On ‘Water Armies’ and Astroturfed Morality
Two years ago, an elementary school teacher in Guangzhou found herself at the center of a social media firestorm after the mother of one of her students accused her of carrying out a brutal form of corporal punishment.
The evidence, including a bloody shirt, was damning, and the mother’s post on microblogging platform Weibo quickly attracted widespread attention. By noon, a topic page devoted to the incident was sitting at the top of Weibo’s trending charts with nearly 600 million views. The teacher’s personal information was promptly published by angry social media users, and the school, buckling to public pressure, put her on leave.
There was just one problem: It was all a hoax. The mother, who had a prior dispute with the teacher, had paid 500 yuan ($70) to an online troll army — known in China as “water armies,” or shuijun — for 100,000 followers, plus another 260 yuan for 20,000 likes and 10,000 reposts. After that, the algorithm did its work, and almost immediately a fake troll army became a real one.
Research suggests the way Chinese express themselves online follows the logic of emotional mobilization. Appealing to user’s sense of justice is a surefire way to get their attention, and public opinion, once stirred, becomes fixed, even in the face of contrary facts or mitigating circumstances.
Despite their ostensible role as public forums, social media platforms thrive off this sense of controversy, which generates the kind of user engagement that tech companies welcome. Engagements don’t have to be real. By running anonymous accounts or paying influencers to publish certain takes, water armies create narratives based on the needs of their clients and stir up public opinion. Their techniques have grown increasingly sophisticated in recent years, evolving from simple text to a full arsenal of textual, graphic, and video attacks. Moreover, they are adept at exploiting recommendation algorithms to quickly build influence and vilify their targets.
This puts victims of cyberbullying and online harassment in a bind. They’re dealing with not just a group of users filled with righteous indignation, but also an information environment that excels at mass-producing a sense of mob justice, moral righteousness, and disinformation.
To an extent, the prevalence of moral outrage campaigns on the Chinese internet is merely a sign that traditional values remain strong: filial piety, family ethics, defense of the weak, and a love of the homeland. But the organized, industrialized production of “justice” found on Chinese social media can just as easily be read as a challenge to collective values. After all, water armies deliver on demand; they don’t have their own values. That means companies can use them — and the moral outrage they traffic in — to fight business rivals; fans can use them to attack anything that stands in the way of their idols’ careers; officials can use them to spread false accusations about their critics; and lawyers may use them to influence the judicial process.
Social media users have at times reversed their take on a case after finding out about either the facts or the role played by water armies, but by then, the damage to the victims has already been done. Worse, rather than reflect and try to do better, the view that “it’s all business” has become commonplace, leaving those who are truly in need of justice — and don’t have the means to pay for it — with no support whatsoever.
Understandably, critics of the current state of affairs often look to the government or platforms themselves for answers. But the traditional top-down approach to governance is stretched thin in cyberspace. Clamping down on a particular campaign can produce short-term results, but in the long term it is doomed to failure or overkill, while relaxing the controls altogether will lead to chaos.
What’s essential isn’t government intervention, but a set of ethics of digital citizenship that highlights the humanistic elements of Chinese traditional values, the openness of modern life, and the creative potential of digital culture. The Chinese intellectual tradition is more than just passing judgment. The core values of Confucianism — benevolence and harmony — emphasize humanism and empathy for others. Online, that means being more self-reflective and less impulsive in our moral judgments and avoiding any participation in violence, real or digital.
If this sounds somewhat utopian, it in fact counters another utopian view: that social media will on its own usher in greater openness and public mindedness. As it turns out, social media makes us more complacent, more narrow-minded, and less sensitive to the suffering of others. In the words of communications scholar Robert McChesney, social media has taken us further from true democracy. It has become a series of Socratic trials, rather than a town square. To coexist peacefully online and avoid repeating the same tragedies again and again, we must ground ourselves in Chinese tradition and reality and practice a set of ethics that emphasizes the communal nature of human beings.
All this week, Sixth Tone is taking a closer look at online harrassment, digital trolls, and cyberbullying on the Chinese internet. The rest of the series can be found here.
Translator: Katherine Tse; editors: Cai Yineng and Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Zhou Zhen.
(Header image: Tohey/VectorStock/VCG)