Crime and Punishment of a Search Engine

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Does a search engine have the ability to kill a person? After being bombarded by the news about the death of a 21-year-old college student called Wei Zexi, many Chinese have come to the conclusion that it does.

Like numerous online debates about scandals of late, the incident devolves into an exercise of guilt rationing on a massive scale. With the absence of an impartial arbitrator, public opinion takes up the role of fact-finding and responsibility allocation, with implications hard to pin down at this very moment. The story puts Baidu, China’s largest search engine company, at the epicenter of the controversy, bearing the brunt of online criticism, which is guided as much by a complex set of moral convictions as by a vision of technology’s role in the society.

According to Wei’s own account posted on zhihu.com two months before his death (as an answer to the question “what is the greatest evil in human nature?”) , he was diagnosed of a rare tumor, synovial sarcoma. Major hospitals he visited all threw up their hands and told him no effective therapy was available. Desperate, he resorted to Baidu, and initial searches quickly rendered amazing results: a bio-research center based in one of Beijing’s well-regarded hospitals (affiliated with the People’s Armed Police) claimed that they had an advanced therapy (DC-CIK) that could help. The doctor there told him it was “Stanford technology” and promised to extend Wei’s life by “another 20 years at least”. The family invested almost its entire fortune into this last ditch effort, only to find that cancer quickly spread to his lung. Later, well-intentioned individuals on the internet helped Wei find out that DC-CIK was a shelved technology in most parts of the developed world due to limited effect in clinical application. Yet precious time and money was wasted. Wei, the only son of a Xi’an family, died on Apr 12th.

The personal tragedy of Wei Zexi puts a key business component of Baidu under a scorching national spotlight. It is called P4P (pay for performance), whereby customers bid for premium advertisement placement alongside “natural” search results of selected keywords. Although other factors such as quality of content also affect positioning of promoted links, bidding price carries significant weight in the formula, giving high-paying customers good chance of occupying prime locations on Baidu’s search page. The search engine does put a “promotion” mark under sponsored search results, but in a way that is probably not as visually distinguishable as critics and regulators want. The subtlety of the mark can get lost on eyes less experienced with Internet surfing, or those who are eager to find something.

With this background, it may be understandable that the first wave of criticism came for Baidu, even though in both Wei’s original account and the initial investigative piece that directed public attention to the case, the blame fell squarely on the Internet company and on the bio-research center, as well as the invisible yet mightily present state that loomed over the two.

In an era when books like Nudge populate bookstore shelves and people believe in step-counting mobile phone apps to keep themselves fit, the idea that search engine results determine the fate of individual users is only the natural offspring of a faith in the efficacy of technological interventions. It is further enhanced by the towering image of the do-no-evil Google, whose upholding of “enlightened” technology becomes a shining exemplar that shapes the Chinese public’s view of Baidu.

So the conversation swings back and forth between Baidu and Google. Some goes so far as to suggest that Baidu is the “fundamental culprit in dragging down the informational infrastructure of the Chinese society”, by abusing its virtual monopoly in the search market to set up roadblocks on the information highway, profiting from a slowed traffic and a misguided crowd. Google’s Adsense, its core advertising instrument, is upheld as being non-intrusive and responsible. Tales of Google’s efforts to ensure the quality of medical-related search results attracts the attention (and imagination) of Chinese netizens. Very specific ideas proposed by prominent opinion leaders, such as listing ads in a separate column on the screen, are clearly influenced by widely held perceptions of Google’s practices. But it is worth stressing that nowadays Google also puts some ads in the same column as natural search results (with clear marking as “Ads”). More sophisticated industry observers have also pointed out that the growth of Google’s business in China, back when it was still allowed to operate inside the country, was also partially driven by traffic generated by the same kind of search result tricks that Baidu deploys.

Pressed for a response, the Internet firm released a statement through one of its Weibo accounts on Apr 28: it had double-checked the paperwork submitted by the hospital and found it completely legit. This may be true, if your scrutiny stays at hospital level. Move one level below, to the department level, disturbing signs start to emerge. When investigative journalists dug deeper into the bio-research center, they came up with a shadowy web of private entities that had basically “taken over” lucrative departments in military-affiliated Chinese hospitals and ran them like joint-ventures. The public would learn of a so-called “Putian clan”, a group of businessmen who shared the same origin in Putian, a town in southern China’s Fujian province. Lurid, unverifiable stories about the ascent of this group of medical entrepreneurs spread widely on the Internet. As the story goes, they got hold of their first bucket of money in the early days of China’s economic reform. In those years, guerilla clinics prospered in street-side budget hotels, ripping off patients of venereal and skin diseases who were too ashamed to go to proper hospitals. With initial capital in hand, those “bare-foot doctors” began to eye more systematic, legitimate ways of money making. Cash-hungry public hospitals became their natural partners and a new model of “contracted departments” spread like wild fire. In order to bring in more patients, the Putian businessmen took up online marketing, taking advantage of the stellar reputation of hospitals that were hosting them. Baidu’s emergence as a dominant search engine and its offering of P4P handed them a perfect platform to reach out to an anxious, sometimes desperate, clientele. In the process, many patients like Wei Zexi fell victim to sub-par treatments.

