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Red Flag Manuscript on Controlling Public Opinion

[Editor’s Note: After an explosion of information and opinion sharing erupted on the Internet about the Wenzhou high-speed train accident, Red Flag Manuscript published a series of articles on how to control public opinion. One article stressed that “on major issues related to China’s fundamental political system and national interests, the media should resolutely align with the Party and the people’s position.” [1] It even advocated filtering and modifying the news to “integrate the truth of the news with the country’s national interest.” Another article emphasized that the “central media and main media should send out the first news” and that they should “form an emergency reporting group which would include reporters and editors loyal to the Party.” [2] A third article listed “the decreasing public trust in the government” and “Western hostile forces” as being the reasons that rumors have spread on the new media and suggested developing “opinion leaders” on microblogs who would lead public opinion. [3] The following are excerpts from these articles.]

Article 1: Some Issues on Strengthening the Work of Leading Public Opinion [4]

The current environment of public opinion is complex and dynamic. It is a major test of our propaganda work and whether we can effectively control the mass media and correctly guide public opinion. Overall, we must pay attention to the following issues in order to strengthen our guidance of the media.

1. Ensuring the Correct Guidance of Public Opinion

The goal of propaganda should always be to create positive publicity by enhancing the relevance and effectiveness of its guidance of public opinion and playing an important role in publicizing the Party’s policies in promoting social justice, assessing public sentiment, guiding society’s hot issues, and calming the public’s emotions.

First of all, we must adhere to the Marxist view of the media. China’s news media are the voice of the Party and the people, and as such, reflect the distinctive Party nature. Therefore, on major issues related to our fundamental political system and national interests, the media should unequivocally uphold the Marxist view and resolutely align with the Party and the people’s positions. We should maintain firm control over public opinion to ensure that the entire society’s outlook is positive, healthy, and vigorous.

Second, we should always serve the big picture of overall economic and social development. Our main task for media propaganda should always focus on this big picture.

Third, we need to emphasize the art of propaganda. We should work on improving the attractiveness and appeal of media propaganda. In addition, we need to pay attention to timing. Reporting news at the most opportune time ensures that our press resources will be used most effectively and that our media’s view can be fully expressed and have the greatest influence. We also need to work on the appropriateness of our news. For each different situation, the focus of the news reports will differ, but the integrity and continuity of the overall tone should be maintained.

Fourth, we need to promote reform and innovation in public propaganda. All media agencies must study current changes in public thinking and information needs in depth, research the psychological characteristics and acceptance habits of different audiences, and constantly adjust and enrich our propaganda content in order to meet the diverse, multi-level information needs of our audience. We should also develop new ways to guide public opinion. We should work hard to avoid simple, familiar patterns and to encourage diversity in the topics, forms, and styles of our news and propaganda work.

2. Improving the Reporting of Major Public Emergencies

Emergencies refer to unpredictable and sudden natural disasters and man-made accidents. Major emergencies are often directly related to the vital interests of the public, where the nature of the crisis may endanger the stability of our nation and society. In response to major emergencies, the media should help to move the crisis in a good direction and play the major role in leading public opinion. [5]

First, we need to establish an effective mechanism for reporting emergencies. The Emergency Events Report mechanism is complicated. It includes the following systems:

– Monitoring and early warning notification system. This will strengthen early analysis and judgments concerning public emergencies, predict possible results, implement focused and targeted monitoring, and develop appropriate action plans.
– Decision-making and command system. This will enable a quick response to the emergency, correctly judge its news value, and coordinate the use of press resources.
– Integrated information system. Integrating and optimizing the ability of press resources will allow for comprehensive development and effective utilization of the news.
– Logistics support system. This will ensure that the media achieve their goal in reporting emergencies.

Second, we should report the truth behind the crisis in a timely and rational manner. We need to pay attention to obtaining firsthand information and timely releasing authoritative information. Once the unexpected event occurs, the news media should make every effort to release “as early as possible” information and an analysis of the event, in order to satisfy the public’s desire to know what is happening. We should let the facts speak for themselves as soon as possible. That is a better way to enhance social stability than suppressing negative news. This allows us to assume an active, rather than a passive, position.

Third, we need to maintain appropriate control and guide public opinion from a humane angle. To achieve positive results, we must lead the audience psychologically to accept our reporting. Therefore, media should use positive coverage to balance the psychological damage people may be suffering, emphasize human glory in the disaster, and highlight humane care.

