Baidu Scandal Brings Business Ethics to the Forefront

China’s biggest search engine Baidu is under scrutiny after the death of a 21-year-old cancer patient who was allegedly given false hope for getting better because of Baidu’s paid search results. Many netizens blame Baidu for offering advertised space to fraudulent doctors. At the core of the online discussion lies the question: to what extent is Baidu responsible for the health of China’s netizens?

Wei Zexi (魏则西) was a 21-year old student suffering a rare form of cancer called synovial sarcoma. After several unsuccessful treatments, he turned to search engine Baidu. Through one of Baidu’s paid results, Wei found a treatment at the Beijing Armed Police Corps No. 2 Hospital (武警二院) he thought could help him. According to CRI News, his friends and family came up with the 200,000 RMB (31,000US$) for the treatment, that later turned out to be ineffective and highly contested. Wu Zexi has since passed away last month.

The Wei Zexi Incident

The matter became trending on Sina Weibo on May 2 under the hashtag of ‘The Wei Zexi Incident’ (#魏则西事件#), with thousands of netizens blaming Baidu for offering a platform to shady health care providers.

According to the Wall Street Journal, the treatment that was advertised on Baidu was promoted as “the world’s most advanced”.

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The family of Wei Zexi is heartbroken after the student’s death. Chinese media posted multiple pictures of the day of Wei Zexi’s funeral.

 
Before Wei Zexi died, he posted his story on China’s popular Q&A website Zhihu on February 26. In his post, he strongly criticized the hospital that treated him, and also condemned Baidu for providing them a platform. The post attracted many reactions in late February, and resurged now that news of Wei’s death became trending.

Chinese news site The Paper spoke to Wei’s mother, who told them that Wei had not posted his critique to make money, but for the sake of warning others not to rely on Baidu for medical information.

Paid Search

Baidu (百度, literally meaning: ‘hundred times’) is China’s equivalent to Google – which is blocked in mainland China. Although there are multiple search engine services in China, such as Sogou or 360, Baidu is the market leader. Similar to Google’s ‘Adwords’, Baidu makes big money by offering different kinds of advertising, including so-called Paid Search.

For Paid Search, advertisers can choose keywords that potential customers may use to search the products or services they offer. Their ads are then displayed at the top of the ‘related search’ result lists.

When searching for ‘the flu’ on Baidu, for example, search results will include an ad for Vicks and different links to medical clinics selling medicine or providing treatment. In Wei’s case, when he searched for his rare type of cancer, he got different sites promoting the treatment at the Beijing hospital. Only when one takes a closer look it says in small characters that it concerns a link that is ‘promoted’ (Paid Search).

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It is different for Google Adwords, that has stricter policies about the promotion of healthcare and medicine on Google services:

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Baidu’s social responsibility

This is the second time this year that Baidu is under scrutiny for its business ethics when it comes to advertising and medical information.

According to an online survey by Sina News, nearly half of China’s netizens (47.5%) think that Baidu should not allow medical care institutions to advertise on its search engine pages. 38.4% of the surveyees say that Baidu should inspect the quality of hospitals that appear in their search results. Only 2.8% of participants say that Baidu had no responsibility in the matter.

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Many Weibo netizens vent their frustrations about Baidu and hope for a return of Google to China: “If Google would come back to China, I would never use Baidu again,” one netizen says. Other commenters remark: “Compared to Baidu, I have more trust in Google,” and: “Let Google come back!”

There are also netizens who think it is unfair that Baidu gets all the blame for fraudulent hospitals. “Why is Baidu being targeted for something that our administration system should be responsible for?”

Drop in stocks

For Baidu, the scandal is not over yet; its CEO will be summoned by Chinese authorities for further investigation of Baidu’s business ethics. The Baidu scandal has also affected the company’s stocks, that dropped almost 8 per cent after the incident.

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For many netizens, the ‘Wei Zexi Incident’ has gone beyond Baidu, and is now about the limitations of China’s internet in general. As one netizen says: “People used to say, ‘we don’t need Google – we’ve got Baidu, we don’t need Facebook because we have Weibo, we don’t need YouTube, we’ve got Youku – it’s ok, it’s not like we could die for using China’s own internet!’ But apparently, we can die for using it.”

– By Manya Koetse

Featured image: by Weibo user Duanzi.

©2016 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

Author

About the author: Manya Koetse is the editor-in-chief of www.whatsonweibo.com. She is a writer and consultant (Sinologist, MPhil) on social trends in China, with a focus on social media and digital developments, Sino-Japanese relations and gender issues. Contact at manya@whatsonweibo.com, or follow on Twitter.

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1 comments

Baidu has issues; it is absolutely China-biased, and while the advert system may not be as strict, the same procedure would show up in the list of options and alternatives no matter what.

What Wei is not doing is taking responsible for his own short-comings, and what should be at the fore here is the lack of effective researching and critical thinking skills taught to students. I had to institute researching and citation as a course for my freshmen because it did not exist and no one taught it until maybe their 4th year; this is certainly lacking in education.

On top of this, many Chinese medical practices are questionable in general; there are doctors who promote C-sections even knowing that natural birth is preferred and has fewer complications because it is more profitable; other doctors are promoting a pharmacological solution to problems that do not need them because it is more profitable; doctors take bribes to arrange for treatments (a friend who severed his patellar ligament in Beijing had to pay 2000 RMB in gas cards to just to get into a hospital bed, even though he had insurance to cover all the expenses of the surgery and hospital stay). This to me is less an issue of Baidu and more an issue of a profit-driven, eminently corrupt, and generally ignorant medical system (and I say this as someone with a medical background who has had to use the system in Beijing both for myself and with friends).

Wei was foolish; where was his due diligence? Yes, I get that he was dying and looking for solutions, but how may solutions did he look for? Did he check this procedure with other doctors at other hospitals? Or, like many of my students, did he simply jump on the first answer he found and followed it through to its natural result?

If anything, this shows shortcomings in both medicine and education. Let’s stop pointing the finger at Baidu (it’s a shitty carpenter who blames his tools) and start pointing the finger where it belongs.

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