Confessions of a Chinese web informer

Illustration. Image published on Flickr under Creative Commons.
 
According to official estimates, 2 million people in China are employed as “web opinion analysts”. This small army of internet sleuths is tasked with sifting through web users’ posts for any sign of unrest, and reporting back to government officials. FRANCE 24 spoke to a former analyst, who recently quit, disenchanted with his work.
 
Unlike the shadowy “50-cent party” – men and women who are rumoured to be paid 0.5 yuan for every comment they post online praising the authorities – the job of web opinion analyst is recognised by the state. Certification courses were even launched last year, to some fanfare. These five-day courses were organised by the People’s Daily, which is the mouthpiece of the communist party, and the Ministry of Human Resources.
 
In an article on the subject by Beijing News, another state-controlled media outlet, a web opinion analyst called Tang Xiaotao gave this example to explain his work: “Netizens started to post about the [H7N9] bird flu online. So we reported that. The provincial leaders thought it would have a bad influence if we let the public opinion keep on going. So they decided to tell the media to limit reporting about it.”
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“It pays decently, but I find it disgusting”

Until three months ago, Xiao Jun (not his real name) was a web opinion analyst who worked within a major state-affiliated media organisation, as do most of those who do this job. Out of security concerns, he did not provide any details of specific cases he handled.
 
At first, I didn’t intend to apply for this position. I wanted to work as a journalist, and sent my resume to lots of different media outlets. However, there are not a lot of reporting jobs available. So when a media company called, I accepted an offer to join their opinion analyst team. The job paid decently, but I found it disgusting.
 
The government of cities and provinces pay the media outlet to send them reports. I used sophisticated software developed by China Telecom and Barfoo to pick up on comments by netizens. I could search specifically for negative comments. These were often complaints about corruption by local officials or embezzlement, and so forth. I then wrote up reports that I sent to officials higher up – sometimes to city officials, sometimes to provincial officials. If I received something really important, I would send a mobile phone message directly to the province’s governor. The higher-up officials pick some of these cases and expose those at fault as a warning to others.
 
We also received some complaints directly. It’s possible that some of these are leaked deliberately in the context of power struggles. But we had to report everything, because if government officials found out about a problem through other ways, then we would get in trouble.
 
“You learn about how the government handles problems, and start to understand their psychology”
 
The media outlet I worked for runs a forum [which is common for Chinese media outlets]. If there’s a problematic comment in the forum, analysts report it and sometimes it will get deleted. At times, worried officials would contact our media outlet directly to ask for posts to be removed. If we found problematic comments on other sites, we would report those too and then it’s up to the officials to decide how to handle those.
 
I never told people what I did. I was nothing but an informer. But this job improved my writing skills, and if I one day work as a regular journalist, I think it will be useful – you learn about how the government handles problems, and start to understand their psychology.
 
FRANCE 24 was able to gain access to screengrabs showing Chinese web monitoring software. Reports included complaints of fraud in local elections and police corruption, as well as smaller problems like taxis overcharging their clients.
 
This screengrab below shows the software’s home screen, which lists various tabs, including: "Opinions in brief", "Entire Internet monitoring", "Directional monitoring", and "Weibo monitoring". (Weibo is a popular microblogging platform).
 
 
China made public the existence of these 2 million web opinion analysts in October 2013, just a few weeks after it issued a new law calling for prison time for any Internet user who makes a “defamatory” comment that is reposted by others more than 500 times. This law spooked users of Chinese microblogging sites, who now often half-jokingly ask that others not repost them too many times.
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