Fourth, we should be a “society watchdog” to safeguard the national interest. When reporting emergencies, the media should provide public, authoritative, and practical information to represent what is in our nation’s best interest. We should integrate the truth of news and the nation’s interests; maintain good communications among government departments; highlight a sense of social justice, morality, and responsibility; and calmly respond to any crisis by assuming the duty of a “society watchdog.”

3. Strengthening the development of the new media

Many new forms of media are developing rapidly and spreading widely. There are a large number of postings on online forums, news threads, blogs, podcasts, chat rooms, and reviews. These new forms make it very easy for certain non-mainstream views to develop into hot public issues. Therefore, we must recognize the reality, strengthen the development of the new media, and integrate traditional media and new media to form a new media structure with multiple functions and wide coverage in order to shape and direct propaganda.

We should utilize the authority and credibility of traditional media to suppress news that is false and posted at will on the new media and utilize the convenient tools and rich content of the new media to supplement the natural limitations of traditional media. This will allow us to achieve a win-win situation in which resources are shared and traditional and new media converge. We need to create an interactive technological platform connecting new and traditional media, achieve a smooth flow of information between the two, and make efforts to develop the Internet and other new media so they are at the forefront in spreading advanced socialist culture.

Article 2: Actively Developing a Standard Mechanism for Reporting Emergency Events [6]

1. Establish an Emergency Rapid Response Reporting Mechanism

Emergency events are usually complicated affairs associated with a wide range of factors, obvious regional characteristics, and many uncertain elements. They have a major social impact and a high degree of human concern. Emergency reporting is conducted in an “abnormal” situation. News reports need to be comprehensive, multi-level, and wide ranging to create an atmosphere conducive to positive social opinion, resolve the issues properly, keep the losses to a minimum, eliminate any negative impact, and safeguard social stability.

First, we should improve the emergency event report response mechanism. [This can be achieved by doing three things.]

One, we need to improve our response capability. Following the requirements of the “Emergency Response Law of the People’s Republic of China,” in addition to improving our emergency report command centers at the central and the provincial levels, we should improve the main provincial and municipal media’s emergency report capability. Emergency responses should be expanded to include the major municipal media. We should clearly define the media’s responsibilities, tasks, and coverage requirements according to the severity of the event.

Two, we need to improve our news warning mechanism [to alert the CCP that news may develop into a crisis]. Emergencies, especially those that involve large groups of people, have a gestation period and forewarnings for events of different duration and with different characteristics. We need to improve the reliability of our news warning system and its ability to gauge the emergency’s potential, so that our media are better able to serve society and resolve social conflicts. The warning system should be developed at the central, provincial, and municipal levels.

Three, we need to established a joint-report mechanism. The central command center should enhance its leadership over the provincial and municipal command centers and coordinate with the related government offices and the military. We also need to provide necessary, standard training to the reporting staff and set up guidance for provincial and municipal report work. This will ensure resource-sharing, a unified reporting tone, and an appropriate coverage and rhythm. In this way, we can improve the emergency report’s efficiency and its ability to benefit society.

Second, we need to improve the infrastructure for emergency reporting, including convenient transportation, good equipment, reliable communications, and reliable logistical support – for example, basic support for the reporters’ safety, work, and living conditions at the site of the event when the basic infrastructure is damaged.

Third, we should establish a mechanism for the military and civil authorities to work together. This joint mechanism will include transportation, communications, and logistical supplies.

2. Standardizing the Emergency Reporting Process

First, we need to seize the high ground in reporting the news. The central media and mainstream media need to produce the first report. In past years, most of our mistakes in emergency event reporting involved failing to produce the first report (thus allowing rumors to control public opinion) or filing an incorrect first report (resulting in the public questioning the report and consequent damage to the image of the Party and the government). When an emergency occurs, the central media and mainstream media have a unique advantage and authoritative power in producing the first report. The central media have capable local offices around the country. They can be first to arrive at the scene and therefore publish the first news report. The central media’s reporters are free to interview and report without the local government interfering.

The Party’s newspapers and radio and television stations need to compete [with private media] for the audience base. Party media enjoy unparalleled authority and are trusted over the regional media. They have reliable information sources, convenient communication channels, experienced and established reporters, and loyal professional editors. So they have the ability to create good reports that will effectively shape public opinion.

When reporting on the emergency, mainstream media should cover it from multiple angles, with a wide overview and a broad perspective. Besides covering the disaster itself, more attention should be paid to public opinion and to the social and political ramifications. We should standardize the percentage of the different types of reports to create an atmosphere that fosters positive public opinion. Within the first few months after the Wenchuan Earthquake, 20% of the typical mainstream media coverage was disaster and damage, 30% was military and public rescue, 20% was after-quake recovery work, 15% was about the quake’s impact on the economy, 8% reported on support from other regions, and 7% was miscellaneous. The reporting about the Wenchuan quake was a big success and had a very positive impact on the public. We should study the coverage of this event carefully and standardize the process.

