At chinaSMACK, we often run into Chinese internet content that appears to be popular or trending but actually isn’t. On the surface, they seem to have a lot of views or comments, but then something makes us question if these views or comments are legitimate. Take this following video on leading Chinese video website Youku for example:
Dear, after seeing this video, do you still want to keep smoking?
This video racked up over 450k views in less than 12 hours. This is an amount and rate that normally would qualify it as having gone viral by Chinese internet standards. When you watch the video, the first half is a clever experiment involving a home-made machine that “smokes” 400 cigarettes and collects everything that is normally inhaled by a smoker into a bottle of water. The water starts off clean and clear, but is black by the time all 400 cigarettes are smoked. Then that water is boiled off, leaving a frightening amount of sticky black tar filled with delicious carcinogens.
From this alone, you might think getting 450k views from China’s massive internet population could be likely. Surely there are a lot of Chinese netizens who would find such a video interesting and then share it with their friends, leading the video to go viral and amass such a huge number of views.
Halfway through the video are four screens of Chinese text that describes the dangers of smoking and second-hand smoke, as well as some statistics on smoking-related diseases and deaths in China. For example, 1 in 5 deaths in China are caused by smoking-related diseases. The third and fourth screens begin introducing a “new technology” and “product” that helps smokers “effectively” quit their habit. Here, it becomes obvious that the video is actually a sales pitch, and the remaining half of the video is a strange visual introduction and demonstration of a Chinese electronic cigarette product. You get the feeling someone is actually talking but all you hear is soothing background music.
Okay, so the video is an advertisement, something that might have been immediately obvious once you saw the link in the video’s description to a 188 RMB (~30 USD) electronic cigarette product the video uploader sells as a merchant on China’s online shopping marketplace Taobao.
Sure, the title might’ve been misleading, unless you were already familiar with “Dear” being a Chinese internet meme first popularized by Taobao merchants and that made you suspicious… But hey, the guy left a product link, so it’s not like it was that much of a bait-and-switch, right? Plus, the video had that “www.nk268.com” watermark floating across it throughout the video, so it was obviously advertising something. Sure enough, www.nk268.com redirects to the same Taobao product page as well.
So the guy is just promoting his product with a clever demonstration of the gunk cigarette smoking leaves in your lungs. He shows you something interesting, gets your attention, and then advertises something to you. What’s wrong with that? Just viral marketing, right? 450k viewers probably thought the experiment was pretty cool and probably didn’t even watch the second half, but that’s how it got so many views in 12 hours, right?
Then you look at the comments:
- The first 15 pages or so of comments all come from commenters posting from an Android mobile device?
- Why is there a random number or letter at the end of every Chinese comment?
- Why are the usernames of the commenters all randomized nonsensical combinations of letters and numbers?
- Why were all of these comments posted at the same time?
- Clicking on the commenters’ names leads to their user account profiles. Why are the profiles all empty?
- And if there is any recorded user activity in their profiles, why is it of them posting the same comment on the same videos?
After the first 15 pages of comments, the screen names of the commenters suddenly become combinations of Chinese characters, and they’re all shown as being posted from the Youku website itself. You might think all those fake comments worked, and helped get some real human Youku users leaving comments now. Except the comments look familiar, and that’s because they’re word-for-word duplicates of comments made by the previous “commenters” with randomized usernames. Click on their screen names and they too have empty zombie profiles and show activity on the same sets of videos.
When just about every comment and commenter posted to a video exhibits these characteristics, it suggests someone used an automated method to artificially inflate both the number of comments and views on the video, making it look more “popular” than it actually is. Videos with high view counts and lots of “discussion” can climb to the top of certain public lists and even possibly Youku’s homepage, thereby gaining greater exposure and thus legitimate attention from the site’s real human users. What is advertising if not to get more attention? Even if it takes using a bunch of fake users, comments, and views?
Okay, so the number of views and the comments are all a fraud and this video isn’t really that popular. We could leave it at that, and chalk this up to a merchant just being scrappy, using various technical tricks ultimately to make a living.
But there’s still something bothering me: I’ve never seen an “Echo” brand of cigarettes in China. Where did this Chinese experimenter get these cigarettes for his experiment? And why use that brand instead of something far more recognizable and thus relevant to his Chinese audience?
Then it hit me. Wait, is the experimenter actually Chinese? The voice-over narration of the experiment gives that semblance, especially with his voice mixed into the ambient sounds of the experiment being performed. There’s English text on the screen, but it could be reasoned that the experimenter was just being nice to potentially non-Chinese viewers who might not understand what he’s saying in Chinese. Then you also have the watermark that floats across the screen throughout the video which says explicitly: “Original Content, Reproduction Will Be Prosecuted“.
A quick search online shows that the same experiment video could be found on YouTube as early as 2007, with the actual experimenter having uploaded a high-definition version just a few years ago:
I’m not inclined to guess the actual experimenter and video creator’s nationality from his profile photo and him writing “Japan” as his country on his YouTube profile, but it did prompt me to look closer at the newspaper under the pile of 400 cigarettes at the start of the experiment. As expected, the text isn’t Chinese.
So what we have now is a Taobao merchant who is faking comments, inflating view counts, and not only passing off someone else’s video as his own but also openly threatening to sue anyone who copies the content he’s copied from someone else.
Oh, and he repeats this entire process every day. Here’s the same video, with many of the same comments from the same commenters, from 1 day ago (224k views), 2 days ago (896k views), 4 days ago (824k views), and 7 days ago (767k views).