Tianya, Bandao and other websites have joined together to form the "Internet Media Alliance Against Public Relations" against the Internet Post Deletion companies which are usually know as the "Internet hatchetmen companies." The reason was the emergence of more and more Internet public relations firms which live off deleting negative information on the Internet. They charge their clients on the basis of the content, quantity and location of the target posts. A post at a small website might cost 100 yuan to delete; a post at a big website or web port may cost as much as 1,000 yuan. The Internet media companies think that these activities lower public esteem for them as well as seriously interfering with their normal operations.
The true harm from these Internet Post Deletion companies came to light from the Sanlu melamine-tainted milk case. Before that, the phenomenon was already there but people did not feel personally affected. During the early developmental stages of the Internet in China, concepts such as "promoters," "hatchetmen," or "Internet public relations" did not exist. As more and more Chinese people got on the Internet, corporations suddenly realized that the Internet had great commercial value. That was when the Internet public relations firms emerge.
There is another more profound reason why the subject of Internet Post Deletion has come to public attention recently. After more than one decade in which the Internet was present in China, one important change is that the Chinese Internet has moved from the very remote memory of "the age of innocence" to the "electronic forest" today. People used to have an idyllic or pastoral romance for the Internet which is expected to correct many of the wrongs in the world and to uncover the truth. The trend in recent years is that the Internet is actually a public opinion arena in which various groups tussle and manipulate. This virtual world is just as complex (and perhaps even more so) than the real world. Under these circumstances, we can't distinguish what is true or false when we run into a crisis. The information on the Internet basically cannot be verified with the principals or any trustworthy third party. Even if parts of it can be verified, it depends on many factors and it cannot guarantee that the truth will be told.
As the Internet grew from a farm plot into a forest, it became inevitable that Internet Post Deletion companies emerge. They are the "flowers of evil" from the earth. When the Internet becomes the public opinion arena for various interest groups, they will use every means possible to push public opinion in a favorable direction. Deleting Internet posts is just one of the many possible actions.
Generally speaking, manipulating public opinion is not something to be put on the table under the sunlight. But in the Chinese Internet, there is something decidedly odd. On one hand, the various manipulations of information and public opinion do not seem to have to be hidden. Sometimes they are even deliberately being flaunted. On the other hand, the recipients of these manipulations seem inured and helpless. So the Chinese Internet has become an absurd place where the manipulations are shameless and the manipulated are indifferent.
There are also different kinds of manipulations. For example, some local governments or departments may exercise their special privileges to remove certain posts. As another example, there are commercial motives. For an Internet Post Deletion company, the logic is that if you pay them, they will delete negative information/posts as well as manipulate the Internet media.
This unhealthy development of the Chinese Internet implies that there is a huge crisis, namely mutual distrust in society. The Internet can bring an environment of equality, democracy, freedom plus a natural sharing. But when the veracity of Internet information is deliberately muddied up, this natural ecology is destroyed. Like any real-life ecological crisis, this will eventual threaten the existence of those who live there. A recent example is when academician Zhong Nanshan said, "I basically don't believe in the number of Type A flu deaths reported for China!" The Ministry of Health spokesperson Mao Jun'an rebutted this well-esteemed expert: "Frankly, I don't trust what Zhong Nanshan says." So who should ordinary citizens like us believe?
This crisis can be averted by having a healthy system for expressing public opinion. If public opinion can be more readily expressed, it will improve supervision of the government as well as corporations. In turn, it will reduced the movement space of these so-called Internet public relations firms. We acknowledge that the Internet is a contested field, but there has to be a healthy set of rules for the game that go through legal and normal channels. At the present stage, there are only abominable methods in play.