Tencent Fights Back Against WeChat's 'Zombie' Invasion

    The tech giant announced that it has deleted fake accounts being used for the practice of "brushing," or bolstering numbers to help influencers gain advertising revenue.
    A Tencent-released image of an alleged "brushing" operation using bot-created accounts. (Tencent)
    Liz FloraAuthor
      Published   in Technology

    On Chinese social media, celebrities and "influencers" purchasing fake followers, likes, and pageviews have long been a major thorn in the side of brands spending large amounts of money on endorsements to gain exposure. While this issue has been discussed extensively in regard to Sina's microblogging platform Weibo, a new Tencent report shows that WeChat is far from immune to the problem as the company announces efforts to fight it.

    Tencent recently released a statement saying that it completed a security update to block fake accounts used to boost pageview numbers on WeChat articles, a practice known as "brushing" that is also a problem with fake product reviews and purchases on e-commerce sites. To demonstrate that pageview numbers had been adjusted as a result, it included a list of 10 examples of “influencer” accounts showing dramatic changes.

    For example, technology reporter Li Yinghuan (李瀛寰) had an average rate of 27,000 page views prior to the security update, but afterward, the number went down to an average of 1,000 after September 28. Meanwhile, TripAdvisor previously boasted the maximum average number of views that can be published—100,000—but the rate sank down to 20,000 following the update.

    In response to the news, TripAdvisor released a statement to Campaign Asia stating that it is investigating the matter and is “absolutely opposed to the use of bots to boost social media views.”

    The term “zombie” account refers to a somewhat sophisticated form of fakery, as the account generally features a person’s photo and can actively like items and even post comments. On Weibo, the term is used in contrast with more obvious fake accounts called “corpses,” which are generally inactive and just exist to boost follower numbers rather than engagement.

    The purchase of fake fans is often used by self-described “key opinion leaders” (KOLs) and “influencers” in order to trick brands into paying them for social media promotions. Making efforts to distinguish real KOLs from fake ones has been particularly challenging for brands, especially luxury labels looking for fashion blogger endorsements.

    Fashion media was not immune to the changes, according to a WeChat post by Chinese luxury news site Ladymax. It published an article featuring alleged screenshots counting before-and-after pageviews on 23 different influential Chinese fashion media outlets, including Bazaar China showing a purported change from over 47,000 to 44,815, and one claiming to be of Vogue China that went from over 70,000 to 58,836. Some commenters were questioning the methodology of how the site came across the screenshots, and the article’s author says in a comment, “We monitored this data in the media over a long period of time,” stating, “you can look at the history to see that our data matches correctly.”

    A screenshot by Ladymax of a purported change in pageviews on Vogue China's WeChat account following Tencent's crackdown on "zombie" accounts. (Ladymax)
    A screenshot by Ladymax of a purported change in pageviews on Vogue China's WeChat account following Tencent's crackdown on "zombie" accounts. (Ladymax)

    While cleaning up fake accounts can dent user numbers, Tencent has strong incentives to show its investors that its user base is organic and genuine. Several years ago, Weibo developed a reputation of being overrun with fake followers after a University of Hong Kong professor claimed in 2014 that 94 percent of all Weibo posts were created by only 10.4 million Weibo users, a far cry from the 129.1 million monthly active users on Weibo at the time. In 2015, Weibo enacted a similar cleanup process that led many brands and celebrities to see massive decreases in fan numbers—one Chinese singer lost a staggering 8 million fans. Weibo currently has 282 million monthly active users, while WeChat reportedly has over 700 million.

    The decrease in zombie accounts is especially helpful for luxury brands as they plan out their social media advertising budgets and want to get a real assessment of the fan base of a potential brand ambassador or assess the value of an ad. If effective, it could also deter fake “influencers” from purchasing followers.

    Tencent’s security team knows it has its work cut out for it in combating this issue. According to a recent statement via Campaign Asia, “This game of cat and mouse will continue for quite some time. We will also continue to strengthen our technological means to ensure that the platform is fair and equitable.” It also asserts, “The platform does not welcome any false prosperity.”

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