The entering of the Putian businessmen into the scene makes the ethical water of the Wei Zexi case much muddier. How much blame should a search engine share if much larger malign interests are motivated to take advantage of its playbook and win access to premium ad slots? As Baidu has always claimed, it only collects and sorts information, not generating it. It acts like a mirror: the reflection is only as good as the Chinese society can be.

An event in 2015 seems to indicate that relationship between Baidu and the Putian clan is less than amiable. At that time, an industry group representing Putian medical interests called for a boycott of Baidu P4P services, claiming that the latter had used its dominance in the market to rip off Putian-controlled hospitals by unilaterally raising prices for promotion. Baidu search results have become a major channel through which such hospitals bring in patients. According to the industry association, P4P expenditures occupy an increasing chunk of those hospitals’ profits, in some cases as high as 60-80%. One the other side of the equation, medical advertisement makes up to 25% of the search engine’s ad revenue, making the relationship of the two parties a love-hate symbiosis. Baidu’s account for the unpleasant stand-off was completely different. It claimed that the industry group was threatening boycott because its crackdown on deceptive medical advertisement was hurting Putian interests. “The threat will not soften our resolute to keep false medical information out of our search results.”

With more information surfacing about the Putian clan, a push back against Baidu-bashing quickly collects momentum. People begin to question the society’s proclivity to blame the safer, easier and more exposed. For them, the focused attack on a publicly listed Internet company is a sign of the collective laziness of Chinese Internet. “The Putian businessmen are happily off the hook now,” as some would proclaim. The despicable deal between public hospitals and the nouveau riche, and negligence of their supervisors, can easily escape public scrutiny under the cover of an outcry directed entirely at Baidu. As a veteran Caijing journalist puts it, what the public should really chase is the regulators who turned a blind eye to the rampant, irresponsible monetization of public hospital reputations. Not only is Baidu a minor consideration in this whole scheme that condemns Chinese patients, so is the Putian clan, whose fortune is determined by the whims of powerful regulators. He predicts that a campaign-style crackdown on private interests in the medical sector would ensue to placate the public, without touching the fundamentals that have allowed the situation to spread in the first place. “It is a way for power to routinely discipline private interest groups, preventing them from growing too big, while reminding them to be more active in paying their rent.”

More methodical minds try to lead people out of this ethical swamp by actually ranking the relative moral responsibility of the parties involved: the biggest share of blame goes to the military-affiliated hospital that knowingly sold its reputation and standing for profit, while being in the best position to judge the medical merit of the technology that its “contracted” bio-research center is promoting. Second comes the center and regulators. Baidu ranks at the bottom of this ethical ladder, for “it is also in relative disadvantage when it comes to medical expertise”. Its only problem is choosing to pursue profits in this category in spite of its own blind spot.

But there are people who resist this way of assigning responsibility. They see it as a distraction or even an intentional tactic to deflect pressure from Baidu, at a point when intensive public questioning is just about to make a dent on one of China’s largest internet firms. The sentiment roots in a deep frustration over a string of Baidu-related controversies (including the one in January this year where it attempted to sell off management authority of an online patient support group to commercial interests), which the Internet giant have all weathered with impunity. “We don’t have the ability to change the root cause of the problem, but at least we can change Baidu with a concentrated effort.” This line of argument contains, at once, a deep sense of powerlessness and a great faith in public opinion: criticizing the power behind the whole corrupt situation won’t bring you much change. It’s a dissipation of precious energy. But the search engine will ultimately bow to such public pressure.

The powerlessness manifests itself in a different reading of Wei’s death. What killed him seems to be a carefully weaved web of sub-lethal elements: acting individually, no element, whether it’s the search engine or the hospital, is potent enough to bring death to a person. Yet collectively, their grip turns out inescapable for an ordinary Chinese like Wei. In the end, each individual element can deny accountability for the collective consequence.

