Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Interpreting Informally Collected Online Comments: The Value of Informed Opinions

The online comments written by Chinese readers of news sites and users of social networking services such as Sina Weibo provide a readily available source for gauging viewpoints on a variety of issues. Although the practice of using online comments in this way is not specific to China, in a country where there are greater challenges faced in judging public sentiment online comments can be especially attractive. However, there are a variety of possible pitfalls in interpreting and presenting online comments, and they vary depending on one's goals in using them. Exploring the full extent is beyond the scope of what I could cover in a single post. For now, I will discuss two examples that highlight how knowledgeable people can potentially provide valuable insights in interpreting online comments, even if they are not likely collected in a rigorously methodical manner.

In the first example, several months ago in his blog on The New Yorker Evan Osnos discussed the different viewpoints of the Chinese government and the Chinese people regarding Russian Prime Minister (and now President-elect) Vladimir Putin:
And at the grassroots? Feelings toward Putin and his people is, well, less welcoming. “Take the party back, take dictatorship back and take Leninism back,” a commentator calling himself “Headmaster II” posted to the Russian Embassy’s Chinese feed the other day. Another added: “Russia is shameless. Putin is manipulating the elections.”

There are thousands of these kinds of messages stacked up, the BBC monitoring service discovered, and it’s safe to assume this was not the reaction that the Russian Embassy in Beijing had in mind when it debuted on Weibo, the Chinese Twitter, earlier this month with the message: “Hello everyone! This is the Russian Embassy in China!… All are welcome to follow us!” People did not miss the opportunity: “I don’t like Russia. First of all, it robbed us of our territories. (Just google ‘border skirmishes’) Secondly, it massacred my compatriots. Thirdly, its disastrous influence continues to this day!” the journalist Chen Baocheng wrote on Weibo.

What are we to make of this? If the Chinese online public were on the couch, its shrink might suggest it is projecting.
Notably, Osnos does not simply present the comments and discuss their surface meaning but instead suggests that they represent deeper attitudes regarding Chinese politics.

In the second example, just over a month ago U.S. President Barack Obama's Google Plus page was overwhelmed with Chinese comments during a period when Google Plus was unblocked in mainland China. Stephanie Ho on Voice of America shared Jeffrey Goldkorn's interpretation of the comments:
"Whether they were calling on the United States to liberate the Chinese Internet or calling on Obama to stop being an imperialist, the tone was overwhelmingly humorous," Goldkorn said. "So I don't think anyone should take this as an indicator of U.S.-Chinese relations, or I don't think one should read too much into this. I think for lots of people participating, this was fun, just a game."

He adds that this kind of humor has its roots in Chinese culture.

"You know there is this idea in China that has been adapted for the Internet of 'weiguan,' of standing around and looking at something interesting, and this seems to me like a very weiguan behavior, where people probably spread virally that 'Hey, you can comment on Obama's page,' and people went to have a look, and they left comments."

Goldkorn adds that many Chinese would visit President Obama's webpage simply because it is such a novelty to leave comments for a well-known top leader, because they do not have the same opportunities in their own country. But he warns that these comments do not accurately represent public opinion throughout the country.

"It shows you one aspect of public opinion as held by very high-tech savvy Internet users, most of whom are in their 20s or 30s," he said. "To read it as what all people in China are thinking, it would be wrong."
Like Osnos, Goldkorn suggests that there is a different meaning in the comments than may appear to some. But in this case, Goldkorn believes the comments are more representative of people having fun than of any deeply held political views.

Both cases involve online comments left (presumably) by Chinese directed toward foreign governments and their representatives. However, Osnos and Goldkorn interpret the motivations for the comments very differently. Given that these are examples of two different events with two different sets of comments, it could be that both interpretations are correct. It could also be that Osnos and Goldkorn would reach identical interpretations for the same set of comments. What I most want to emphasize, though, is that I doubt many casual observers not familiar with China would have on their own discerned these potential interpretations. Regardless of whether they are ultimately correct, both Osnos and Goldkorn have a familiarity with China that enables them to provide valuable insights and perspectives.

To be clear, I believe one should be healthily skeptical of broader claims based on online comments in any country. In many cases the comments for an article or a post are not collected in any rigorous manner (or at the very least any such method is not described so that it can be evaluated) to ensure that they are meaningfully representative. And even if they are representative, at best they typically can only be said to represent "online users who are willing to comment publicly about topic X on service Y". That may be interesting, but it is sometimes not the claim being made. In the above examples, Goldkorn is careful to note that public opinion of Internet users cannot be taken as representative of "all people in China", and Osnos limits his comments to the "Chinese online public". Also, I am not sure that Goldkorn would strongly claim the select comments are necessarily representative of Chinese Internet users or that Osnos would disagree that his quotes may truly represent the "Chinese online public who are willing to comment about Putin on Sina Weibo".

Additionally, I do not mean to suggest that those who are not familiar with China have no role in interpreting online comments. In fact, "outside" perspectives can be invaluable when developed and applied constructively. However, people interpreting on their own the translations of a set of comments from an unfamiliar culture that have been selected in an unclear manner seems to open the door for immense misunderstanding.

There is a certain degree of trust placed on people such as Osnos and Goldkorn, and they have each in their own way sought to earn that trust. In my eyes they are not making any formal research claims in the above cases but instead drawing upon their previous knowledge about China to provide thoughtful analysis regarding a set of collected online comments -- including the judgement as to whether they are meaningfully representative. In their proper context they can add value as part of an ongoing exploration to better understand China.

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