Second, we should report on an emergency in stages. Emergencies typically consist of three stages: the eruption itself, the developmental stage, and the period of waning public interest. In the case of a public event, there is also a period of gestation before the outbreak. We should design and standardize the contents of the reports and their tone, taking into consideration the characteristics of each stage. During the gestation period of a public event, the Party media need to strengthen their sense of responsibility, appoint senior reporters to investigate and study the issue, and then, by means of either public reporting or internal circulation, try to prevent a crisis (an emergency) from materializing. When an emergency does occur, the mainstream media need to be fast and prompt. They should not wait until the situation has been resolved to report on it. We should address the event and report on it as it is being investigated. We need to provide objective reporting from the site as soon as possible. This allows us to control public opinion and avoid rumors and speculation. During the developmental stage, we should focus on reporting what the Party and government are doing and the results in order to win the public’s understanding and trust. At the same time, we should quote authoritative experts’ analyses, interpretations, and comments and answer the public’s questions quickly, so as to guide the public to react to the emergency objectively, correctly and scientifically, thereby ensuring social stability. As public interest wanes, we should focus on reporting the Party and government’s post-event progress to highlight how people are returning to work, resuming production, and minimizing the damage. Mainstream media should actively help the Party and the government to prevent such events from having a negative impact.

Third, our reports should be humane. Avoid using personal interest reports or features that focus on the sorrow of the victim’s relatives. Try to avoid bloody scenes or close-ups of the victims. None of the content, pictures, or videos should make the audience feel afraid or unsympathetic.

3. Develop a High-Quality Emergency Event Reporting Team

We should establish guidelines to strengthen the development of the emergency event reporting team. We should continue to improve the overall quality and build a reporting army that can win the battle and be worthy of the Party’s trust. The loyalty issue must be emphasized. Emergency situations are very complicated and can change dramatically. The views and inclinations of the mainstream media usually have a decisive impact on public opinion. We should direct all key media to develop a long-term plan to create emergency reporting teams and build up the reporters’ and editors’ strong determination to be loyal to the Party, to the country, and to the people.

Article 3: A Study of the Characteristics, Causes, and Coping Strategies Surrounding Recent Social Rumors [7]

Social rumors refer to rumors generated around certain public affairs in society. Microblogs, having a faster and wider impact, have become the most fertile ground for the generation and spread of rumors. According to “The 28th China Internet Development Statistics Report,” released by the China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC) on July 19, 2011, in the first half of 2011, the number of China’s microblog users increased from 63.11 million to 195 million, an increase of 208.9% in six months. The percentage of microblog users among Internet users increased from 13.8% to 40.2%. Microblogs can easily become the communication platform for false information and false statements.

The cause of social rumors is very complex. Some rumors are caused by people’s lack of information on certain issues, and some are due to deliberate fabrications by a small number of people with ulterior motives who want to create social chaos for their own sinister ends.

First, the uncertainty of life in general provides a breeding ground for the creation and dissemination of rumors. At present, China is in the economic development stage, which means that it will be faced with important strategic opportunities, as well as prominent social conflicts. The frequent public safety incidents in recent years have caused people to panic and have also created prime conditions for the creation of rumors.

Second, the lack of scientific knowledge provides an opportunity to generate and spread rumors.

Third, the lag in managing social information provides an opportunity for rumors to spread. There are four reasons for this delay: One, there is a lack of transparency in social information. If the information cannot be effectively released to the public, people will inevitably come up with all kinds of blind speculations on the event’s development, thus leading to rumors. Two, information monitoring technology is underdeveloped and cannot effectively monitor new platforms to transmit information, resulting in the spread of harmful information, including rumors. Three, information management laws and regulations have not kept up. It is hard to define the nature of many new modes of communication. It is therefore hard to explore legal liabilities caused by these new forms of communication. Four, there is a lack of capacity to respond to information. We are unable to organize effective information to counter rumors, and also our countering styles and methods are outdated and ineffective.

Fourth, the decline in the credibility of some local governments has resulted in a loss of trust in the government. Certain government offices and corrupt individual officials have caused people to lose trust in the government, its agencies, and its officials.

Fifth, some domestic media and a small number of Party members and cadres ignore the Party’s discipline, thus contributing to the spread of political rumors.

