Ever since Robin Li, CEO of Baidu, got a bottle of water emptied on his head, things have been changing in his company. The activist, whose motives remain unknown, pulled the tech company back to the center of heated discussions. Fresh announcements about autonomous driving and DuerOS 5.0 all drifted to the background as we watched the startled billionaire dramatically wipe dripping water off his hair and composedly reply in English, “What’s your problem?” The perpetrator of this innocent attack was swiftly put in custody, and five days later sent back to his hometown in Shaanxi province.
Whether the incident was a planned vendetta or a publicity stunt, remains unknown. What’s clear is that it managed to subtly and very ironically disrupt the existing hierarchical order. In any other situation it would be very unlikely that a commoner from Shaanxi could stand on the same stage with someone like Robin Li, let alone challenge him to display his English speaking skills.
It all looks too much like the episode of Black Mirror, in which a desperate Uber driver takes an intern hostage, demanding to speak to the founder and CEO of Smithereens, a fictional social media company. The desperado believes that their app is responsible for his girlfriend’s death. Ignoring all the objections from his subordinates, the CEO of the company eventually picks up the phone and talks to the guy.
The water pouring incident started new debates over the social responsibilities today’s tech firms carry. Most netizens praised the offender. People have not forgotten Baidu‘s notorious wrongdoings, including the story of Wei Zexi, that shook the Chinese Internet three years ago.
Wei Zexi was a diligent computer science graduate of 22 years old, whose single goal was to receive good grades and go to America for his senior year. Unfortunately doctors discovered a malignant tumour in his body that was corrupting soft tissues surrounding all bones and organs, a synovial sarcoma. His parents traveled across the country, searching for hospitals that could cure it, but the efforts were fruitless.
Wei searched on Baidu and stumbled upon the so-called biological immunotherapy in the Armed Police Force hospital in Beijing. Wei and his parents went there to seek help. According to the doctor in charge of the procedure, this tumor curing technique was developed in Stanford, with a success rate of 90 percent. He convinced the parents that the disease was curable, but the treatment was costly. Wei’s parents borrowed money from relatives, only to see the situation deteriorate. Wei’s classmates did a Google search and sent requests to several American hospitals. It turned out that biological immunotherapy has long been discarded abroad, but in Baidu‘s search-list it occupied the most prominent position. On April 12, 2016, Wei died.
Immediately after the tragedy, Baidu took emergency PR measures announcing, “We have proceeded with timely examination of the search results. This hospital is certified as Grade 3A Hospital (the top standard public hospital).” All the ads relating to the matter were hastily pulled from the website. Essentially, what Baidu tried to say was that according to their sources the hospital was good, and it was not Baidu‘s fault that Wei’s family bet heir son’s health on a phony curing method. Does this wording sound familiar?
Some argue that people should learn not to put all their trust in what’s written on the Internet. However a tech company, with such massive influence and technological capabilities, should bear in mind its social responsibilities. Not misleading the public by feeding on fake advertisements and paid search listing, especially in such sensitive areas as medical treatment and other matters of life and death should definitely be paramount for any company trusted by that many people. Setting up decent moral standards means so much more than just donating millions of dollars to charities.
See also: Baidu Apologizes for Posting on Behalf of Grieving Father
Same goes for their recent fake posting on behalf of a dead girl’s father. According to official announcements, “The editor seriously violated the management regulations of Baidu News, which hurt the feelings of Zixin’s family and the general public. We feel deeply sorry and ashamed. We have deleted this post, immediately dismissed the editor in charge, and will fully review the Baidu news management system.” It’s hard to grasp if these indifferent and formal words, are really addressed to the girl or the grieving father. It is more likely, that Baidu‘s only concern was its tainted reputation.
“Dismiss”, “delete”– it’s never about erasing what’s wrong, it’s about learning the lessons, and reinforcing regulations to avoid similar mistakes.
A few months ago Mi Meng, one of China’s most influential bloggers, walked into the same water. She published articles under clickbait titles that had nothing to do with their content. It worked for a while, until a moving post titled The Death of a Humble Gaokao Champion was found to be fabricated just to garner views and attract advertisers.
If Baidu persists with what it’s doing, it will be no different from the likes of Mi Meng.
In reality, what makes all of those big companies influential also makes them vulnerable. If you are only a blogger with a limited number of fans, it’s fine if something you said or posted was to invigorate traffic or make money. In that episode of Black Mirror, should Smithereens take the blame for the death of offender’s girlfriend? Some may argue that it is common sense that people shouldn’t check their phones while driving. Others will say that this sort of internet addiction is inevitable, since product managers design apps to be additive. The death of the driver’s girlfriend might not be the company’s or CEO’s fault directly, but it is their fault that they did not care enough about the responsibility they bear.
In recent years, Baidu has indeed been trying hard to rectify its reputation. Today even some massage parlors in Beijing employing blind masseurs are equipped with Baidu’s Xiaodu voice assistants. At the Baidu Create Conference this summer, Robin Li revealed that since 2016 his company’s program “Baidu AI Finding the Missing” has reunited over 6700 families. Robin spent half of the speech explaining the essence of “Do Better”, claiming it was his original incentive behind founding the company. Let’s hope he is not bluffing this time.