Beijing targets 'chaotic' online fan clubs to clean up increased doxxing, trolling in China's cyberspace

Fans of K-pop idol boy band BTS shop at a pop-up store selling BTS goods in Seoul, South Korea.
PHOTO: Reuters

China’s internet watchdog is pursuing a two-month campaign to discipline online fan clubs, which often show their support for a celebrity by doxxing and trolling rival groups, in a move to clean up the country’s cyberspace of opinion manipulation.

The Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) said in a statement on Tuesday (June 15) that it aims to put an end to the “chaos” involving these online fan clubs, which can have millions of passionate followers supporting a popular celebrity such as a film star.

The CAC said it will crack down on activities that induce minors to contribute money to their idols, hurling abuse online and doxxing, which entails searching for and publishing private information with malicious intent about a particular individual on the internet.

It will also stop activities that encourage fans to flaunt their wealth, manipulate social media comments, make up topics online to hijack public opinion and use bots to increase traffic data related to their idols.

The regulator said it will shut down accounts and disband social media groups that are deemed a “bad influence”, while punishing internet platforms that have “indulged” such chaos and failed to correct their activities after repeated orders to do so.

Known as fan circles or fan quan , these clubs are mainly apolitical. But their methods are similar to those of the online community known as “Red Pink”, Chinese nationalist millennials who voluntarily defend Beijing’s official stance and trash opposing views.

During the 2019 Hong Kong protests, a large online group was formed around a fictitious Azhong Gege , or Brother China, to defend Beijing’s policies on the city.

The online fan clubs typically engage in opinion wars against rival groups to ensure that their idol receives positive news and social media coverage.

During the 2019 Hong Kong protests, an online group was organised to support a fictitious Azhong Gege, or Brother China, to defend Beijing’s policies on the city. 
PHOTO: Weibo

This marks the second time in the past two months that the CAC has called out these fan clubs about their activities. On May 9, the regulator warned of a clampdown at a press conference amid increased online bullying and violence among these clubs.

Apart from trolling, instigating boycotts and doxxing, online fan clubs have also been known to report to internet authorities alleged misdeeds and offensive statements of a rival group’s idol.

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The CAC’s latest move comes amid a comprehensive upgrade to the country’s internet services regulation, giving the 20-year-old rules teeth, as Beijing tightens its grip on the country’s internet sector .

Internet giant Tencent Holdings , social e-commerce firm Xiaohongshu and ByteDance -owned Douyin, the sister app of TikTok , have already responded to the CAC’s call, with a pledge to clamp down on offensive online fan club activities.

While it is difficult to accurately assess the size of China’s online fan clubs, members are often females in their teens or 20s who are blindly devoted to their idols. They have fuelled the growth of China’s fan economy, which reached 100 billion yuan (S$20.7 billion) in 2020 by some estimates.

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A surge of talent competition reality television shows in the country over the past decade has helped to increase the number of online fan clubs, whose members support their idols through various initiatives such as campaigning for votes, creating online buzz and buying the products they endorse.

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Xin, who works for a consultancy in Shanghai, calls herself “Potato” online as a member of a fan quan, in which she has seven years’ experience defending her idol.

As a loyal club member, Xin makes sure that she regularly clicks on her idol’s account on microblogging site Weibo as well as engaging with the idol’s posts whenever she has the time.

Their idols need relevant “data” to prove their popularity online, which is what fan club members contribute.

“For the past few years, I’ve sensed that data has become more important than a star’s [acting or singing] capabilities,” Xin said. “The entertainment agents, social media and brands [that look for ambassadors] just care about the data.”

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In a major fan quan incident in February 2020, an author published a novel on a homoerotic literature community, where male idol Xiao Zhan was depicted as a cross-dressing teen who has fallen in love with another well-known male idol.

Xiao’s fans reported the content as “underage pornography” to Chinese authorities.

That led to China’s internet police shutting down Archive of Our Own, the open-source platform that has served as a vibrant online literature community. In retaliation, the community’s users initiated a boycott of major international brands Xiao has promoted, including Estée Lauder, Piaget and Cartier.

For Beijing, the behaviour of certain fan clubs against foreign communities online, such as the Milk Tea Alliance of Asian democracies, is unwanted amid the central government’s efforts to improve its image abroad.

Organised online opinion manipulation is seen as “sabotaging” the country’s cyberspace.

While authorities keep a watchful eye on such online activities, these fan clubs are known for being quick to mobilise. Last month, authorities abruptly suspended the latest season of boy band reality show Youth With You before its finale.

Season 3 of mainland boy band competition show Youth with You was taken off the air after the parents of one of its contestants, Tony Yu Jingtian, were found to have links to illegal businesses.
PHOTO: iQiyi

That followed an online scandal involving a leading contestant over his family’s alleged past business dealings.

Last month, a video circulated online where people were seen dumping a large amount of milk into sewers.

People found out that it was the result of the iQiyi reality show’s marketing campaign, which enabled fans to gain extra votes for their idols if they scan the QR codes printed inside the caps of bottled milk made by Mengniu Dairy, the sponsor of the show.

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Fan club members bought milk in bulk to get the votes, while discarding the unused product.

The incident triggered an intense backlash online, drawing criticism from state media outlets amid China’s crusade against food waste . Xinhua published a commentary that said the campaign “profits off of wastefulness”, “disrespects labour” and “erodes” young people’s values.

Both iQiyi and Mengniu Dairy issued apologies.

In three commentary articles published over three days after that incident, People’s Daily slammed China’s entertainment industry for encouraging young fans to carry out such activities.

Even the most devoted members of online fan clubs now welcome the government’s scrutiny, including Shanghai-based Xin.

“Some social media are just making use of fans’ love [of their idols] to grow their active user base,” she said. “Fans are [being] forced to provide them with data.”

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.