How much do we learn about public opinion in China from Weibo posts?

It seems like every piece of reporting on China these days cites as evidence of the import of some event some kind of reference to a particular Weibo post, usually one that included a photo or video of an incident, and then a count of how many times it was forwarded or commented on.  And for evidence on the public reaction to said event, it now seems de rigeur to translate observations and comments made by Weibo users.

As much as I like finding out what is on Weibo, I can’t help wonder whether we really learn much about public opinion from counts of the number of times a post was forwarded, or translations of comments made by occasional users.

I’ve been thinking about this for the last couple years as I have spent more time in China, and had more opportunity to talk to people who aren’t academics.  People certainly have lots of concerns, and strong general opinions about issues like pollution, food safety, corruption, and so forth, but what I find striking is the disconnect between the level of intensity of reactions to specific events suggested by reliance on evidence from Weibo and other social media sources, and what I see in day to day conversation.  Whereas over the last few years we have had one incident after another presented to us as transfixing the Chinese public and having tremendous import and significance, always with Weibo or social media traffic as evidence, in my own experience people are aware of these incidents, and may even be somewhat interested, but don’t seem to obsess about any one them the way that studying social media traffic would suggest.

One issue is whether Weibo users who post on current events are representative of China’s population, or even Weibo users overall.  From Weibo traffic, I suppose we learn something about the opinions of Weibo users who are active and who like to post about current events, but I don’t know if they are any more representative of the population at large in China than the people who comment anonymously on news articles at the New York Times are representative of the U.S. population.

Weibo users may be better off, or at least better educated, than China’s population.  I actually wonder if that gives the appearance of more bifurcation in the population than there actually is.  In my experience in China, my experience is that the better off or at least better educated articulate more views on most subjects that are more extreme in one direction or another than the people I run into who are not doing as well.  Perhaps the fact that they are doing well and in some extreme cases completely disconnected from the realities of day to day life allows them more opportunity to think abstractly and see the world in black and white.  Such abstraction isn’t unique to China, of course.  Here in the United States, my own observation is that the people who tend to spout the nuttiest and unrealistic political views, whether on the  left or right, tend to be people whose situation insulates from contact with people who think differently form themselves, and presents the fewest challenges to a neat and tidy view of the world as a Manichean struggle between the forces of dark and light.

Weibo users who post on current events may not be representative of Weibo users overall.  They may be braver, more engaged, or simply more rash and foolhardy, than most Weibo users.  Of the Weibo posts I see, the overwhelming majority seem to cover the same territory as Facebook status updates: complaints about how busy or tiring their day was, reposts of quotes, links to odd bits of news, commentaries on celebrities, cars and gadgets, and of course, pictures of cats, flowers, sunsets, people at tourist sites smiling and flashing V signs, and so forth.  The people who routinely post on serious subjects seem to be a distinct minority.

A specific concern I have about counts of Weibo reposts as evidence of the attention paid to an event is the lack of a basis for comparison.  When I see a statement that a post about some misbehaving official was reposted 500 times, I don’t know if 500 is a lot, or a few.  Recitation of counts of the number of times a post was reposted are almost never accompanied by any background on how many posts each day are forwarded even more times.  Nothing I have posted on Weibo, has ever been posted more than a few times, so at first glance 500 seems like a lot to me, but then again I don’t have many followers, and most of what I post is mind-numbingly boring.  If pictures of unusually fat, fluffy cats sprawled on their backs are routinely forwarded 50,000 times, then 500 seems like a very small number for something that is being presented as being of social significance.  One of these days, I’d actually like to see a distribution of counts of reposts that would tell me if 500, 5000 or even 50,000 is really an unusually large number of reposts.  Maybe such a tabulation exists somewhere, but I haven’t seen it yet.

I find the presentation of translations of posts by specific users as evidence even more questionable.  I don’t know what the views of a single user tell us, even if whatever they say is presented as being ‘typical’ of Weibo users.  I certainly wouldn’t rely on comments on articles at the New York Times or Washington Post as evidence about public opinion in the United States, unless I thought the United States was made up of ungrammatical, tin-foil hat wearing nuts who have their CAP LOCK key glued down.

Where does this leave me?  I actually do enjoy following Weibo, and I like hearing about what happens to be trending there.  The counts of reposts are interesting, and I like to see examples of what people are posting.  But I am wary of inferring much about Chinese society in general from Weibo or other social media.

I guess I wish we applied the same level of skepticism to interpreting trends on Weibo that we apply to trends on Twitter, Google+ Facebook.  It certainly is fun to see what is trending in social media, and always entertaining to see clever posts that individuals have come up with, but I don’t think we learn much that is deep or profound about the United States from whatever happens to be a popular topic of discussion on social media.  Media here generally don’t bother summarizing trends in Twitter or Facebook traffic when they’re reporting on public reaction to major events.  If they do, they present the results as more of a curiosity than anything else.

I’m not suggesting that Weibo and social media be ignored.  They’re fun and interesting.  And given the difficulties of reporting in China, and the probable impossibility of carrying out surveys on reactions to sensitive subjects, it is certainly true that there aren’t many alternatives for gauging public opinion.  But I’d like to see presentations of evidence from Weibo or other social media accompanied by some caveats about possible problems with representativeness.