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    Eat, Click, Judge: The Rise of Cyber Jurors on China’s Food Apps

    On Chinese online platforms, users serve as ‘cyber jurors,’ to settle minor conflicts, from mismanaged orders to late deliveries. So far, over 6 million have registered to participate in this unique system.

    From unwanted ingredients in takeaway meals and negative restaurant reviews to late deliveries and poor product quality, digital marketplaces teem with minor frustrations. 

    But because they affect customer satisfaction and business reputations, several Chinese online shopping platforms have come up with a unique solution: Ordinary users can become “cyber jurors” to deliberate and cast decisive votes in resolving disputes between buyers and sellers.

    Though introduced in 2020, the concept has surged in popularity among young Chinese in recent months, primarily fueled by viral cases that users eagerly follow, scrutinizing every detail and deliberation online.

    The phenomenon goes beyond mere dispute resolution; for some, it’s a form of entertainment, and for others, a platform to exercise their sense of judgment and justice. 

    “Since I order a lot of takeout food online, many consumer complaints struck a chord with me,” says Li Yunyi, who recently applied to become a cyber juror. “It’s interesting to see the vendors’ perspectives in those petty fights.” 

    On the lifestyle platform Xiaohongshu, the hashtag “Xiaomei Jury” — what this feature is called on Meituan, one of China’s most popular food delivery platforms — has amassed more than 12.8 million views

    According to Meituan, over 6 million users have registered to participate as cyber jurors so far, and the majority of these participants are college students. 

    While online sellers and restaurant owners say the cyber juror system finally offers them a means to address unjust negative reviews and enhance transparency, concerns about potential biases and limitations in the jury system have emerged. 

    Users have pointed out that in some cases, decisions may be influenced by irrelevant factors, and that some cyber jurors even see the feature as more of an entertainment tool than a serious oversight mechanism. 

    Justice, crowdsourced

    The most closely followed cases in recent weeks included a dispute over sliced carrots mistakenly added to a dish against a customer’s request, and a more personal grievance of a user alleging that the restaurant’s poor service led to a breakup

    On Meituan, these types of cases follow a process like this: when a merchant files an appeal, claiming that a customer’s negative review is implausible, users have the opportunity to cast their votes. They determine whether the review will ultimately be displayed on the vendor’s public page.

    The guidelines state that a majority vote decides the final outcome if more than 11 users participate in the case. However, in the event of a tie in the number of votes or when a jury consists of fewer than 11 members, the platform reserves the right to make the final call.

    Throughout the review process, the platform provides information, including the review itself, a history of negotiations, order details such as the product ordered, user notes, delivery time, and defense statements from the merchants, complete with supporting evidence.

    “It’s normal human curiosity, wanting to see what others have bought and if there are any bizarre experiences,” says a 29-year-old user surnamed Jiang, adding that as a cyber juror, he gets to witness unique disputes, from unreasonable users to canny merchants. 

    To be eligible for the role, a user must meet certain criteria, including having a verified account, maintaining consumption records within the past three months, and successfully navigating five mock cases as part of an entry test. Cyber jurors don’t receive any money for completing cases but may be rewarded with coupons.

    Xianyu, an online secondhand shopping platform, has also introduced a “court” system that assembles a jury of 17 volunteer users to adjudicate disputes between buyers and sellers. 

    Miao Mingyu, a law professor at the University of Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, told China Youth Daily that this public jury function, with its impartial third-party perspective, has the potential to enhance transaction transparency and the fairness of the platform’s evaluation system.

    Despite Chinese law prohibiting platforms from removing user reviews of products, Miao noted that this feature has enabled the platform to effectively address unfair negative reviews without violating legal constraints.

    Split verdict

    Though Liu Chunping, the owner of a noodle restaurant in Shanghai, has yet to personally use the cyber juror feature, she believes in the potential of crowdsourcing as a fair solution to disputes. “It’s good to see platforms taking steps to address the issue of inappropriate negative reviews,” says Liu.

    In China’s highly competitive e-commerce market, she says, even a single unfavorable review can significantly impact a business by affecting store traffic. “Often, the owner will choose to settle disputes in private and ask customers to erase reviews with apologies or bonuses instead of filing an appeal,” Liu explains, adding that official appeals are laborious and take too much time.  

    However, not everyone views the crowdsourced approach positively, and many have raised concerns over objectivity in the jury system. 

    Wang Chang, a 25-year-old user, pointed out that in some cases, cyber jurors seemed to vote based on subjective, irrelevant factors such as the tone and attitudes of those involved in the dispute, or simply voted for funny and entertaining comments.

    “Other than a simple five-question test, there’s basically no threshold to become a juror,” says Wang. He believes that the feature serves more as a marketing tool to attract users for entertainment purposes rather than as a genuine oversight tool for resolving disputes.

    According to Li, another limitation of the current system is that users can only agree or disagree with each party, though both may have presented valid arguments. She also points out that the perspective of couriers, who are often at the center of disputes, is missing from the current system. 

    While adjudicating disputes, Li says she often feels like she’s guessing the majority’s opinions rather than making decisions based on her own judgment. She asks, “Does truth necessarily lie in the hands of the majority?”

    This isn’t the first time Chinese internet platforms have turned to crowdsourced content governance. 

    For instance, Douyin, China’s version of TikTok, has invited users to serve as content moderators, while the microblogging platform Weibo recruited users as “judges” to weigh in on cases involving misinformation and user disputes. 

    Weibo also introduced a feature similar to community notes on X, formerly known as Twitter, which allowed verified users to add responses and fact-check posts. 

    Editor: Apurva. 

    (Header image: VCG)