WeChat, the messaging service mainly used in China, has more than 700 million monthly active users, according to monitoring service QuestMobile.
But not all of them are real.
WeChat creator and Asian telecom Tencent says that its popular platform has been vulnerable to gaming by hackers, who use zombie smartphones to manipulate results.
Several companies have unintentionally gotten caught up in this manipulation, and one of those is travel research giant TripAdvisor. Its page on WeChat has been gamed by fake WeChat influencers, Tencent says.
What does that mean? Well, take a look at these photos, above and below, released by WeChat. The pictures show dozens of smartphones that are alleged to be posing as devices being used by real people.
These devices simulate being people viewing online content. The act of viewing the content gives plausibility to the content in the eyes of WeChat's computers, who then make the content more prominent in results as seen by the wider world.
UPDATE 7pm ET
TripAdvisor wants to make clear:
"The TripAdvisor page on WeChat hosts branded content, in much the same way as our Facebook page does. It is not a review platform. Therefore, the bots have not been boosting page views for online reviews, as your article suggests. The issue has nothing to do with our review content."
I apologize for not being clear.
The logic of the WeChat computers has been: If (apparently) real people are reading the comments, the comments mustn't be garbage.
But that logic turns out to be flawed.
This week, WeChat changed its back-end system to dramatically tighten up loopholes that enabled manipulation. But it has been coy about what it has done.
WeChat highlights some accounts as examples, before-and-after, of reduced visibility. One account, 王冠雄, had an average "read rate" of 15,000 a week ago but only has had 2,000 reads after the tech change.
Once again, completely eliminating fraud in user-generated systems is a goal that is perpetually slipping out of grasp.
This story was first reported in English by advertising publication Campaign Asia, whose report is here.
YESTERDAY: Hardly influential – warning over fake Instagram love and travel bloggers
NB: Images via WeChat