Shadows of Censorship? Really???
Two weeks back, Russia Today broke a story with the title “China employs 2 million analysts to monitor web activity.” From that, we get a plethora of dark articles about how bad the Chinese government is. For example, from the BBC, we get an article titled “China employs two million microblog monitors state media say“:
More than two million people in China are employed by the government to monitor web activity, state media say, providing a rare glimpse into how the state tries to control the internet.
China’s hundreds of millions of web users increasingly use microblogs to criticise the state or vent anger.
Recent research suggested Chinese censors actively target social media.
The report by the Beijing News said that these monitors were not required to delete postings.
They are “strictly to gather and analyse public opinions on microblog sites and compile reports for decision-makers”, it said. It also added details about how some of these monitors work.
China rarely reveals any details concerning the scale and sophistication of its internet police force.
It is believed that the two million internet monitors are part of a huge army which the government relies on to control the internet.
The government is also to organise training classes for them for the first time from 14 to 18 October, the paper says.
But it is not clear whether the training will be for existing monitors or for new recruits.
Topics cover a wide range – from personal hobbies, health to celebrity gossip and food safety but they talso include politically sensitive issues like official corruption.
Postings deemed to be politically incorrect are routinely deleted.
From CNN, we get an article titled “China ’employs 2 million to police internet’“:
China has around two million people policing public opinion online, according to a state media report that sheds light on the country’s secretive internet surveillance operations.
Dubbed “public opinion analysts,” they work for the Chinese Communist Party’s propaganda department, major Chinese news websites and commercial corporations, according to The Beijing News.
Using keyword searches, their job is to sift the millions of messages being posted on popular social media and microblogging sites such as Sina Weibo, regarded as China’s equivalent to Twitter. They then compile reports for decision makers, the report said.
The number of people monitoring internet activity to prevent criticism of the government and social unrest has been a subject of discussion for years, said David Bandurski, editor of the University of Hong Kong’s China Media Project.
“Two million sounds like a big number,” he said. “But I think it’s clear that the government will do what it takes to monitor any potential collective action on social media.”
The ranks of online censors outnumber China’s active armed forces, which total 1.5 million, according to the Ministry of National Defense.
Other articles goes along similar lines, with titles such as:
- “China pays 2 million to monitor Internet” from France24;
- “Chinese Government employs two million people to censor the internet” from the Drum;
- “China’s Internet Army Could Have as Many as Two Million Censors” from Gizmodo;
- “China’s Internet Censors Outnumber PLA Troops” from the Diplomat;
- “Two million monitoring Internet in China: state media” from the Space Daily.
From articles sensationally suggesting the Chinese government employing two million mindless drones to monitor the web to China building an Internet army to censor its citizens, similar parroting of fear seem to have arisen in the Western internet forums, blogs, tweets, etc. – with all slamming China as a version of nineteen eighty-four on steroids.
Except if anyone bothers to read the original article, one finds that the program revealed here actually aligns more – if anything, for the lack of better words – more with democratic rather than autocratic or even censorship values. If one bothers to read the original Beijing news article (titled “网络舆情分析师：要做的不是删帖”), one would see another example of how distorted and one-dimensional reporting about China in the West has become.
Even the original RT article, which for the most part stayed close to the facts, was not immune to slandering tones. For example, what else can a title like “China employs 2 million analysts to monitor web activity” convey?
As the original Beijing news article made clear, the so-called “public opinion analysts” is not a government position per se. It is a general profession that recently arose with the growth of the Internet and social media. The original Beijing News article clearly puts the 2 million in context as an overall number for an industry. The article also makes clear that the industry serves both private and government clients. While the government is an increasingly important driver of the industry, the government is a recent comer.
The RT article in its first line stated “Two million analysts are employed by China’s state and commercial clients to monitor people’s opinions posted on social networks, state media reported. Considered a means of feedback, some such analysts report to China’s leaders daily.” But what does “China’s state and commercial clients” mean? In today’s atmosphere of suspicion and prejudice against everything Chinese (see, e.g., some of our posts on the U.S. prejudice against huawei), this all just feeds into the government and their cohorts are bound in a big conspiracy to carry out censorship. But the original Beijing News article mentions nothing of the sort, in fact, it mentions the program as anti-censorship of sorts.
I mean, really, what does “China’s state and commercial clients” mean? In the West, we have pollsters and PR firms. We have public figures and private entities who care about reputation and opinions. Entire industries have arisen to take polls, surveys, do “market research.” Entire industries have also arisen to deal with public relations. In the 2012 election, the Internet and social media became an important platform for mobilizing (or manipulating, depending on your worldview) the vote. Yet would it be helpful if we blindly total up all pollsters, survey takers, PR firms, and social media wonks – a big number, I am sure – and label them as catering to “U.S. state and commercial clients”?
