Mayor’s “zombie” fans on Chinese Twitter troubled staff

Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson’s staff pondered various ways to promote their boss’s account on China’s state-censored answer to Twitter, but were later forced to fend-off “zombies.”

Consultant Joanna Wong of Beijing-based Flow Creative Studios recommended Robertson aide Lara Honrado seek endorsement for Robertson’s Sina Weibo account from Chinese pop star and recent Vancouverite Wanting Qu, who had 500,000 followers. In an Oct. 17, 2012 email obtained via Freedom of Information, Wong also wondered how they should “play the Bethune card” to emphasize Robertson’s distant relation to Chinese national hero Dr. Norman Bethune.

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Wong’s work plan included “identifying/contracting key influencers (users with 10,000-plus followers),” preparing two weeks of tweets and “stock answers to sensitive questions (ie. immigration, drugs in Vancouver).”

Robertson attracted 70,000 fans within the first week of the Nov. 1, 2012 launch. It was an instant hit. Or so it seemed. Users noticed an influx of “zombie” fans, prompting Wong to contact Sina Weibo news director Liu Qingli for an explanation.

“Gregor is a verified trending account that people add immediately when they sign on to a new account to Weibo,” Wong wrote Nov. 4, 2012 to Honrado. “The accounts are real accounts, the reason they seem so strange (typically, “Zombie” accounts are clearly identified as not having head shots or fans) is that the people have just joined the service, often on mobile phones, and haven’t yet started to use it. This is a common process that Weibo uses to help boost attention for important verified accounts for public figures.”

Wong said Weibo “did not mean to cause” Robertson’s office trouble. “They only planned to keep him on the promoted accounts section for another week. As Mr. Liu said, ‘50,000 fans is totally nothing in China and we want people to pay attention to the mayor.’”

In 2013, Sina Weibo claimed it was used by 500 million people, but admitted less than 10 per cent are active daily.

Promotion of Robertson was stopped, to “drastically slow down the addition of fans while things are sensitive and to look into other partnerships in the future during the mayor’s visit, such as an official town hall during a trade mission.” Robertson did so Nov. 5, 2013 during his trade mission to Beijing.

As of Jan. 29, Robertson counted 80,334 fans, an increase of only 10,000 since the initial rush 14 months ago.

Last summer, Channel 4 in the United Kingdom revealed the existence of Bangladesh-based “click farms” that sell Twitter followers, Facebook likes and YouTube views to help celebrities and brands inflate their social media statistics. Similar schemes exist for Chinese social media platforms.

The documents released by city hall about Robertson’s Sina Weibo account do not show any proof that fans were bought. Wong’s Oct. 17, 2012 email did, however, recommend paying RMB300-RMB500 ($55 to $92) to get news releases about Robertson’s entry into Chinese social media published in China. Wong called it the “standard media charge per outlet.”

Receiving payment for story placement is not standard practice in Canadian media.

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