On May 10, China’s Internet authority handed down its verdict on Baidu: it has to change its algorithm for search result presentation, give more weight to credibility, less to bidding prices. Plus, no more than 30% of a page should be given to promotional results. It is a rare occasion where the country’s web regulator publicly dictates change, albeit a noble one this time, to an Internet company’s core business, its algorithm. Earlier, commentators already made a careful-what-you-wish type warning about a more empowered Internet police coming out of this case. But for most part of the cyberspace, vindication is the predominant mood.

The complexity of Baidu’s response to the whole saga is best captured by an article published on the company’s intranet days before the final result. While pledging to collaborate with regulators, it also questioned why the bio-research center could obtain all the certificates and official documents. “As a great enterprise, we sometimes have to shoulder responsibilities that once belong to the state and the medical industry, because with more power comes more responsibility.”

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Subculture Hegemony

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Try to think of great subcultures worldwide, those surrounding Japanese anime and Norwegian black metal might come to mind.  After January 21, 2016, you might as well put Chinese online forum in that pantheon.

On that date, tens of thousands of users from mainland China logged onto Facebook and “occupied” the comment sections of the pages of major Taiwanese news organizations and politicians to express their disapproval of Taiwan independence.

If as a non-Chinese speaker you are confused by references to “Diba”, “D8” or “Tieba” in news reports about this incident, it means you are normal. By definition, a subculture tries to construct an alternative identity that differentiates itself from the one bestowed by the parent culture. It often has its own language, symbols and rituals that may be unintelligible to an outsider. Not surprisingly, it took many usually Internet-savvy Chinese observers some time to figure out what was going on. Equally dazzled were the Taiwanese targets of this campaign.

Getting some basic understanding of that subculture has become somewhat imperative not just because it injects itself so forcefully into the high politics of the Taiwan Strait this time. Its permeation into the daily discourse of Chinese society and the favorable attention it gets from China’s propaganda machine warrant a deeper look into its root and temperaments.

Our protagonist this time is called “Diba”, a keyword-based online forum (or “Tieba” as they are known in Chinese) hosted by China’s largest search engine Baidu. It was at first just a regular Tieba dedicated to a mediocre Chinese soccer player, set up in 2004. Over the years, it has gone through major transformations that make it outstanding among the hundreds of thousands of Tiebas that exist, boasting a membership of 20 million, which easily dwarfs any other such forums in the Chinese cyberspace.

One of such transformations is to go beyond its designated “keyword”, “Li Yi”, the soccer player who said stupid things such as “my skills resemble those of Henry”, the French superstar. Since Henry was fondly referred to by fans as Henry the Great (Henri le Grand), members of the Tieba jokingly dubbed Li “the Emperor”, hence the forum’s nickname “Diba” (“Di” means emperor in Chinese). Participants of the forum initially gathered to make fun of Li Yi, but then quickly extended their sarcastic talents to whatever issues that attracted their attention.

As a recent analysis of the Diba phenomenon puts it, the forum gradually transcends its namesake and is increasingly organized around a unique discursive strategy: a veiled, satirical way of badmouthing someone that disguises itself as compliments. It’s the Chinese equivalent of singing hymn to Justin Bieber. The strategy also has a class signature to it: members of the group self-deprecatingly refer to themselves as “Diaosi” (another play with the pronunciation of “Di” but has the meaning of pubic hair), which is considered a label of those from a lower social class. Rather than avoiding a label like this, participants, mainly young males, embrace it proudly. Furthermore, they invented a host of terms applying to the opposite social class, such as “Gaofushuai” (“tall, rich, good-looking”), with very little resentment embedded in them. Instead, self-branded “Diaosis” use them with humorous resignation, adopting a posture of self-disarming capitulation. Both “Diaosi” and “Gaofushuai”, among other Diba-originated words, have find their place in modern Chinese language, a sign of the subculture’s ability to reciprocate its influence to the parent culture.

Why would a loosely organized online community so self-involved in constructing subtle jokes suddenly wake up to a nationalist call to confront the so-called Taiwan independence force?

Events in January alone could not fully explain such an eruption of enthusiasm, although they do serve as a trigger. Prior to the presidential election in Taiwan on January 16, public sentiments on the mainland were influenced by an agitator coming, ironically, from Taiwan. Since late 2015, a third-tier Taiwanese singer and former TV show host, Huang An, had been running a personal campaign against “Taiwan independence” by crucifying fellow Taiwanese celebrities in front of the mainland authority and public. His approach was clumsy and tacky, at one point involving holding a banner in front of the mainland’s Taiwan affairs office with anti-independence slogans. Yet it was also effective in its own way. Many Taiwanese pop stars named and shamed by Huang saw their business plans in the mainland disrupted for appearing to be sympathetic to the independence cause. Huang’s motivation for such uncalled-for agitation is unclear, as his behavior alienates the Taiwanese society, effectively burning the bridge back to his home market. Some conjectured that he was just trying to camouflage his practice of advertising for dubious health products in the mainland with disingenuous patriotic posturing. What’s more interesting is the mainland authority’s willingness to entertain such behavior and watch Huang lynch Taiwanese public figures with the mainland’s ultra-sensitive political taboo as a weapon.

