Chinese TV caught asking celebrities to bash Apple

March 16, 2013, 6:30 PM UTC

Peter Ho

FORTUNE — Are the anti-Apple (AAPL) messages that appear on social media — including blogs like this one — the work of saboteurs paid by Cupertino’s competitors?

I’ve often heard this claim, but never seen any hard evidence, which is what makes the story of China’s “820 Party” so interesting.

The tale unfolded on Tea Leaf Nation, an English-language Webzine that tracks general news out of China by scouring Chinese-language social media.

On Friday TLN reported that CCTV, China’s powerful state television, had put Apple in the cross hairs of its much-feared Ides of March consumer protection show — an annual TV event watched by hundreds of million of viewers. CCTV’s claim was that Apple had been discriminating against Chinese users by swapping new iPhones returned for repair with refurbished iPhones with shorter warranties. On Sina Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, there were immediate expressions of outrage and calls for an Apple boycott.

Then the story got weird.

In a follow-up posted Saturday, Tea Leaf Nation reported that CCTV had been caught encouraging prominent social media celebrities to post those expressions of outrage on Sina Weibo. Their proof: A message posted by Peter Ho, a Taiwanese-American singer/movie star and spokesperson for Samsung Galaxy, that inadvertently included CCTV’s instructions:

#315isLive# Wow, Apple has so many tricks in its after-sales services. As an Apple fan, I’m hurt. You think this would be acceptable to Steve Jobs? Or to those young people who sold their kidneys [to buy iPads]? It’s really true that big chains treat customers poorly. Post around 8:20.

Ho later claimed his phone had been stolen and that someone else had posted that message. But by then “Post around 8:20” had gone viral, and other members of the so-called 820 Party had been identified. There ensued a race to repost their messages before they were deleted.

You can read all about it in Tea Leaf Nation’s Prominent Weibo Users Paid to Bash Apple? Introducing China’s ’820 Party’.

Thanks to Boxer Conan for the tip.