2016 has not been kind to Internet giant Baidu. The company kicked off the new year with a public relations disaster when hemophiliacs revealed how Baidu sold their support community to the highest bidder.

Baidu’s Tieba is one of China’s largest discussion platforms, with hundreds of thousands of sub-forums devoted to entertainment, cooking, hobbies, fandom and support communities. The site has accumulated more than 1.5 billion registered accounts since its creation in 2003.

Quietly Leaked

The first whispers of the sale appeared online on January 9 and were promptly ignored as “fake news” by most Chinese media.

On January 10, Zhang Jianyong, a hemophiliac and member of the Tieba support group, urged readers to examine the case in greater depth in an article published under the name “Mayi Cai.”

The Tieba support group, Zhang said, was instrumental in allowing China’s hemophiliacs and relatives to air their frustrations over the disease and share their experiences about treatment. The volunteers on its moderation team worked diligently to delete fraudulent messages and fake advertisements while promoting useful information to the top of the board, he said.

But Zhang said the moderators were surprised when a number of useful articles were suddenly purged from the board. Several days later, Zhang and the other moderators were stripped of their powers and forbidden to post new information to the support board.

In their place was a new moderator, a Tieba user named “Hemophilia Expert.”

In a notice on January 11, Hemophilia Expert said he had formed a team of consultants and was prepared to answer any questions about hemophilia on the board. He emphasized that “Baidu entrusted to him” this role.

Netizens unmasked the majority of his “consultants” as employees of a medical institution in Xi’an, Shaanxi province. Others included members who had been banned by the old moderation team, such as “Liu Shaanxi,” who fraudulently claimed to be a professor at the Shaanxi Medical Research Institute of Hemophilia in April 2014.

If the allegations are true, this would not be the first time Baidu sold off one of its Tieba communities to corporate interests.

In a response on the question and answer site Zhihu, an insider writing under the handle “ytytytyt” said more than 40 percent of Tieba’s most popular forums were sold to business interests. These include support groups for other diseases such as liver disease and hypertension.

Tieba Operating System

While it’s hard to defend Baidu’s actions as moral, they are reasonable from a business perspective. Highly focused online communities are of immense commercial value.

Each Tieba community is a data gold mine, especially since Tieba user accounts are tied to greater Baidu accounts that can be used for analysing users’ habits and potential demands.

The forums also represent a strategic component that Baidu uses to defend its weak position in the social media market, where it is traditionally overshadowed by its competitors Sina and Tencent.

Baidu did not attempt to capitalize on its Tieba platform before 2014. During that time, Tieba represented a comparatively free online socializing platform where moderation was in the hands of a community’s most productive members. Moderation privileges were granted to members who logged in every day and who posted the most useful articles.

That’s not to say there was no grey economy. There were frequent cases of companies paying moderators of popular boards to delete negative articles or post advertisements in place of normal discussion.

Baidu’s move to commercialize Tieba resulted in all forums being reclassified as “enterprise” or “interest” based. Moderation control of enterprise forums is directly sold to companies since they are essentially advertising platforms. For interest-based forums, moderation goes to the highest bidder.

Critics have likened the new Tieba to an advertising platform for the rich rather than a socializing platform for regular users.

The exodus of those users could spell trouble for Baidu – Tieba’s strong userbase is what makes it a social media powerhouse, as well as a desirable target for advertisers.

Critics say the move to sell moderation to commercial agencies puts Baidu’s reputation at risk and gives many users the impression that the company “will do anything for money.” Even for users open to the idea of commercialization, selling moderation control of a support group for people with a serious disease crosses a line.

Baidu has announced plans to revoke the access of the hemophilia forum moderator it appointed and transfer control to the Hemophilia Home of China, a non-profit organization. The company said it would suspend attempts to sell control of its other forums related to medical ailments.

Shu Pengqian

About Shu Pengqian

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Shu Pengqian is a TV drama and novel addict. Although most people think she looks like an introvert, she's actually really outgoing.

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