Things got a bit heated up when in November 2015 Huang set his eyes on Chou Tzu-yu, a young Taiwanese pop star who had barely started her performing career in South Korea. Huang regards some of her acts in public, such as waving the Taiwanese flag in a video clip, as reflecting an “independence tendency”. But what finally agitated Huang into a full attack mode, as he later claimed, was Taiwan’s pro-independence media, which used Chou as an upholder of the Taiwanese identity and crowned her “the light of Taiwan”. The unfortunate 16-year-old saw herself sucked into a nasty swirl propelled by two mutually reinforcing forces: one that sees Taiwanese independence as an absolute, non-negotiable taboo and would err on the side of caution by eliminating any possible association with it, and the other that amplifies any conscious or unconscious expression of one’s own identity as a political statement. The result is a string of cancellations of her appearance in mainland TV shows.

Apparently under tremendous pressure, Chou released a pre-recorded apology on the Internet on January 15. In the VCR, people saw a pale, distressed girl wearing a black turtleneck. She read from a piece of paper with a blank face, saying she “felt proud being a Chinese” and expressing her regret for irritating the public from “both sides of the Strait”. In the end, she announced that she would suspend all her activities in China to “reflect on her mistake”. She bowed to the camera.

People on both sides of the Strait were indeed irritated, but for very different reasons. For those watching in Taiwan, the VCR was an appalling scene of a 16-year-old being politically bullied and humiliated publicly. Some of them vented their anger on a mainland TV star who joked about Chou’s stuttering performance in the video by flooding his Facebook post with criticism.

This became the detonator of a massive mobilization campaign at the Diba, where its millions of members vowed to give the other side a lesson.

On Jan 20, the Long March began. According to a first-hand account from a participant, “conscription” ads started to appear on the Internet asking people to join numerous “columns” formed to execute the campaign. There were groups responsible for translating materials into foreign languages so that “foreigners can be sympathetic to the cause”. Others were in charge of all the Photoshopping and graphic design of “pic-emojis”, which became the main ammunition of the campaign. Leaders of the mission set down rules that were at once militantly disciplinary and comically naive. There were rules about not using dirty language, and also those barring participants from using images of the top leader. People were asked to differentiate separatists from “the Taiwanese people.” You can be merciless to the former, but should be friendly to the latter.

The landing was set at 19:00 sharp. Participants were asked to register at Facebook, something many of them had never done until that very moment. Together with Twitter, YouTube and Google, Facebook is blocked in mainland China by the infamous Great Firewall. To get over the wall, netizens had to use VPN services, a cumbersome undertaking. This did not stop them from parachuting into Facebook en masse. In no time, comment sections under the posts of Apple Daily, Sanli News and Taiwan’s president-elect Tsai Ing-wen were filled with seemingly mass produced contents: patriotic poems, communist party slogans, pic-emojis, and pictures of food.

Some people on the mainland were repulsed by the shallowness of the message sent by the young patriots. Others laughed at their lack of erudition. By reciting textbooks and acting as if they were “educating” the other side, theirs was essentially a message of rejection: refusing to understand the aspects of the Taiwan society that are simply alien to a mainland mind. This is not an awfully unfair characterization. The “class struggle” mark on the guiding principles of the campaign was too glaring to not notice. The idea that people can be easily identified as “separatists” and “brothers”, and should be treated in completely different ways betrays the mindset from another era, a mindset that lingers in middle school textbooks and gets passed along to the millennials. Even though “rules” bar participants from using dirty words, they found other creative ways to intimidate their perceived opponents. Calling them “independence dogs” seemed to be perfectly fine for most of the Facebook crusaders.

Among the participants of the pageant, there is a visible tendency to approach things merely from a materialistic point of view, as if the Taiwanese people could be wooed by pictures of fancy cuisines or shiny skyscrapers. To be fair, this might be just a response to the caricature of the mainland by the Taiwanese side: the Taiwan pundits’ misrepresentation of the mainland as still living in the poverty stricken era of Mao hurt the pride of many across the Strait. But the notion that economic power trumps everything, and that a superior economic position is somehow equivalent to a superior value system is not only logically flawed, but also disconcerting when a large number of Chinese youth seem to take it for granted.

