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2013-10-25
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Web of analysis

Global Times (2013-10-25 P12-13)
By Xuyang Jingjing
Surfing the Web at an Internet cafe in Taiyuan, Shanxi Province, on March 10, 2010. Photo: CFP

Surfing the Web at an Internet cafe in Taiyuan, Shanxi Province, on March 10, 2010. Photo: CFP


 
Sun Haidong is an "online public opinion analyst" at the public relations department of the Public Security Bureau in Jinan, Shandong Province.

His occupation has become the most controversial profession in China at the moment.

Sun spends his time online, looking for complaints, problems and negative or positive comments related to the bureau. It's his job as an "online public opinion analyst", or wangluo yuqing fenxishi, to gather such information and report to the decision makers in the bureau.

Although there are an estimated millions of people doing similar work online, Sun Haidong stands out because he has been certified by the government. Authorities are starting to recognize this job as a vocation and are offering training and vocational certificates for "online public opinion analysts."

Observers and those who work in the industry say there's growing demand for such analysts as the 591 million Web users in China gradually become more vocal in expressing discontent on channels such as Weibo. Efforts to officially train and certify such people are giving legitimacy to what was once a shadowy job.

Guiding public opinion

About 30 or 40 people at different departments of the Jinan Public Security Bureau are assigned to monitor the Internet as an extra assignment. The bureau started to monitor online public opinion in 2009 when the city was about to host the 11th National Games.

"Our job was to gather the public's feedback about the Games, find out if there are any negative things, then handle the problems people might be having and set up a positive image of the police," said Sun.

Sun is among the first in China to get a vocational certificate as an "Internet public opinion analyst" issued by CETTIC, a center in charge of vocational training affiliated with the Ministry of Human Resources.

The bureau sent Sun to a five-day training course last December. It was jointly held by the Ministry of Human Resources and ceirp.cn, a website affiliated with the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology. The program wasn't widely publicized.

Sun said more than 40 people from various government agencies went through the intensive training, which cost about 5,000 yuan ($820) and ran from early morning late into the night. By the end of the week, they took a test, and two months later Sun received a certificate through the mail.

Lecturers included media practitioners, university professors and officials at Internet management agencies, and the five-day training was heavy on theory, focusing on questions like "What is public opinion?" There were also case studies and lectures on how to write a public opinion report, said Sun.

The Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security is cooperating with the Online Public Opinion Monitoring Center of People's Daily to provide vocational training and examinations for online public opinion analysts. The first five-day training last week charged nearly 8,000 yuan, not including accommodations and meals. It sold out quickly. The center soon announced a second week-long training session in mid-November, which cost 9,800 yuan, including meals and accommodation.

The 36-hour course includes public opinion theories, new media introduction and handling of public opinion crises, among other things.

The center declined a request for an interview.

Last year the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) also set up an exam center for online public opinion analysts. Trainees also get a certificate after a five-day course.

Yeetec, a Qingdao-based information security company, started to cooperate with the MIIT last November to host training sessions. Since May, they have held four sessions and trained about 300 people, who came from different government agencies, according to the person in charge of organizing the training at Yeetec, who asked not to be named.

Protecting reputations

Sun has helped handle quite a number of cases that involved an agitated public. One incident occurred not long after he was assigned the task of monitoring public opinion.

On August 17, 2009, Web users started to post on Weibo that police were beating up a grandmother and forcing her onto her knees. Later pictures showed crowds gathering and people with blood on their faces.

That night, the Jinan Public Security Bureau posted eight messages explaining the situation on their microblog. According to the police, a warden at the provincial women's prison had a disagreement with the couple who runs a bicycle maintenance stand when having her electric bicycle repaired. The warden then called up her husband, and they beat up the owners of the maintenance stand. When police arrived at the scene and tried to take away the offenders, some bystanders tried to stop them and a scuffle ensued.

At a little past 4 am next day, the police posted two messages on their microblog, announcing that the police had detained the couple and would hold them for 15 days, following the law.

Sun monitored the entire incident. After noticing an increasing number of similar posts on Weibo about the police beating people up, Sun reported the situation to his supervisors, who agreed that they should follow up and update the case online immediately.