For what it’s worth, the original Beijing News article is an optimistic, positive take on a trend toward harnessing the Internet in China for a more enlightened society and more responsive government. The article describes how people in all levels of society, government included (this is, after all, Beijing News – not unlike, say, Washington Post), to harness systematically public data. The effort is not about private or illicit snooping or monitoring – or targeting or taking actions against individuals. Instead it is about ferreting out important trends and big pictures from Internet forums, blogsphere, social platforms, etc. to get a better, more objective feel of what people are truly thinking, what people really care about, what things are troubling the people, etc. Yet that very essence is lost through the translations.
All this too reminds me how often the Western media picks out quotes here and there from Sino weibo or other Internet forums to represent allegedly the typical Chinese perspective when, to me, they are clearly (intentional or not) picking out – if not outright fabricating 1 – the most sensational, extremist quotes.
It also might explain why Western politics have been so polarized. When the media (or anyone, actually) can pick out any quotes and spin it as the people’s voice, anything goes. It explains how sensational smear ads, campaigns, and rhetoric have come to dominate in Western elections – where the problem of high cost elections represent but the tip of the iceberg of the democratic malaise. We are into an era where manipulating and hijacking the people’s voice is deeply and indispensably ingrained in the democratic fabric.
It should be refreshing to see attempts to gather people’s opinion in a more scientific, objective way. Alas, since the idea started in China, it has to be distorted, politicized and caricatured in the West…
Anyways, below is my translation of the original Beijing News article. You decide for yourself whether this story is about the shadows of censorship – or the growing vines of truer, more responsive democracy – i.e., meritocratic democracy, as we like to say here …
■ Key points/Announcement
From October 14 – 18, Peoples’ Daily Online Public Monitoring Department will be holding a first session in public opinion analyst training. The session will include training in public opinion analysis and assessment, public crisis management and response. The training will include eight modules.
Upon completion of the program, successful trainees will receive an Internet public opinion analyst identification card and certificate.
The job of the “Internet public opinion analyst” is to collect views and attitudes of Internet users, organize them into reports, and submit them to the decision-makers. At present, there are some 200 million people engaged in this profession.
As an introduction, these people are distributed in the party propaganda department, web portal enterprises, commercial companies and other institutions. Recently, the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Employment Training Center and the People Daily Online jointly launched the “Internet public opinion analyst vocational training programs,” officially marking “Internet public opinion analyst” as a publicly recognized profession.
According to the ethos of the new profession, the proper way to respond to public opinion is not to hide, or to evade, or to shield those in charge from potential problems, but to face and identify and then to solve promptly the problems.
新京报记者 涂重航 实习生 徐欧露 北京报道
Beijing News reporter Tu Zhong Hang,Intern Xu Ou Lu in Beijing
Tang Xiaotao work less than half a day sitting in front of the computer. He would enter specific keywords set by the customer into a special software, monitor negative public opinion to the customer, download related information, and create and upload reports to the customer.
Dan Xue is the Deputy Secretary-General of the Peoples’ Daily Online Public Opinion Monitoring Department. The monitoring software they use is even more advanced, running on almost a thousand processors. The software can even be used to monitor public opinion on websites hosted outside the country.
Yan Ming (pseudo name) is the Director of the Internet Information Center of a certain county in Henan. People in his department do not use fancy software. Instead, every morning, people go online to Baidu forums, Tianya, and microblogging sites and search for their county’s name to see if there might be problems. They would then compile a report for the county leadership.
The work here is all related to gathering and assessing public opinion. The goal is to come up with a comprehensive most up-to-date summary of public opinion as they exist on the Internet.
Deny the existence of the micro-blogging community, Violent surging of negative public opinion.
”Internet public opinion analysts” have been referred by some as “Internet Secret Agents.” Tang Xiaotao believes this results from a complete misunderstanding. The work of the public opinion analyst involves using software that grabs public information readily available on the Internet. For example, for a company client, an analyst might enter the company name, and the software will display relevant information (such as public opinion, reputational information, etc.) relating to the company that on the Internet.
The software will then summarize information, indicating, for example, whether the information was originally found in “Internet forums,” “micro-blogs”, “news portals”, “videos,” etc. The software will sort and display various statistics relating to the information, in the form of histograms, charts and so on.
The software Tang Xiaotao uses can even track public opinion relating to specific topics. For example, one might enter “H7N9,” and the software will follow relevant threads on Internet forums. One might set a reference traffic volume of 100 points, and if traffic reaches 40 points, the system will send off an alert, to draw the analyst’s attention to the development of potentially relevant public opinion.