Sixth, Internet promoters create rumors, spread them, and unduly influence netizens’ opinions. Those who transmit important information on micro-blogs and have a knack for mobilizing people are not ordinary netizens, but opinion leaders. In recent years, some network promoters have spread rumors over the network. Many netizens cannot distinguish between truth and falsehood. When false information is spread far and wide, it will become the “catalyst” for social contradictions and have a serious social impact.

Seventh, another cause of rumors is commercial interests. Currently, rumors are closely tied to economic activities. Some rumormongers ignore social morality and even break the law in order to expand their market share for their own interests.

Eighth, Western hostile forces generate and utilize a variety of rumors to accelerate the Westernization and separation of our country. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the drastic changes in Eastern Europe, and the “9.11 Incident,” the U.S., foreign hostile forces, and domestic forces with ulterior motives have accelerated their pace to “Westernize” and “divide” China. One of the important ways they are doing this is through the Internet and other information channels. They promote incorrect viewpoints, fabricate and use rumors to speculate on hot issues and sensitive social events, and incite discontent. On February 14, 2011, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave a speech in Washington titled, “Internet Rights and Wrongs: Choices and Challenges in a Networked World,” in which she publicly named China and Cuba as countries that censor publications, restrict Internet freedom, and arrest bloggers who criticize the government. She said the U.S. will invest $25 million this year and take a venture capital-style approach to develop technology and tools to help online activists, dissidents, and the general public to bypass the network censors of “repressive governments.” Responding to this, some people with ulterior motives inside and outside of China incited unlawful assemblies and stirred up “street politics” through the Internet, in an attempt to transport the chaos from West Asia and North Africa to China.

Party committees and governments at all levels should innovate and improve social management; strengthen the analysis of public opinion on the Internet; strengthen the management of the Internet, SMS, and other new media; crack down hard on the separatists’ and hostile forces’ sabotage activities in the area of ideology; not give any room to hostile forces to spread reactionary and harmful information; stabilize people’s thinking; and safeguard social stability.

First of all, we must protect people’s livelihoods and safeguard their interests.

Second, we must enhance the government’s credibility. Rumors are always offensive. Whether the government can deal with them successfully depends on its credibility. The mechanisms for the government to combat rumors include: One, the mechanism to monitor and analyze information and public opinion so as to identify and address rumors immediately. Two, the mechanism to accurately and timely release authoritative information, as represented by the government spokesperson system and the government’s micro-blog. Three, the crisis management system, including rumor prevention and control mechanisms.

Third, we must effectively utilize the “opinion leaders” in the microblog era. Microblogging “opinion leaders” are a group of network celebrities with thousands or even millions of fans. They have become the main promoters of network media and have great influence on public opinion. Especially when it is hard to distinguish what is the truth in the face of all kinds of rumors and one-sided public opinion, some “opinion leaders” that represent the proper media direction can lay out the facts, curb social gossip, and lead the public to form correct opinions. Therefore, we need to strengthen our communications with existing “opinion leaders.” At the same time, we need to develop “opinion leaders” that agree with China’s mainstream ideology and actively set discussion topics. We need to use them to guide online public opinion, strengthen the mainstream statements, and isolate non-mainstream remarks.

Lastly, we need to improve people’s resistance to rumors. To reduce the spread of rumors and the damage they cause, we must reduce the number people that spread rumors and enhance people’s critical analysis skills and ability to reason so that they will be more immune to rumors. They will then not believe rumors or pass them on.

[1] Red Flag Manuscript, “Some Issues on Strengthening the Work of Leading Public Opinion,” August 24, 2011.
[2] Red Flag Manuscript, “Actively Developing a Standard Mechanism for Reporting Emergency Events,” August 24, 2011.
[3] Red Flag Manuscript, “Study of the Characteristics, Causes, and Strategies of Handling Recent Social Rumors,” August 24, 2011.
[4] Red Flag Manuscript, “Some Issues on Strengthening the Work of Leading Public Opinion,” August 24, 2011.
[5] Editor: In this instance, when the author refers to a crisis that may “endanger the stability of our nation and society,” it is either a public protest or a natural disaster that leads to public anger (due to the government’s poor performance in its disaster prevention or its relief efforts).
[6] Red Flag Manuscript, “Actively Developing a Standard Mechanism for Reporting Emergency Events,” August 24, 2011.
[7] Red Flag Manuscript, “Study of the Characteristics, Causes, and Strategies of Handling Recent Social Rumors,” August 24, 2011.