While the more negative views are beginning to shift, due to the active role Twitter played in the Brisbane floods, Australians still largely consider microblogs as a tool for emergency and breaking news, rather than as a tool for democracy, government engagement and accountability.
In China, in dramatic contrast to Australia, government officials have been waking to the potential of microblogging services for reconnecting with the public - and to the shock of being held accountable at a speed that outraces the fastest censor.
China's first microblogging services were introduced in 2009 and have grown in popularity extremely quickly. Today there are reportedly more than 195 million users of the leading microblogging services, almost ten times the population of Australia and approximately 15 percent of the Chinese population.
Interestingly about the same proportion, 15 percent, of Australians use Twitter, our most popular microblog service.
A Global Times study in March-April this year found that "71 percent of Chinese Web users attribute their growing interest in politics to microblogging". Of the respondents, 59.3 percent said "they had become more inclined to express their political views on microblogs" and 23.1 percent chose politics as their favourite topic of discussion via microblog (with 36.6 percent citing social news and 19.6 percent daily-life topics, such as fashion and heath).
The respondents were highly in favour of politicians using microblogs, with 72.1 percent backing the idea. However two thirds (65.6 percent) complained that most government microblogs were merely publicity stunts.
Microblogs have also become a major source of news in China, with the Communication University of China in Beijing reporting in their Internet Real-time Public Opinion Index Annual Report 2010 that within 20 months of being allowed into China, microblogs had become the third-favorite online source of information, after news portals and online forums.
The report highlighted land acquisition and official corruption scandals as being hot on microblogging sites - both highly sensitive and politicised topics that rarely are discussed in mainstream Chinese news channels.
A separate report in 2010 was reported to state that more than 20 percent of the 50 most-discussed public events in China through 2010 were first reported on by microbloggers.
Government in China has increasingly recognising the potential uses and risks of microblogging.
It has become increasing difficult for the Chinese government to control sensitive discussions online due to the speed and reach of microblogs. Equally the size of the main microblogging networks makes it dangerous for the Chinese government to simply close down them down.
Therefore government officials are increasingly actively engaging via microblogs in order to influence conversations. In fact, "How to open a microblog" has become a training course for high-level Beijing government officials.
Accordingly, in March 2011 Sina, one of the leading microblogging services, reported that there were over 3,000 official government microblog accounts on their service, spread between agencies and high-level officials.
In July it was reported that 4,920 government departments and 3,949 government officials had opened microblog accounts at weibo.com. The same report indicated that the ten government microblogs in China had a total of 5.08 million followers in the first half of 2011.
It has also been reported that more than 1,200 microblogs have been opened by police authorities throughout China, resulting in a number of high-profile successful convictions.
For example, police in Xiamen, reported that they were able to solve the murder of a three-year-old girl in six days by releasing details of the murder via their microblog, together with a reward offer for further information. The message was forwarded more than 10,000 times and, according to a report by China Daily, led to the collection of more than 100 pieces of information used to solve the case.
The highest ranking individual official microblogging in China is Zhang Chunxian, the party chief of Xinjiang province. He took over in Xinjiang in April 2010, about nine months after ethnic riots led authorities to shut down mobile and internet services across the province.
Zhang has more than 148,000 followers for his microblog and has told the China Daily that microblogging can "be used to promote the government's efforts in Xinjiang's development."
Given there are over 450 million internet users and 900 million mobile phone users (those on smartphones can microblog), there is enormous potential for the sustained growth of microblogging in China.
With microblogging able to circumvent many censorship barriers, China's government is being forced to choose between closing down entire services, potentially facing extreme public backlash, or embracing increased openness and engagement with the public, dealing actively with charges of corruption, inappropriate conduct by officials and allowing citizens to share news before government communications channels can present official viewpoints.
If microblogging has the potential to have this impact in China, it is a channel that cannot be ignored or given lip service by governments in Australia or other nations.
Perhaps the two statements below best sums up the potential of microblogging for the Chinese government - and other governments around the world.
From the People's Daily of 2 August 2011:
Mastering the use of the internet shows a leader’s quality and ability. We hope that more and more leaders show their capacity for speech on the internet and on microblogs, and find popularity. We hope even more that more and more leaders address the conditions of the people in the real world, through real actions.From the China Daily of 2 July 2011:
If governments can correctly and properly guide public opinions, use microblogging as a good platform to learn about public opinions and the wisdom of the people, and find and solve problems as soon as possible, forming a widely-participated, orderly and interactive microblogging public opinion environment is completely possible. Microblogging will also become a "release valve" of social emotions and the "lubricant" of government-public relations.References
China’s microbloggers unafraid to rattle the censor’s cage 15/8/2011 - Business World Online
Politics in the age of the microblog 2/8/2011 - Chinese Media Project
China tackles the messy world of microblogs 1/8/2011 - Chinese Media Project
Microblogs a Threat to China's National Security: Official Report 14/7/2011 - The Epoch Times
China's government offcials open up to microblogs 14/7/2011 - Want China Times
How microblogging power shakes reality in China 2/7/2011 - China Daily
Xinhua Insight: Communist Party microblogs to reach out to public 24/6/2011 - English.news.cn
Must Officials Microblog? 6/5/2011 - Beijing Review
University names top ten official microblogs 25/4/2011 - Want China Times
Microblogging to improve governance 6/4/2011 - Global Times
Microblogs in China government's fight to win public approval 9/3/2011 - Reuters
Government Gets Big Into Microblogging 14/1/2011 - China Realtime Report
Police microblog helps catch murderers in East China 1/12/2010 - China Daily