Tang Xiaotao studied Water Management in College. In 2011, he began an internship where he came in contact with public opinion analyst work.
Deputy Secretary-General Dan XueGang of the People’s Daily Opinion Monitor Department recalled that it was since 2007, when the Internet was recognized as a platform where public opinion can independently arise, that interest in public opinion as expressed on the Net really took off. That year, the He Zhuan Yao and Hua Nan Hu Incidents broke, and opinions on thet Net came to a boil.
So began the demand for Internet public opinion analyst collect public opinion on the Internet. At that time, people relied primarily on using search engines such as Baidu and Google to gather opinions on the web.
Things changed in 2010. That year began the era of “microblogging.” Microblogging allows users to spread opinions, views in an geometrically amplified and instantaneous manner. With no more than six people – sometimes no more than three – connect any two strangers in the world, microblogging became an unprecedented platform for formulating and spreading public opinion.
According to Director of Xinhua Public Opinion Monitoring and Analysis Center Duan Bao Ming, “One cannot get a firm grasp of what the public is really thinking simply by relying on search engines.” Public opinion on the Internet is formed online, as well as offline via information broadcasted by traditional media. The dynamism and speed by which such public opinion is formed and spread can be beyond the grasp of many local governments and business enterprises.
It is to meet these unprecedented opportunity and challenges that Internet public opinion monitoring software came into being. Such software can crawl microblogging sites, Internet forums, video content and other various forms through which opinion is expressed on the web. As long as the content can be crawled, the opinion can be reported and analyzed.
NetEase Department analyst Hong Hong Zeng had followed Professor An Haizhong China University of Geosciences, making models of information flow on the Net. She said that at the foundation of information monitoring information systems is “web crawler” technology. With such technologies, opinions on the Net can be easily searched and categorized by “keywords,” allowing other analysis to follow.
The price of a typical Internet opinion monitoring software package can range from five ten thousand yuan to a few million yuan. The software Tang Xiaotao software uses at his company, for example, costs over 3 million yuan (1/2 million U.S. dollar).
Establish mechanisms for assessing public opinion
The company in which Tang Xiaotao works will also accept government projects, including projects to collect opinions relating to specific government leaders. Glancing at a report from the company, one can quickly get an up-to-date and accurate assessment of netizen’s opinions, including the perspectives and demands they hold.
According to an employee of a portal of a Central province, from 2008 onwards, the central government’s Information Center has asked them to collect daily local public opinion, whereby the Information Center would then run stories in traditional media to help local governments as situations dictate.
The government has become an important consumer in the Internet public opinion assessment industry. Some government units have even set up their own Internet public opinion monitoring departments to bring in-house some of what the private industry already does.
《2010 China Crisis Management Annual Report》provides that in 2010, several local Party Committee Propaganda Departments, local government emergency management offices and large and medium-sized enterprises have established a system for sharing, cross-consulting and assessing public opinion.
Director of the Internet Information Center of a certain county in He Nan, Yan Ming, said that their department was founded in 2007, under the management of the county propaganda department. The center employs four or five people, with some involved in monitoring public opinion, while others in running the official website.
Yan Ming often receives marketing materials for Internet monitoring software. But after much experimenting and conducting trials, he still finds manual processes to be best, “to avoid overlooking information expressed on the web.”
They will set the name of the county seat as a keyword, then everyday with “Baidu” and “Google” collect news and opinions expressed, both positive and negative, regarding their county.
Director Yan said that their county party secretary, county commissioner make no special requirements on their work, except that they accurately report opinions public expressed. The report should include, among others, misdeeds done by staff of the county, abuse in management of the city, irregularities within the grassroots cadre, government acts deemed as violating the interests of the common people, etc.
Reports come in three forms: weekly reports, daily text messages, daily written reports.
The Director described how everyday his staff would send him public sentiment texts. He would then compile representative messages and send them to the county leaders. Sometimes the complexity of information is such that SMS does not properly capture the content. He would then print out a complete report and send those to the leadership.
The weekly edition of the report is completed on Sunday afternoons, and includes a complete summary of the public sentiments compiled from the prior week. The reports will be printed and placed on the desk of the secretaries of the county leaders by Monday morning. “The Weekly reports generally contain some 20 or so pages, and will include positive sentiments expressed as well.”
”Either rumor mongering without basis, or silence.”
In issuing reports of public sentiment, Tang Xiaotao will also typically issue a report on suggested courses of action. “We typically do not intervene in the public opinion process, it is at the customers’ discretion how to deal with the issues.”
