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China stuffs rag in mouth of biz-rumour web ring

Weibo-based firm was paid to slag off companies' rivals, claim cops

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A Chinese clampdown on online rumour-mongers has netted 27 staff at Shui Jun Shi Wan, a firm which specialises in seeding stories across its microblogging network of 220 million followers.

Spreading false rumours is illegal in China, but has been big business for companies like Shui Jun Shi Wan, which hired out its Sina Weibo (Twitter equivalent) accounts to companies who wanted to see a little more negativity in the blogosphere – presumably about their competitors. Those accounts had acquired 220 million followers, reportedly enabling the company to offer a lot of negativity for a reasonable fee.

The 27 arrests took place last week following police observation and a raid, ending months of investigation. The Wuhan Evening News reports the details (and we're grateful to Tech in Asia for the translation), but the rows of computer users posting messages from desks seemed entirely surprised to be raided and arrested, apparently unaware that tweeting could be illegal.

The operation is typical of the way Chines firms have exploited the internet in ways which would make Gordon Gekko blush.

Numerous companies, for example, will remove negative postings from micro-blogs and forums for a fee. Initially that just involved making a complaint, but now technicians or middle management can allegedly be bribed to delete content. If that fails then official complaints from politicians can apparently be forged; anything is possible for the right money, say insiders.

China's recent crackdown on rumour-mongers has come in for some sharp criticism, with some arguing that it makes speculative discussion impossible and the state media insisting that government departments be equally liable for publishing false information.

This morning Chinese police were forced to apologise for arresting, and detaining for five days, a blogger who claimed 16 people had died in a traffic accident – the real death toll was only 10. Yu Heyu was held after tweeting (on Weibo) the inaccurate death toll – but also, perhaps more pertinently, complaining that officials had banned photography at the scene.

Societies around the world are struggling with questions about what's acceptable online. The Chinese are just doing so in an unusually heavy-handed manner. Deliberately spreading false information about a competitor is clearly wrong, while making an honest mistake in numbers is clearly forgiveable. The problem is all the stuff between those two. ®

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