Baidu, China’s biggest search engine, is under the spotlight for the commercialization of its subsidiary Baidu Tieba, a bulletin board type social networking site. Some widely circulated posts on Chinese social media published since Sunday accused Baidu Tieba of selling the administration rights of its disease-related boards to commercial medical institutes for profit.
The first post was published on Chinese Quora-like forum Zhihu. It said that all the voluntary board admins on Baidu’s Haemophilia board were removed and replaced with people who claimed to be experts working with Baidu. The “experts” were later found to be tied to quacks who were previously exposed on the forum.
In the past couple days, more answers from the previous Baidu Tieba admins and users were added, describing similar experiences of being replaced with so-called “experts”. Discussion forums affected include those for high blood pressure, diabetes and depression.
According to a report by Chinese state-owned press outlet Beijing Youth Daily, the administration rights of these forums can be acquired via agencies. USD ten thousand is enough to acquire the administration rights of a common forum. The exact price is based on a paid-listing mechanism: the more popular the forum is, the higher the price will be. For disease-related forums, it normally requests “at least RMB 200,000 (around USD 30,000)”.
Fears arose that the new administration team would post advertisements directing users to certain commercial medical institutions and delete content advising against these institutions. Some of these institutions appear to have questionable medical qualifications.
In response to the controversy, Baidu announced on Tuesday that it has ended all commercial collaborations for disease-related forums on Monday, and will only give administration rights to authoritative medical institutions instead.
In reaction to previous charges, the administration rights of the haemophilia forum have been given to a non-profit Chinese NGO, the Haemophilia Home of China. But soon the legitimacy of this organisation was questioned again by Chinese netizens for not being listed at China’s Ministry of Civil Affairs as a registered social organization.
The center of the issue — Baidu Tieba — is a Reddit-like platform launched in 2003. It claimed to be the biggest Chinese online social community with over one billion registered users and 300 million active monthly users.
Unlike traditional forums, on Baidu Tieba, users can create discussion boards called “bars” in the community at will. “Bars” on Baidu Tieba are equivalent to discussion boards but they focus on more specific topics such as an individual celebrity, or a specific type of disease, as highlighted in this incident. With an enormous user group, it was once the fountainhead of China’s grassroots internet culture.
According to Baidu, the company tried to introduce professional organisations to co-manage some of the bars in order to increase the quality of the content and operation efficiency of the forums in 2015. Prior to this, although it was the biggest online community in China, Baidu Tieba didn’t have a profitable business model.
Baidu, as the biggest Chinese search engine, has long been criticized for its paid-listing mechanism for its search results. China Central Television reported back in 2008 that the company failed to examine the legitimacy of its advertisers including medical institutions, which caused great damage to less tech savvy users.
Lu Fubin, the General Manager of Baidu Tieba, mentioned in an earlier interview that Baidu Tieba needs an essential economic system but the economic system can only work when it meets the comprehensive social rules of Tieba. This ‘economic system’ seems to be in conflict with the social and ethical rules of the entire Tieba system this time.