DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-4578-3.ch001
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This chapter sets the scene by introducing “Obama Girl” who was present at President Barack Obama’s speech in Shanghai in 2009. She became a hot media “star” and representative of one of the many cases of “Internet pushing hands.” We define “Internet mercenaries” and clarify key terms such as “pushing hands” and “water army.” Then the key attributes of “Internet mercenaries” are listed. The chapter ends with a consideration of some of the “legal grey areas” pertaining to Internet mercenary operations
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On November 16, 2009, on his first visit to China, United States President Barack Obama gave a speech to a group of young people in the Shanghai Stadium of Science and Technology, which attracted extraordinary attention of media crews both at home and abroad. The speech was broadcast live in China. Next day, a short video dubbed “Obama Girl” appeared on the Internet and became widely spread in many social media sites. In the video, in front of an army of television cameramen waiting for President Obama, a beautiful young lady dressed in red came to her seat which was just a few rows behind the podium where President Obama would deliver his speech. She then carefully took off her red jacket and turned into a stylish office lady in black dress. When Obama gave the speech which was the focus of all the international television lenses, her face and elegant pose were often in the picture. This video became very hot and circulated through many Internet forums and news websites. Before long, the news of “the beauty in black” was picked up by domestic and international mainstream media and stimulated an enthusiastic search of her identity by netizens. On November 24, her identity was revealed as a graduate student of Shanghai Jiaotong University. The girl immediately became a hot media “star”, the popularity of her personal blog rose rapidly. However, days later, it was disclosed that the event was a carefully crafted self promotion scheme. The girl, after she learned that she was selected to attend Obama’s speech, hired an “Internet pushing hands” company so that she could take advantage of Obama’s hype and become a “celebrity.” The project included a recruitment of a media photographer on the site to film her and subsequent dissemination of the video over the Internet. After the truth was revealed, the girl quickly disappeared from the Internet.

The “Obama Girl” event was just one of a multitude of “Internet pushing hands” cases in China. The “Internet pushing hand” (wangluo tuishou) is a colloquial term referring to a type of organized business operation which uses paid individuals taking multiple online identities to launch promotional and marketing campaigns on the Internet, particularly in Internet forums, micro blogs and social networking sites (SNS). In this book, the English term “Internet mercenaries” is used to describe this particular practice of Internet marketing and public relations in China.1 It is used interchangeably with the term “Internet pushing hands.” The term “mercenary” is commonly understood and defined as a professional soldier paid to serve in a foreign army.2 In our book, this term is borrowed to refer to a person who is hired to propagate information on the Internet.

China has the largest population of Internet and mobile handset users in the world. As of December 2011, Internet users in China reached 513 million, about 80% of them are under 40 years old (CNNIC,3 2012). In addition, there are about one billion mobile phone users, a penetration rate of 73.6% (MIIT, 2012). Among them 356 million connect to the Internet through their handsets, accounting for nearly 70% of the Internet users (CNNIC, 2012). The unprecedented penetration of Information Communication Technology (ICT) in society, particularly among young people, has given rise to the proliferation of social media.

In the age of Web 2.0, social network service (SNS) has become a new trend, attracting specifically young people. Youths everywhere are mesmerized by what social media can offer -- more initiative, interactivity, and social stimulation. They produce information, publish it over the social media, share it with friends, and create a buzz over a variety of topics. The Internet has turned into a central locale where people collect information, do business, chat with friends, go shopping, play games, and enjoy various types of entertainment. Like their American counterparts who socialize on Twitter and Facebook, Chinese youths are enthusiastic about SNS as well. According to the 2010 China Social Media Usage Report (CNNIC, 2011b), as of December 2010, Chinese SNS registered 235 million users, an increase of 33.7% from the previous years. Among them 150 million were active users and about 69% were under 30 years old.

The Internet and social media have given birth to a huge market which is much diversified in political discourse, concentrated on urban youths who seek novelty and entertainment, and have a great potential to generate commercial gains.

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