Mystery of the Chinese zombie Yalies

BEIJING: U.S. universities have responded to China’s exploding demand for American higher education with branch campuses and aggressive recruiting. Now, some are trying to boost their brands by casting photos and other snippets of campus life out into the confounding sea of Chinese social media.

How confounding? Consider the mystery of the Chinese Yalezombies.

That’s “zombies” as in “zombie followers” on Sina Weibo — the hugely popular “weibo,” or microblogging, site that’s roughly akin to Twitter and has attracted more than 500 million followers since debuting in 2009. A common feature on Chinese social media, these zombie accounts could represent actual users who lurk inactively online. But often they’re fake, mass-produced accounts that mindlessly follow (hence the name “zombie”) and artificially boost another account’s follower numbers — and thus prestige.

Since its debut in December, Yale’s new Sina Weibo account — sharing photos and other assorted items from its Ivy-covered Connecticut campus — has exploded in popularity, apparently far faster than any other U.S. institution’s.

While other prominent universities have patiently accumulated at most a few thousand followers in more than a year of operation, Yale’s been adding nearly that many daily, and has passed 140,000. The only other foreign university even remotely close to that figure is, oddly, Peoples’ Friendship University of Russia. Yale’s Weibo account is ranked 30th in popularity among educational institutions overall, better even than several well-known domestic institutions like Nanjing and Zhejiang universities.

True, Ivy League Yale does have a famous name, longtime ties to China (it graduated the first Chinese person to earn a degree from a U.S. college in 1854) and 1,000-plus Chinese students and scholars currently on campus. That likely explains some of the growth. But Yale also appears to have attracted a mysteriously large battalion of walking dead accounts, with pages and pages of followers that rarely if ever post themselves and have few if any followers. Analytic software also points to some geographic oddities that could also raise suspicions of fake accounts, and many followers have disabled the feature allowing them to receive private messages.

Whence these zombie Yalies? After inquiries from The Associated Press, a Yale spokesman acknowledged some of the followers could be fake, but says that’s not Yale’s doing. He says the university isn’t buying followers, which can be purchased for a few cents each online.

“We don’t do it, we don’t promote it, we don’t encourage it, we don’t like it,” university spokesman Michael Morand said, adding: “Not to be cheeky about it, but it’s sort of like ‘Newsflash: Spam is inherent on the Internet.'”

Zinch, the marketing company that works with hundreds of overseas institutions in China and runs Yale’s Sina Weibo feed, also denies purchasing followers. It too says it’s mystified by Yale’s growth.

Sina, the company that operates Sina Weibo, has promoted Yale on its campus page and recommended it to new users, spokesman Mao Taotao said. But that wouldn’t explain why Yale has so many inactive followers. And he denied Sina adds followers to any account.

“To provide netizens with a clean online environment, Sina Weibo eliminates rubbish users in a timely manner,” he said in a written statement.

Another possibility: Companies that specialize in selling zombie followers may be signing their zombies up to follow Yale and other accounts to make them appear more real, said Cao Di, an analyst for the Shanghai-based Internet consulting firm iResearch.

In short, the bottom of the zombie Yalie mystery may be unreachable. And the whole matter could fairly be called a harmless curiosity.

Still, it offers a glimpse of just how swampy the new landscape of Chinese social media can be, and highlights some risks for overseas universities and companies. Accusations of inflated Twitter accounts have embarrassed politicians and corporations. In academia, concerns have been raised on many campuses — including Yale — about the dangers as universities expand their reach into foreign cultures.

Yale could lose face in China if it’s believed to be artificially inflating its numbers there, said Jason Lane, a State University of New York at Albany expert on internationalization efforts by U.S. universities. But more broadly, he said, the issue highlights how U.S. universities risk losing control of their brands and reputations in unfamiliar environments. Those risks are compounded by outsourcing the communications work to companies like Zinch or other local experts due to language barriers.

“Given the criticality of the Chinese market to the international dimensions of these institutions, I think it’s even more alarming that you’re releasing control of this aspect of your brand,” Lane said. “Part of oversight is knowing what they’re saying but it’s also a cultural issue of not really knowing how it’s playing.”

“This is part of the learning curve,” he added. “There are bound to be some hiccups along the way.”