When the battalions of China’s young Facebook warriors were armed, organized and aligned along such an overarching logic, it is not surprising that their narratives were full of patriarchal metaphors wherein Taiwan was the “younger brother” and the “son”, even when they were showing good will.

Military terms notwithstanding, it would be a mistake to see these youngsters as an organized force answering the call of the Party. Their tone and style set them apart from the more uptight “online patrols” the Party dispatches to enforce its political creed. This is probably the most intriguing aspect of this Facebook saga: no one, left or right, seemed to be prepared for such a massive expression of patriotism, especially from this corner of the Internet. Even though official outlets such as the People’s Daily’s WeChat account spoke highly of the newfound patriotic zeal in the Chinese millennials and the Communist Youth League came close to giving it a virtual standing ovation, their moves were more like trying to catch up to a novelty they were (pleasantly) surprised of. Conservatives were also busy helping the millennials fend off attacks from the liberals, who immediately dismissed the kids as online “Red Guards”. Unfortunately, the liberals, who are traditionally more internet savvy than their rivals on the left, seemed to be as confused this time. Red Guard is clearly a misnomer: there is no indication that those youngsters are violent fanatics. So is “little pink”, the supposedly derogatory term coined by the liberals to describe what they consider as “mildly and playfully red”. But those more attuned to online subcultures pointed out that “little pink” was an existing community with very different political leaning.

The failure of existing opinion leaders to recognize, let alone understand, the young kids who jumped over the Great Firewall to bicker with the Taiwanese, is indicative of the generational gap between the old order on the internet and the emerging new. Cautious observers took a more detached position, without cheering or condemning the episode. They considered it a rare chance for young people from across the Strait to have direct dialogue about an issue that had proved thorny for an older generation.

Interestingly, this is hardly the first time that the Diba crowd collectively expressed their political stance through post bombardment. But their previous feats were obscured by the fact that they happened largely within the underground world of subcultures. A review of the ten-plus-year history of the forum shows that at least in 11 previous cases, they “carpet bombed” other forums for views they did not approve. Nationalism, albeit an unsophisticated version,  underlines 4 (out of the 11) such campaigns. In one case, they paralyzed a Tieba dedicated to a Taiwanese pop star for her disrespect of Nanjing massacre victims; in another, they overwhelmed a Korean singer’s forum because he allegedly beat up a Chinese pregnant woman. One analysis attributes this spontaneous airing of nationalism with the forum’s soccer origin. It is said that modern sports, particularly soccer, is closely associated with nationalistic sentiments. As Orwell once famously put, “There cannot be much doubt that the whole thing is bound up with the rise of nationalism — that is, with the lunatic modern habit of identifying oneself with large power units and seeing everything in terms of competitive prestige.”

There are others who read the Diba’s increasingly patriotic vibe as a result of the intentional guidance from its board managers, who, in interviews with the media, had indicated their interest in connecting the forum’s passive-aggressive cynical culture to the more upbeat mainstream discourse as a way to establish its legitimacy. And nationalism provides a perfect shortcut to that connection, given the forum’s largely young and male membership.

From a more macro perspective that locates the ascendence of the Diba subculture in the tectonic plate shift of China’s online opinion geology, the recent incident is a strong signal that the political pendulum of the Chinese internet is swaying momentously to the left after years of domination by liberal values. Insulated from the major battles on Weibo that decided China’s online sentiments in the past few years, the generation that has grown up chatting about ACG in obscure online communities using their own language begins to assert its own political values disregarding rules set by any established camps. The fact that they climbed over China’s notorious internet firewall to wage a patriotic campaign highlights the rebellion/allegiance contradiction in their action. The later shutdown of their VPN services reflects the authority’s uneasiness in handling this new force, and the intrinsic difficulty in co-opting it.

At this moment, it is hard to predict how this impulsive youth subculture would create any lasting political impact. The collective action might just be one of the ways a subculture reasserts and rejuvenates its own distinctive identity. Just like an active volcano, after a major eruption, the community relapsed into its everyday mode of nonsensical jokes and undecipherable jargons. Is it going to belch flames again in the future and occupy the Facebook page of Hillary Clinton, or overwhelm the Twitter account of Shinzo Abe, as some have suggested? Will it go beyond its current role of political taboo enforcer and public opinion vigilante, and adopt the more sophisticated strategies of other online subcultural communities such as Anonymous? Before anyone can clearly see the consequence, the best thing to do is to get familiar with some Diaosi vocabulary.

Further Reading on this Blog: Love Thy Country