seven years respectively.
Contact reporter Ren Qiuyu (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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