Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent’s Formidable Grip on the Media
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2016-06-20 07:48:34

This is part two in a series. For part one, click here.

Baidu’s search engine is the most visited website on the Chinese internet, and the fulcrum for distributing the media traffic of internet browsers. Thus, the company is to a large degree able to control what information is disseminated, and there is consequently little accessible negative news about Baidu. However, Baidu is mainly accessed by personal computers, meaning it has little control over the realm of mobile phones.

Tieba is one of Baidu’s largest communication platforms, where users discuss various topics on forums or write in to experts about questions they may have. In January of this year, Baidu began selling out “expert” titles to third parties, most notably in the medical forums. This angered many users since the previous merit-based experts chosen by Baidu were now replaced with people whose main concern was to make a profit for the companies they represented.

In some cases, doctors from private hospitals signed on and began recommending overly expensive treatments from which they would personally profit. Baidu began receiving a lot of negative press on WeChat, the Tencent-owned, primarily mobile phone-based instant messaging app. Not long afterwards, senior executives from Baidu’s public relations sector had chunks of their annual bonuses cut. Of course, Baidu has some sway in the mobile phone industry, but it is incomparable to the influence it holds for internet browsing on personal computers.

The rise of BAT has meant that traditional forms of media, like government-controlled newspapers, are increasingly losing their influence.

Baidu Baijia is the company’s original online news platform, whose articles come mainly from freelance internet technology writers. These authors upload their writings and take the revenue generated by the advertisements that appear on the web pages of their articles. Sometimes Baidu will pay extra to commission specific articles. Of course, we can assume that all of the articles reflect on Baidu in a positive light — or neutral, at the very least. 

Alibaba, on the other hand, doesn’t have as much power to control media through its platforms, and invests heavily in media in an effort to boost business. Located in Hangzhou, in eastern China’s Zhejiang province, the company co-manages two local magazines with the Zhejiang Daily Newspaper Group. “Tao” has a focus on buyers, while “Global E-Businessmen” focuses on sellers. The intention is that readers will be encouraged to become either customers or merchants on Alibaba’s e-commerce website Taobao. Although Alibaba is not the majority stockholder for either of the two magazines, it has a deep involvement in their daily operation. Alibaba also cooperates with local newspapers by paying them to include QR codes that link back to products sold on Taobao.

In early 2015, the group launched Taobao Headlines, which is a shopping-news media platform. Articles on the website focus on daily issues, such as the importance of a good mattress for a full night’s sleep, and then link back to products on Taobao. Alibaba’s investments in the media have become a sort of ecosystem whereby everything links back to one of its platforms.

Furthermore, with the rise of their payment platform Alipay — now rebranded as Ant Financial Services Group — and Alibaba’s dominance in the online payment industry, the group has a growing interest in finance media. Thus, Alibaba invested in 36Kr — a news agency that focuses on finance and technology but also provides other services, like crowdfunding, for startup companies.

Baidu’s control over the lion’s share of traffic through personal computers gives the company a strong hold on media, while Tencent’s dominance in mobile phones and instant messaging platforms gives it power over public opinion. Since Alibaba doesn’t have a key platform to control the flow of news, it heavily invests in third-party media outlets.

The reasons that Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent — or “BAT,” as they’re known collectively — invest so heavily in media are twofold. First, these are business opportunities. The internet is an economy that functions based on reader attention — by investing in media, the companies appear everywhere and become household names.

Second, investment in media is good for public relations, notably in controlling the flow of information. Tencent and Baidu control media flow through their messaging platforms and search engines, while Alibaba invests heavily in media outlets. All the companies try to keep negative news about them to a minimum while simultaneously promoting themselves. Because of internet censorship in China, they also forge good relations with the government since they need to work closely together to stop certain information from appearing online.

The rise of BAT has meant that traditional forms of media, like government-controlled newspapers, are increasingly losing their influence. The rise of news aggregators, online forums, and social media platforms, among others, are connecting people and gaining prominence in news dissemination.

(Header image: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images/VCG)