Tang Xiaotao has found however that their clients rarely pay the suggested courses of action any attention. And unfortunately, many government agencies have also not learned the proper way to deal with negative publicity.
Consider the H7N9 bird flu case this year. Tang Xiaotao and his staff found the beginning stages public interest in the case. When people’s interests reached certain “warning threshold,” they reported to the provincial leaders. Because the leaders believe that further involvement of public discourse is not the proper way to deal with the crisis, they asked the media to downplay and shorten the reporting of the flu case.
Tang Xiaotao believes we should give the public the right to know more. This is the proper way toward avoiding panic, rather than to suppressing public opinion.
Tang Xiaotao said that many government units in the face of negative publicity will reflectively say “rumors, nonsense”: either deadening silence, with all departments refusing to respond. But blanket denial will only lead to more questions by netizens, which will only fuel more public skepticism and protests.
For example, last year, when the “Yuan Lihai Incident” broke, said Tang Xiaotao, when many officials are interviewed by reporters, many clearly did not know what to say. The things some officials said clearly sounded sub-standard, non-official and out-of-place.
He Shan is a Internet Opinion analyst in Tianjin. He said the way the government dealt with the fallout of the Fukushima is a big mistake. “The people were clearly interested in the topic, with wild rumors spreading. The government should have set advanced warning, and then provide the facts through proper official accounts early, when the crisis might have been avoided.”
A public opinion analyst staff working in the government has told reporters that their task is to compile and report on public opinion, and not to respond to opinions found on the Net. Not only do they not have authority to respond, they also sometimes disagree with the way the leadership responds.
Some people claim that the entire public opinion analyst industry should be eliminated. They think of the industry as providing 24-hour monitoring of negative information, and then jumping to delete negative sentiments at first sight.
However, the way information is propagated on the Internet is complex and makes deletion ineffective. One might delete a post, but before soon, the same content has already been reproduced on another site. When a poster sees someone to be deleting posts, he will often redouble his effort to spread his message, resulting in a lot of more money to be spent just to delete those messages. Deletion is a never-ending battle that rarely ends in victory. The effect of deletion is minimal.
Industry sources say that recently there has been a case involving the deletion of posts by a public relations company for one of the company’s clients. On Sept 9, two high judicial rulings issued that deleting post for pay is a violation of the law. One can see that entities that take the route of deleting posts are going to take on more and risks.
”When problems arise, do not shy away.”
”We should never help our customers delete posts,” Director of Xinhua Public Opinion Monitoring and Analysis Center Duan Sai Ming said in discussing industry issues. Public opinion analysts should instead lead and engage the public in public discussion.
According to leaks provided by a public opinion analysis working in news portal that has no lack of government clients, some time ago, when stories exposed a leader that improperly used public funds to travel abroad with his wife, they issued the government a detailed plan to directly deal with the problem. The plan provided for the government to quickly publish the truth, and ordered for exposed leader to resign promptly. Subsequently, when the government followed through with recommendations, this negative publicity quickly subsided.
Yan Ming of Henan county Internet Department also endorsed this approach.
He believes that the proper way to manage public opinion is do not conceal, evade or shield; accurately identify problems; and address the problem face on.
When an incident involving local police beating broke, public opinion regarding the event came to a boil on the Internet, the public opinion analysts reported what the people were thinking to the leaders.
County leaders took four actions to address the negative publicity. The first day, the government suspended the officers involved pending an investigation. The government then followed up with four news releases, the last one included the final verified results of the investigation, and report of the decision to expel those involved in the incident.
Negative publicity on the Net immediately subsided.
”Basically, even when adverse public sentiments form, even in a sensational way, as long as the proper authorities do not evade, rumor mongering and hype will no longer spread,” The center director said.
The best antidote to wild rumor mongering is prompt response.
Some time ago, some stories spread online about a housing project that involved developers illegally occupying some 140 mu, and paying the township party secretary a few hundred thousand dollars in bribes. The government promptly investigated. But after a thorough investigation the allegations turned out to be false, with project only excessively occupying 400 mi.
When the story broke, the Internet center staff promptly came to the scene of dispute to take pictures, they released all information relating to the project, including various construction notification, and published them online so netizens can better understand the situation on the ground.
Deputy Secretary-General Shan of the People’s Internet public opinion monitoring Department that officials in all levels of government propaganda departments are most in need of public opinion analysis training, adding “to properly manage the Internet, the government should first understand the internet.”
Xinhua will also hold once a month training for Internet public opinion for both those who want to go into government and those who want to go into private enterprises, tailored especially for leaders in both government and private enterprises. Dui Sai Ming said, “this is an ever more sophisticated, ever popular career choice.”