Baidu Homework Helper Scandal
The Baidu Homework Helper Scandal is a corporate sabotage incident that occurred in August 2017. Employees of the Homework Helper service allegedly attempted to smear the reputation of a rival app, Ape Search, by posting pornographic texts on the latter’s site.
About Homework Helper
Chinese students are usually handed lots of homework by their teachers, so it’s natural for some students to turn to internet technology to lessen their load. Internet companies such as Baidu decided that they can profit off the situation.
Baidu created the Homework Helper app (百度作业帮) in 2014, it functions like an online forum where students can post photos of their schoolwork questions or type them in manually, and other students can answer these questions for benefits. The app became very popular among students. In the mean time, similar apps were developed and published, such as Mr. Nerdy (学霸君) developed by Wenba Tech (问吧科技) and Ape Search (小猿搜题) developed by Chalk Network (粉笔网)’s Ape Database (猿题库).
How It All Started
On August 9, 2017, from 3PM to 4PM, multiple accounts posted pornographic texts, sex jokes and even booty call messages on Ape Search and Ape’s Late Night Forum, some had even gone as far as insulting the victims of the recent Jiuzhaigou earthquake or encourage students to write porn to levitate stress. These posts were brought to light by several bloggers which sparked outrage.
The very next day, the Chinese Education Television aired a news piece titled “Porn discovered in studying app, father of rebellious child filed for complaint but received no results”. In the broadcast, an unidentified man called “Mr. Li” explained how he caught his son (who was in fourth grade) secretly reading porn on the Ape Search app and has filed a complaint to Ape's customer service only to receive a vague reply that they’ll look into this matter. This news piece went viral and caused many media outlets to criticize Ape Search for its lack of scrutiny.
At first, the leadership of Ape Search assumed that the incident was simply caused by ineffective internal control and poor administrating. However, as the investigation continued, things started to get more and more complicated.
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A troll insulting earthquake victims by posting how he raped a female victim
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Another troll telling kids to write porn to "reduce stress".
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More inappropriate content, this time about smooching.
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A micro-blog exposing these unhealthy posts.
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More blogs exposing Ape Search, notice how they are all contain the same picture and are posted at the exact same time.
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The unidentified Mr. Li.
On August 14, Ape Search launched a press conference where Products Operations Director Zhang Xiaolong (张小龙) and Vice President Li Xin (李鑫) presented the investigation results:
Technicians had managed to uncover the numbers of two smart phones involved in sending the porn, their numbers are 15015750252 and 13549975198, both are traced back to Foshan, Guangdong Province. However, neither phones have their owners’ names verified, and when the phones logged in to Ape Search, their IP addresses are traced to Yiyang in Hunan Province instead.
It became evident that the two accounts where using fake IP addresses, further investigations show that neither phone numbers involved were legit as their operator status remained as “unsold”.
While IP addresses can be fabricated, the device number remains unique to every mobile phone. After further data mining, Ape Search employees came to the conclusion that all of the messages are actually sent from three phones that have the device numbers of:
By reviewing the devices’ visiting logs, they’ve discovered that the phones have logged into Ape Search for no less than 369 times during October 2016 and July 2017. All using the following IP address:
After closer examination, it was discovered that all 5 IP addresses originated from Baidu Homework Helper’s office. Since most commercial fiber have a fixed IP with the related company, this can be a highly damaging piece of evidence.
According to Zhang Xiaolong, multiple numbers traced to Homework Helper registered for Ape Search on the three culprit phones. With the help of an employee who has years of experience as a survey reporter, they called several suspected numbers under the guise of a kickstarting online education company. Using the headhunter recruitment tactic, they asked whether the receivers are working for BHH, all of them responded with “yes”. One of the highest ranking employees happens to be a vice president of BHH. Zhang said the phone recordings have been preserved for evidence and delivered to law enforcement agencies.
By comparing voice samples obtained from phone call recordings, Ape Search also reached the conclusion that Mr. Li, who appeared in CET’s news piece, is actually a BHH sales department employee named Mr. Wang.
Some of the blogs exposing Ape Search are also rather suspicious: they’re are all sent around 9:20 PM on August 9th, have highly similar content, and were published by commercial accounts. By collaborating with Sina, Ape Search managed to get information on a PR company that runs the various commercial accounts named Blue Cursor (蓝色光标), which happened to have a whole department dedicated to serving BHH.
Conclusion: the August 9 incident wasn’t a simple trolling event, instead it’s an organized corporate sabotage operation. Employees of BHH created this scandal themselves by first posting the messages, then use their connection to create fake news and distribute them via Blue Cursor who’s under their payroll.
“This is one of the most disgusting acts of defamation I have ever seen, and it’s happening in the education field, no less.” Expressed Li Xin: “As a fellow company who’s also engaged in the education business, Baidu Homework Helper’s approach has crossed the bottom line of general business conduct, and has even smeared the red line of the law.”
Baidu's Damage Control
Just a few hours after Ape Search’s press conference, Baidu Homework Helper posted an announcement on their official microblog account. Accusing Ape Search of false accusations and defamation in an attempt to destroy BHH’s reputation. They’ve also claimed that they have already carried out evidence preservation and will pursue legal responsibility through judicial methods, in order to safeguard their own rights and interests. However, Baidu gave no evidence that prove their claim of defamation in any way.
According to Zhang Xiaolong, Baidu representatives has earlier contacted Ape Search’s investors hoping to convince Ape to drop this incident and has threatened to take actions if they don’t comply. Zhang responded by telling the men from Baidu to “f**k off” and claimed that “Even if they come personally to my office to apologize, I won’t change my mind, those who employ acts of villainy must face the consequences, that will let the industry grow healthily once more.”
On August 17, Baidu made another statement on their official account, claiming that (Baidu) Homework Helper is an independent brand and business entity—there is no legal brand or business name of "Baidu Homework Helper”, and as an investor, Baidu has no involvement with Homework Helper’s regular operation. Baidu also denied any involvement with the conflict between them and Ape Search and any accusations of them ordering the acts sabotage are purely made up by the “unlawful likes” of Zhang Xiaolong who tied the Homework Helper brand and Baidu brand together. And finally Baidu hypocritically advised others to “focus on developing products and good service” and build “a healthier online environment for teenagers to learn and communicate”.
A problem that stands in front of Baidu’s denial is that literally everyone calls their service “Baidu Homework Helper”. This forces Baidu to hastily censor all media that contains the name “Baidu Homework Helper” to support their claim.
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Baidu Homework Helper's WeChat account, before the change.
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Same account after change. Note how all mentions of Baidu (百度) has disappeared.
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WeChat's notification on the change.
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Various sockpuppet accounts and drones defending Baidu
Baidu then sues Zhang Xiaolong, who has posted several blogs expressing open contempt towards Baidu; and self-published media CoolLab (酷玩实验室) who made an article criticizing Baidu for their unethical acts. Baidu accuses them of defamation and false accusation, demanding a composition of 10 million RMB (around $1.58 million) from Zhang and 5 million ($7.91K) from CoolLab (as well as labeling the latter as a malware site). Ape Search, in return, demanded a 1,501,0000 RMB ($2.37 million) retribution from Baidu.