Authorities in Beijing have shut down an app suspected of artificially promoting a pop idol’s online clout by faking likes and shares, sending a warning about the credibility of China’s massive fan economy fueled by digital influencers.
Xingyuan (which translates into “celebrity helper” in English), the app behind pop star Cai Xunkun’s remarkable 100 million reposts, was shut down in a recent internet “clean-up” campaign, and a principle, coincidentally also surnamed Cai, was arrested, state media Beijing News reported.
The wrongdoing of the app was exposed in March. It was found that a number equal to about one-third of China’s 314 million Weibo users had supposedly shared one of Cai’s posts promoting his new album in August 2018—which is impossible since he has only 25 million fans on the platform.
The abnormal number triggered fierce debate among Chinese net users, drawing attention to false data flows of celebrities’ Weibo accounts and the underground profit chain.
An app that simulates the behavior of the Weibo mobile app, Xingyuan can quickly generate a huge number of reposts. That means the app can help make tens of thousands or millions of posts in a short period of time, in line with a client’s request.
According to Beijing News, the Xingyuan app is quite popular among fan circles and made RMB 8 million (US$1.19 million) within half a year by selling likes and shares from bot accounts on Sina Weibo, a Twitter-like microblog social network.
Cai Xukun, born in 1998, is the spokesperson for many brands, including L’oreal and Vivo, and Prada named him a brand ambassador in May.
To discourage fake interactions, Weibo announced in January that it would limit its display of share and comment counts to 1 million each, effective from the end of January.
Despite the new rule, Weibo users complained that the root cause for fake data flows is Weibo’s advertising revenue model, state newspaper China Fund reported.
In the past several years, Weibo’s advertising revenue accounted for around 80% of its total. The company’s first quarter financial results showed that its monthly active users reached 465 million, and revenue from advertising and marketing represented over 85% of the total US$399 million.
In order to promote advertising growth, Weibo is widely believed to encourage users in generating traffic and interactions. For example, celebrities can spend money to make their names appear on the Trending Topics section of the platform, according to the newspaper.