Baidu is generally considered as the most powerful Chinese social media and technology company. However, the company is trapped in a severe crisis: its stock price dropped more than 10% in the first two days of this week in Nasdaq, while it is also under both the investigation of regulators and boycott of Chinese Internet users.
Why? Because Baidu “helped kill” a 21-year-old college student called Zexi Wei, who died of synovial sarcoma, a rare form of cancer, on April 12. Before his death, Zexi Wei wrote a long post on Chinese version of Quora–Zhihu, and detailed his experience of seeking treatment. After being diagnosed of synovial sarcoma, Mr.Wei didn’t give up and researched online to find out possible treatments. In a promoted search result from Baidu and some advertisements in Baidu Tieba, one of the largest social media websites in China, Mr.Wei learned of a hospital in Beijing that offered treatment for people with his condition. His family borrowed money to raise the more than $30,000 to pay for a type of immunotherapy, which is neither proven nor authorized in China. Mr. Wei’s form of cancer is generally treated with surgery and chemotherapy; however, when he found out this more reliable treatment method, his family was out of money and he was out of time. Just weeks before he died, Wei expressed anger at Baidu in his online post, stating that he regretted seeking a cure through the company’s search engine. “Baidu, we did not know how much evil it could do.” Wei wrote. “I only hope heaven doesn’t have Baidu,” one blogger wrote, mourning Wei’s death.
According to public information, Baidu is having a good business in 2016, whose revenue increases 24% in the first quarter of 2016. But it also worth noting that Baidu draws nearly all its revenues from ads, and around 30% of that comes from medical advertising, which causes the death of Mr.Wei.
I am not here to blame the business model of Baidu: for most social media and technology companies, including Facebook, Twitter, and Google, advertising revenue is a vital part of their annual earnings, and most Internet users understand that these companies sell advertisements to make profits. However, many people believe in those companies’ claims that strict due diligence is performed before posing ads. Baidu should especially bear in mind that it is the most important search engine and social media site to Chinese users since Google has been blocked for 6 years. Baidu currently controls 80% of the search results and flow of information for more than 700 million Chinese Internet users. Instead of performing due diligence, it runs the Ranking Auction model for advertisers–the higher price you pay, the more likely your advertisements will be viewed by Internet users. No wonder Baidu allows its social media sites and search results to become flooded with quacks and advertisements for unlicensed hospitals. For Mr.Wei, if he knew this fact, he would make a different choice.
From my personal experience, advertisement is an important part of social media websites. When I was applying for graduate school last year, I could see my webpage full of promotions of different school and programs, from Ivy League universities to the names I had never heard of–I was not sure whether they were really as prestigious and helpful as they claimed to be. When I was considering buying a car this year, my Facebook page was also filled with advertisements of different dealers and brands. At first, I was delighted to see those advertisements because they were all within my budget and gave me more choices. But later, I felt a little bit scared–these advertisers knew too much about me, and I was literally transparent to them.
Frankly speaking, a wrong graduate program or a wrong car is not that bad to me–it is just a matter of money, which can be earned back sooner or later. However, for Mr.Wei, wrong advertisements on search engines and social media cost his life, which will never be back again. While technology and social media companies are enjoying a boom in recent years, their sense of social responsibility and corporate values do not advance with the times–profit considerations are always placed over social responsibility.
This semester, I have learned so much fascinating things of social media, and their unparalleled influence in sports, business, communication and our future. However, I am always wondering whether we are controlled by social media as we are more dependent on it. In the future, I not only want to hear more about the “omnipotent” aspect of social media, but also want to hear more examples of their “omni-responsible” feature. After all, with greater power comes greater responsibility.