Chinese Officials Flock to Microblog as Weibo Shapes Opinion

The number of verified government accounts on China’s most-popular microblog service tripled in a year, underscoring how Communist Party officials have come to recognize social media’s power in controlling public opinion.

Verified government accounts on Weibo, the Twitter-like service run by Sina Corp., rose to 60,000 from 18,132 through the 12 months ending Oct. 31, according to a report released this month by a People’s Daily Online agency that monitors public opinion. The total number of users on the service doubled to 424 million in the 12 months through Sept. 30.

The Chinese government has become a savvy user of the Internet, which it censors heavily to control public opinion, said Doug Young, author of the book “The Party Line: How the Media Dictates Public Opinion in Modern China.” Authorities allow conversations online to continue on approved topics while deleting or blocking posts and other information it deems detrimental to the Communist Party’s ability to rule.

“The propaganda ministry is very active about staying in touch with social media and traditional media, updating them about what is and isn’t allowed,” Young, also a journalism professor at Fudan University in Shanghai, said in a phone interview. “They watch out for this stuff, and if they see a sign of trouble, a particular demonstration taking shape that they don’t like, they’ll just grab the phone and call Sina.”

Internet Regulation

The report on Weibo usage was released Dec. 3. The state-owned People’s Daily newspaper published front-page editorials this past week calling for more regulation of the web and saying people want the “chaotic Internet” to be controlled.

“Regulating the Internet by law is an urgent matter for China,” one editorial said.

Zhu Huaxin, the co-author of the report and secretary of the office at People’s Daily Online that monitors public opinion, declined to comment on the data, saying he wasn’t authorized to speak with foreign media. Zhu’s office began releasing reports on government Weibo use last year.

Mao Taotao, a Sina spokesman, didn’t answer an e-mail or calls to his mobile phone and landline seeking comment.

It’s still comparatively rare for individual government officials to set up accounts, said Lo Shih-hung, an associate professor at the National Chung Cheng University’s Department of Communication in Taiwan. Lo estimates the total number of microblogs verified as being owned by government officials and agencies across all service providers has reached about 70,000.

Most Influential

Chen Shiqu, director of the Ministry of Public Security’s anti-human trafficking office, was ranked in the report as the government official with the most-influential microblog based on metrics including numbers of followers, volume of posts and the effectiveness of communication. Chen had 3.18 million followers as of yesterday.

The report showed that lower level officials are more likely than more senior officials to set up public accounts. Only 34 individuals identified by the report were provincial or ministry level government officials.

The government can stifle information even as it pushes its version of events through social media, said David Bandurski, a researcher at the University of Hong Kong’s China Media Project.

“Social media are increasingly where stories break, and where public opinion is formed,” Bandurski said. “This is the major reason why government Weibo accounts are growing rapidly, because they are one key way the government can stay on top of breaking stories and try to head off unwanted news, rumors or speculation.”

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