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WeChat emerging as outlet for public opinion

By Wang Laihua | 2015-10-19 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

According to the new Advertising Law, a natural person who posts ads on “we media” should bear corresponding responsibility, which means, if the ads contain any false and deceiving information or cause disputes, one should bear corresponding responsibility when compensation is involved.


In a comparative study, scholars found that though microblogs and WeChat both fall under the purview of “we media,” the former is more like an open online social space, while the latter usually takes the form of a confined one-on-one dialogue, similar to a private club on the Internet.

On WeChat, users mostly exchange information with friends and family members, so information can only spread within a limited scope. However, official government statistics show that by the end of the first quarter of this year, the number of domestic WeChat users had reached 549 million, accounting for more than 90 percent of smartphones users. This mobile application has become the primary choice for the Chinese to release “we media” information.

Privacy, free expression
Owing to the protective technical features of WeChat,  users are demonstrating some new characteristics in terms of public opinion expression and dissemination.

To start with, WeChat users have multiple purposes and individual political preferences. A survey found that when WeChat users share information, some of it directly involves public opinion, such as reposting or publishing content or pictures with political and social connotations and major news. At the same time, people like to repost text, photos and music that are related to health and life. When influential sociopolitical events occur, the number of related posts will soar.

Second, the relative closed nature and privacy of WeChat encourages users to express themselves freely. Most contacts on WeChat are selected and accepted by users, so they are inclined to freely speak out on a variety of topics regarding themselves and share political and social information that hints at their political preferences. They often feel that their emotions and political views expressed among their circle of contacts will not be punished or blocked. Instead, they can get understanding and support from family and friends. Thus, the expression of public opinion on WeChat has become commonplace.

Third, the ongoing development of mobile Internet technologies provides users more convenient avenues for the expression of public opinion. For example, the combination of texts and pictures within personal WeChat feeds allows users to repost and share abundant information within a short period of time. The platform not only offers rich content but also enhances the appeal of the information and its capacity to spread. When it comes to information with political and social connotations, instant audio information will usually generate strong stimulus and effect, striking a chord in terms of public opinion among those who read and receive the information.

Fourth, the number of active users, referring to those who often take the initiative to write and repost, is growing rapidly. Users do not need to be good at writing on WeChat. With only short or straightforward texts, users will be able to make their personal voice heard. In addition, those who are not good at expressing themselves can voice their personal likes and dislikes by reposting content with political and social connotations that will further affect others within their circle of WeChat contacts.

Fifth, the “cumulative effect” of individual posts on WeChat makes the spread of information relatively slow, but it has an extensive reach. Even though one user may have limited contacts, the cumulative effect can ensure the scope of information dissemination.

Sixth, as a means of communicating information, WeChat can be utilized in unexpected incidents involving mass participation. For example, in January this year, China Youth Daily published an article about a WeChat proposal that suggested a strike among taxi drivers. It is apparent that the contact network on WeChat has laid the foundation for such a function.

Last, the authenticity of WeChat public opinion expression greatly weakens the virtual nature of the online world. Since users usually know their contacts, there is no need to hide their real identity. As a result, in writing and reposting information, the anonymity that was once a hallmark of cyberspace seems to be diminishing.

New public opinion platform
The role WeChat plays in public opinion expression and dissemination has given rise to some in-depth exploration into the matter.


First, the popularity of WeChat proves that the means of public opinion expression have become more extensive and diversified. Amid gossip, buzzwords, folktales, political jokes and microblogs, WeChat has quickly found its niche market and is gradually making its way in the field.

Second, the transition from microblogs to WeChat only represents a change in the channel by which public opinion is expressed. From the perspective of public opinion research, stage one of public opinion is the formation of sociopolitical attitudes, while stage two is searching for a favorable channel to speak out. Due to the differences in these two stages, sometimes people mistakenly believe public opinion does not exist, but in fact, it’s just that public opinion expression has yet to reach the second stage. Furthermore, when many people share biased attitudes or there are public sentiments and voices, public opinion will enter the third stage—a explosive expression of the crowds’ social attitudes. The third stage can often be seen in unexpected incidents involving mass participation.

Finally, WeChat has promoted a new public opinion platform. In this space, a certain amount of social groups have started to discuss social issues, share information, carry out exchanges, and form a kind of emotional and cognitive understanding, which can promote the new development of a public opinion pool. Scholars believe that WeChat is not only a new source of information in some public emergency and public debates but is becoming a new channel for spreading rumors, posing numerous new problems and challenges to public opinion management.

Active intervention
In the process of public opinion expression and dissemination, WeChat has both positive and negative effects.


Its positive effects can be summarized as follows: Clearly, it serves as a platform for users to communicate their emotions and thoughts with friends and family. In mutual communication, individuals pass on their thoughts and judgments and influence each other. In sociological theory, it functions as a “social safety valve.”

At the same time, it serves as a window for researchers and decision-makers to learn about public voices and opinions. In massive messages, it is easy to read people’s emotions and infer their understanding of social issues. Though it may appear to be a “micro window,” the social value it carries cannot be underestimated.

However, we have to realize WeChat also has negative effects, such as the spread of rumors concerning political and social issues as well as some abnormal, unhealthy and even extreme content that brings emotional and mental confusion. In those cases, social intervention is necessary.

Given that WeChat is a platform for information exchange between individuals and their family and friends, a series of technical, political and legal complications hinder social intervention.

Therefore, it’s important that users gain a sense of “self-discipline” and act according to the law while relevant parties should promote moral education and social responsibility.

Second, technological means should be fully facilitated to deal with problematic posts in a timely manner. As for those that cause serious social consequences, punishment should be in place in accordance with the law.

Last but not least, official accounts for government affairs should be established. Thanks to WeChat’s one-on-one feature and privacy, it is vital to develop “attention-oriented” services for individual users as “a way of achieving e-government services.” For now, expanding promotion channels and enhancing pertinence and availability of government services on WeChat are practical problems that need to be solved in a timely manner.

Wang Laihua is from the Institute of Public Opinion at the Tianjin Academy of Social Sciences.