Yang Feiyun belongs to an army that the Chinese government doesn't like. Yang's army operates online, obeying few rules. Its members spend long hours in front of the computer, normally for meager wages, posting comments in as many places as possible.
The army, Yang has learned from experience, can change almost any opinion in China in a matter of just 72 hours.
The army can cause panics, create celebrities, or push for social justice. It can also cause China's 420 million Internet users to believe things that aren't true.
In recent weeks China's central government, as part of its long-running crusade to regulate and police the Internet, has aimed its efforts at this vast network of mercenaries with a startling ability to manipulate public opinion. Within the last year Chinese authorities have uncovered several cases in which major companies paid members of the so-called online army to flood influential message boards, blogs and chat rooms with false information about competitors. China's State Council Information Office says that these smear campaigns have "disrupted normal Internet communication order."
But according to Chinese Internet marketers, it's also the subversive potential of the online army that has authorities concerned.
The recent lesson for the government has been an important one: When a large number of people spread information across the Internet in a coordinated way, it doesn't much matter if they're writing about defective dairy products or corruption. China's "netizens" will often read the posts before the government — which bans the posting of false or disorder-causing information — has a chance to take them down.
"I think the (online) army is often described as evil, but that is not right," Yang said. "We are just a tool, and it depends on who uses the tool."
Concern about the influence of the marketers was raised last year following a case in which one large company funded a campaign to spread false information about its top competitor. After a two-month investigation, police revealed an "Internet battle plan" created jointly by Mengniu, one of the country's largest dairy companies, and a Beijing-based Internet marketing company.
(In exclusive partnership with The Washington Post)