Microbloggers in China have stronger influence than government-owned microblogs and are able to galvanize action among their followers.
A study by research organization and think tank, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, indicated that some 300 high-profile Weibo users, who have at least 100,000 followers, played a role in setting trending topics online, particularly in emergency situations and on public issues. These microbloggers dominated the country's new media space in spite of the government's clampdown on online rumormongers this past year.
China has over 331 million microbloggers, of whom 90,000 have more than 100,000 followers while 3,300 have more than 1 million followers, according to a report on China Daily.
The study revealed that the high-profile microbloggers yielded stronger influence than government microblogs and traditional media.
"Our report found that at least one-third of high-profile users play crucial roles in the launch of some online campaigns, and another one-third play a part in it," said Shan Xuegang, deputy secretary-general of the public opinion analysis office of state-run daily newspaper People's Daily.
Shan pointed to a campaign to rescue street children and abducted kids on Sina Weibo, the equivalent to Twitter in China, which was supported by several high-profile users including actors Yao Chen and Zhao Wei and social critic Li Chengpeng. These personalities each has over 10 million followers on their microblog.
He noted that the high-profile users amplified grassroots voices through their reposts and, thus, can pose challenges to traditional media. "Normally a microblogger would only have friends as their followers and their message could only be spread inside a circle. However, if the message is reposted by a high-profile user, it could be seen by thousands," he said.
Shan then reiterated the Chinese government's stance against "misusing" this ability to broadcast information should the high-profile microbloggers repost messages without first ascertaining their accuracy and, hence, helping to spread rumors. "Some reposts from the high-profile users concern topics that they are not familiar with, and some are without any verification," he said.
China in September implemented a new judicial interpretation which defined the criteria for convicting and sentencing offenders who spread rumors online. Anyone in the country who shared false information deemed defamatory or to affect national interest would face up to three years in jail if their posts were viewed 5,000 times or forwarded 500 times.
Chinese authorities swiftly followed up with a slew of arrests that rounded up several high-profile bloggers and users of Sina Weibo, whose followers numbered in the tens of millions. These "Big Vs", as they are dubbed, included Xue Manxi who appeared on national TV acknowledging his role in reposting unsubstantiated information via his Weibo account, as well as reporter Liu Hu who had shared information which raised questions over government corruption.