At first, it was merely a bizarre Chinese tidbit involving recycled cooking oil, a famous rapper, and an internet mix-up that went viral. Then the government intervened.
The story began on Jan 7, when the words "Zi Guang Ge gutter oil" began trending on Weibo, China's version of Twitter. Zi Guang Ge means "the pavilion of violet light," which sounded like a restaurant name, and "gutter oil" refers to illegally recycled, low-grade oil that some restaurants use to cut costs. Many figured the posts referred to a food safety scare.
They were wrong.
In fact, Zi Guang Ge is a magazine on political affairs run by the Chinese Communist party. Earlier, the magazine had taken to Weibo to criticize PG One, a popular Chinese rapper, for lyrics boasting of drug abuse and misogyny. The criticism infuriated some of the rapper's avid fans, who were outraged that a restaurant — or so they assumed — was insulting their hero.
The fans paid an army of online posters to tarnish its name by suggesting that it was using illicit oil. Their misfire led China's internet authorities to reprimand Weibo, which said that it "accepted all the criticisms from the regulators," and "voluntarily suspended its trending topics list" as a show of obedience.
China has been cracking down on paid online commenters – widely called "Water Armies," because they fill up web space with bland information that dilutes meaningful conversation. But as authorities clean the internet of noise, some experts say they're also taking the opportunity to shore up control and inject their own official -- yet not necessarily truthful -- version of events.
Paid online commenters are common throughout the world, including in the U.S., where Russian "troll farm" operations tried to influence the 2016 presidential election. But they assume an extra dimension in China, where private-sector water armies and government efforts to influence public opinion uneasily coexist.
China's president Xi Jinping has overseen a severe tightening of government control over the internet in recent years. Last June, the country formally enacted a broad cybersecurity law that demanded real-name registration for all online commenters, making the true identity of any poster visible to regulators.
In early February, the official New China News Agency reported that the Ministry of Public Security had been waging a war on the water armies since last May. The police claimed to have closed more than 40 cases, the biggest of which involved about $630,000, according to the reports.
Much like in the West, China's social media is rife with heated arguments and verbal attacks. While some topics -- including a long list of political issues deemed sensitive by the government -- are quickly hushed up, others, such as celebrity scandals and consumer product reviews, often heat up into freewheeling debates.
These debates' authenticity has recently come under scrutiny. For example, China's state media CCTV reported in last April that "Eternal Love," a popular TV drama, garnered 1.4 billion online plays within a single day, while China's entire population is about 1.3 billion. The report questioned the authenticity of the figure, noting that promoters could spend as little as about $15 to purchase 100,000 clicks on the black market.
Water armies provide a variety of services, according to media reports. Besides clicks, buyers can also pay water armies to mass-produce positive comments and ratings for their products, or negative ones for a competitor. Additionally, when there is a negative comment on the web, the Water Army can repeatedly reply with illegal content, such as advertisements for online casinos, to force the moderator to delete the entire thread.
Chinese authorities appear to deem the water armies a serious danger to the country's internet. "Internet water armies generally produce false information, make slanderous attacks, and engage in illegal promotion… They scare the righteous netizens into silence," said the New China News Agency in early February.
But others aren't so bothered, noting that water army posts tend to lack subtlety, making them identifiable to the trained eye.
Although state media have rushed to praise the water army crackdown, some experts point to inconvenient similarities between hunter and prey. China's government maintains the so-called 50 Cent Party, its own organization of commenters paid to write posts favorable to the government. The group got its name from a rumor that they receive a half a yuan, or around 8 U.S. cents, for each post.
"Online marketing activities and the government's online commentator campaigns are not entirely separate things," said Xiao Qiang, an Adjunct Professor at UC Berkeley's School of Information and the founder of China Digital Times, an independent China news portal.
Xiao said that whereas the online campaigns to influence public opinion for business purposes is widespread, the political use of such campaigns is common to only a few governments. "A lot of companies use influence campaigns to promote their products, semi-legally without getting caught," he said. "Every country has this, but in the political arena, Russia uses this strategy in really obvious ways, and China in particular controls public opinion on a very large, obvious scale. These two governments are particularly infamous for doing this."
The 50 Cent Party has a significant presence on China's internet. A 2017 Harvard study estimates that on average, 448 million social media comments are posted by members of the 50 Cent Party in a year.
"The 50 Cent Party is the largest governmental effort to selectively censor the flow of information in the history of the world," said Gary King, a Harvard political science professor who spearheaded the study.
China's internet users tend to conjure an image of 50 Cent Party members as quick to shout down or otherwise silence government critics, contributing to an online environment of rampant censorship. But despite this popular stereotype, King found that the 50 Cent Party does more "cheerleading" than arguing.
"In this area, the goal of the Chinese leaders is to end the debate and change the subject," King said. He compared the situation to a person trying to get out of a fight with a family member, where intellectual counterarguments hardly ever attain the goal. "A second option is to say 'Hey, let's go get ice cream.' To distract. To change the subject."
Officially titled "Internet Commentators," 50 Cent Party members come from a variety of backgrounds. While the public often picture shady figures typing away at a computer for money, "Not everybody gets paid," said the Berkley professor Xiao. He named ardent college students and members of the Communist Youth League as two additional groups that post pro-government comments for nonmonetary benefits such as good political record.
The experts suspect that the crackdown on the water armies will only further the government's control of online opinions.
"This is the direction of China's government -- that the opinions will be more and more controlled, manipulated and shaped by the government. Using the water army, or cracking down on unwanted topics by the water army, is just part of that effort," said Xiao.
When Weibo reinstated its trending topics list a week after the PG One incident, users had found a new section next to the old list.
Echoing Xi's ideology, "Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era," the new section is also called "New Era." Each item is an accolade of the government's achievements.