Why did Tencent just invest in a self-media account with a history of ‘article laundering’? [UPDATE]

Business & Technology

It was reported last Thursday that Tencent led a $4.1 million (30 million RMB) investment in Chaping 差评, a WeChat self-media account popular for its scathing reviews of Chinese tech companies. The move was significant because it marked the first time that Tencent Topic Fund, Tencent‘s fund for online content creators established last November, invested in an independently operated WeChat media account.

But far from fanfare, the announcement was met with outrage from several bloggers.

“Chaping built itself by plagiarizing others’ original ideas; it has zero ability to create and all the capacity to copy and paste,” wrote San Biao Longmenzhen (三表龙门阵), a prominent critic of internet culture in China. He argued that Tencent’s investment signals that plagiarism is not only tolerated, but rewarded on WeChat — contrary to Tencent’s purported goal of protecting original content in self-media.

Chaping is involved in two high-profile, ongoing battles with content creators who accuse it of plagiarizing their work.

Tencent was quick to acknowledge its possible blunder. Zhang Jun 张军, the company’s public relations director, said the investment decision was made by one of Tencent’s “subsidiary departments” — Tencent Topic Fund — and cannot be interpreted as representing the company’s stance.

Near midnight, Tencent CEO Pony Ma 马化腾 responded in his WeChat Moments: “I didn’t know this was the case. I delegate a number of small investment deals to subsidiary departments. It appears those departments haven’t conducted thorough background checks, we’ll take responsibility to get this properly resolved.”

Around the same time, Tencent released an official statement saying it would relaunch another round of background checks and would consider withdrawing its investment if it finds that Chaping contradicts the company’s mission to protect intellectual property.

On Saturday, Chaping issued a formal reply in a WeChat post titled “To be better,” saying that because the platform is operated by amateurs as opposed to media professionals — “We’re mainly recent graduates born in the 1990s” — many of its practices might not be in line with traditional media operations.

How ‘self-media’ in China has become a hub for misinformation

Chaping, literally meaning “bad review,” prides itself on its snarky critiques of tech products and perceived problems in the Chinese tech world. Founded in 2015, it has steadily grown to become the top-ranked tech-focused WeChat account, with an average of 70,000 views per post, according to New Rank. But it is not without controversy.

In 2016, a self-media blogger named Huo Ju 霍炬 sued Chaping for plagiarism; the previous year, he published a post listing 19 points of similarity between one of his pieces, originally published on September 29, 2015, and one published by Chaping a month later.

In Huo’s original, he employed two idiosyncratic expressions — “a combination of the beauty of figures and engineering” (兼具数学和工程之美 jiān jù shùxué hé gōngchéng zhīměi) and “to start from the base of API” (最底层的简单API实现 zuì dǐcéng de jiǎndān API shíxiàn) — both of which show up in Chaping’s later piece. A search for these two phrases on the Chinese search engine Baidu only yields two results: Huo’s and Chaping’s articles.

Chaping’s defense lawyer denied the charges in court, claiming that since both pieces were written based on public information and neither featured original reporting, similarities between the two existed only because they quoted the same sources.

One year later, in May 2017, a blogger from PingWest 品玩, a WeChat account whose main focus is the Chinese tech world, accused Chaping of plagiarism. The blogger pointed out an entire paragraph in Chaping’s piece that resembled hers.

A court ruled against Huo Ju, citing lack of evidence. (Hu says he will sue again if he gathers more evidence.) PingWest chose not to take Chaping to court, though it has published multiple articles criticizing the account.

On the same night that news of Tencent’s investment came out, multiple bloggers joined San Biao in criticizing Tencent’s investment decision. “Tencent should get ‘bad reviews’ [chaping]” — a playful twist on Chaping’s name — became a buzz phrase in WeChat.

Tencent’s investment decision was surprising because in recent years it has positioned itself at the forefront of intellectual property protection. In 2015, the company introduced an “original content declaration” feature that allows bloggers to declare their content is “original” by ticking a checkbox. Original content creators are then notified upon the publication of stories suspected of plagiarism. After several rounds of software upgrades, the newest version of WeChat now automatically embeds original stories inside possibly plagiarized ones.

The biggest challenge for Tencent has been combatting increasingly sophisticated content pirating (among other problems — the prevalence of fake news in Chinese social media has even fooled the company itself). As Huo Ju pointed out in his 2015 attack on Chaping, common ways to skirt WeChat’s plagiarism algorithm include hacking apart longer pieces, changing sentence patterns, paraphrasing, adding minor new information, and removing or adding new images. There’s even a term to describe this process: “article laundering” (洗稿).

In its formal reply, “To be better,” yesterday, Chaping seemed to defend itself by arguing self-media pieces fall into three categories:

  1. Stories taking place entirely online, e.g., scoops on Weibo and disputes in WeChat moments;
  2. Stories that involve offline events, e.g., press conferences of major tech companies;
  3. Investigative journalism, where writers at Chaping pretend to be clients in order to bait tech companies into revealing secrets.

The company said that since its two pieces accused of plagiarism both involved stories belonging to the first category, they shouldn’t be considered original content. Those who don’t “go offline” to do original reporting and lack “independent viewpoints” don’t deserve to declare their post “original content,” according to the post.

PingWest responded by saying, “Those who do not have common sense do not deserve to make rules.”

UPDATE, 8:56 am EST: Chaping has returned Tencent’s investment money, according to a company statement, which also says the company has undergone “self-examination and reassessment.”

The team realizes that before clearing a new stage of intellectual property guidelines, it would be unsuitable to accept Tencent’s investment money. The Chaping team will work hard to develop independently while taking this lesson to heart. It will protect the domain of intellectual property and original creation, and assume greater responsibility.