Many commended the police for responding speedily, while others continued to condemn police brutality. Some people had shot videos of the incident and posted them online, though the videos have been blocked or deleted.

Sun is satisfied about how he handled the case, and said that the decision to punish the couple was not swayed by public outrage.

"The goal here is to solve their problems in a calm manner and establish our image," he said. He described the role of a public opinion analyst as a middleman, who hands over people's cases to the right department to handle and get official feedback to the public.

An industry is born

In early October, The Beijing News reported that there are about 2 million online public opinion analysts, though the story didn't provide a source for the figure.

"I don't know where that figure came from, but it is a promising profession, because government agencies at all levels and companies need such people," said Duan Saimin, chief of the public opinion center of xinhuanet.com, hosted by the Xinhua News Agency.

Duan believes that online public opinion analysis is similar to market research or consulting, which regularly conducts polls or surveys on a certain product or issue.

Before the vocational certificate program, many media organizations have set up public opinion centers to gauge the public's reaction to a certain news event or provide suggestions to the authorities. Many people working in the industry also come from a journalism or communications background.

Founded in 2003, the public opinion center of xinhuanet.com provides public opinion reports to central government agencies. In the past two years, the center has moved to promoting their public opinion analytic tools, especially to local governments and companies where there's a growing need, said Duan.

There are tools that gather massive amounts of information online and automatically sort out different types of viewpoints. It's after such preliminary analysis that professional, experienced analysts come in. "Experienced analysts then need to go through the primary results, see what's behind the opinions, analyze how things might play out in the future, and give some suggestions about handling the issue," said Duan.

In 2012 Duan's center designed an online opinion monitoring system for county-level governments. According to its official introduction, the system collects information from tens of thousands of news portals every day and could also target local websites, forums and Weibo to provide targeted monitoring and alert clients to any emergencies. The center can also provide professional help to local governments in case of a public opinion crisis.

The government is listening

Last week the center hosted a five-day training course on the importance of doing a public opinion analysis before major projects. About 50 senior officials from local governments, who are highly involved in decision making, attended the training to learn how to handle emergencies and how to collect and analyze public opinion at different stages, said Duan.

Recent years saw a soaring number of "Not in my backyard" protests against projects that are economically beneficial but potentially harmful to the environment. In most cases, the public are not consulted before the projects get the green light from a local government.

The main reason for protests and riots over local projects is a lack of communication and transparency before the project was approved, said Duan.

There are signs that the authorities are paying more attention to public opinion, especially online. The phrase "public opinion struggles" has become a buzzword on official media outlets which published editorials and opinion articles echoing the government's instructions to take the initiative in positive propaganda.

Since August, the authorities have been cracking down on online rumors and "big V's" on Weibo. A "big V" is an intellectual or celebrity with a "V" next to his or her account, indicating a verified identity. These people have millions of followers on Weibo, and their posts can be reposted tens of thousands of times in a short time.

Since then, a dozen of people who have openly criticized the government have been arrested on various charges such as soliciting and disturbing public order.

In September, the Supreme Court announced a judicial explanation stipulating that if a slanderous post is viewed over 5,000 times or reposted over 500 times, the user who posted the content could be charged with slander.

A 16-year-old student in Gansu Province was soon detained because his post was retweeted over 500 times. The student commented on police conduct following the death of a local man. He was later released after his case led to online outrage.

In the end, it's the decision-makers who determine what to do with public opinions, and for some observers, that is cause for concern.

It all depends on the intentions of the company or government agency, said Jason Ng, author of Blocked on Weibo. If their goal is to provide better, more efficient responses to user feedback, that's one thing, but it's quite another if the goal is to gather a list of names of critics in order to punish them in the future, he said.

After the news that "online public opinion analyst" is now a recognized vocation, many Web users joked that the authorities are recognizing the "50-cent party," Internet commentators hired by governments to sway public opinion online.

"We are not the '50-cent party,' nor are we trying to suppress public expression," said Sun. "We want to find out the truth and help solve people's problems."

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