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Sociology of emotions to manage public opinion online

LIU NAN | 2021-04-01 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Construction workers raced against time to build Huoshenshan and Leishenshan hospitals—two makeshift hospitals for COVID-19 patients in suburban Wuhan—on Jan. 30, 2020, as tens of millions of people around the country watched the construction through a live streaming broadcast. Photo: CFP

Today, as China continues to build itself into a cyber power, the internet has penetrated every aspect of social life and become an important arena for public opinion agglomeration and dissemination. Therefore, network public opinion governance, as the main platform for public opinion, is essential for promoting the national modernization drive.

In recent years, new trends have been identified in the study of internet public opinion. Scholars are delving into new changes to the formation of public opinion in the information age and proposing standardization to network governance. In light of online groups’ tendency to polarize under traditional governance mechanisms, some scholars suggested innovative and inter-departmental coordinated responses. Others called for the use of new intelligent technologies to usher in a new paradigm of cloud-based public opinion governance. 
However, despite the updated coping mechanisms and technological advancements, deep-seated problems in the evolution and governance of network public opinion have yet to be tackled, and thus far, suggested interventions overlook the possibility of emotional backfire from implicit public opinion.
The term “public opinion” carries emotional attributes and factors with it. The expansion of the internet as a new communication method provides challenges to the primacy of traditional media and its ability to shape public opinion. In contemporary society, public opinion online has, to some extent, become the barometer of social sentiment. Sociology of emotions is a branch of sociology, which specializes in studying emotional phenomena and the laws of emotional behavior and social development. It focuses primarily on the social and cultural environment in which emotions exist, the social nature and social development process of emotions, and the social composition and functions of emotions.
In this light, the introduction of sociology of emotions is required to promote innovative online public opinion research and the modernization of online public opinion governance, which offers us a deeper understanding of the emotional attributes and evolution patterns of public opinion online.
Implicit public opinion
Subtle, not widely voiced public opinion is also known as implicit public opinion. They represent an undercurrent of public thoughts with key impacts and associated effects. Chinese communication scholar Chen Lidan argues that there are three existing states of public opinion: implicit public opinion, explicit public opinion, and behavioral public opinion. Implicit public opinion refers to unexpressed beliefs and public sentiments that are not easily captured. 
Nowadays, emerging media platforms feature the real-time, interactive, pluralistic, and complex dissemination of public opinion. In the post-truth era, the field of public opinion is characterized by the superiority of emotions over facts, making truth a debate and an emotional struggle, and turning group discussions in the public sphere into a place for prejudiced communities to form.
Social contradictions in social security, rule of law construction, public health, and other fields are amplified by online public opinion. Hidden, diversified, and complex public opinion will have strong ideological and emotional appeal if they are hijacked by an irrational public opinion frenzy, sometimes spinning public opinion out of control.
More often than not, a small incident strikes the public’s most strained nerve, triggering an evolution of online public opinion into a major opinion-shifting event, which can unleash the rampant spread of information, but also ignite sentiments in an infectious way. Therefore, we must watch for the transformation of implicit public opinion. 
German-American sociologist Lewis Coser argued that conflict can fulfill “safety valve” functions, because it can serve as an outlet for hostilities so that relationships between antagonists can be maintained. On the contrary, if emotions are left boiling for a long time, they will cause many social problems. So, society needs to set up regular and institutionalized channels to relieve emotions and ensure a healthy environment for public opinion.
In network public opinion governance, information governance could fall under the purview of ex-post management, whereas governance of emotions can be classified as prior management and ongoing management. In addition to explicit public opinion information and network communication behavior, it is essential to explore emotional logic and social motivations that occur behind the scenes, as part of implicit public opinion management processes. A systematic management of implicit public opinion should be strengthened through an analysis of different scenarios and feedback mechanisms that move in a dynamic manner, so as to defuse a potential public opinion crisis. 
Best responses
Social media has fundamentally changed the news consumption landscape. In a fragmented public opinion ecosystem, it is often easier for people to fall prey to emotional appeals rather than react rationally to ideas or facts. As of today, emotional appeals have become an important strategy in news production and consumption.
In response to heated social topics with wide public concern, government agencies and mainstream media could make full use of integrated media technology and keep audiences engaged with reasons that make good sense. Only by increasing discourse power can the core socialist values be promoted. 
In particular, communication of public opinion on a variety of platforms can strengthen emotional resonance, highlight rational values, break down communication barriers among different audience circles, and shape discourse, emotional appeals, and value identifications in the right direction.
With the help of multiple media platforms, an immersive and comprehensive social experience could be created to facilitate positive cross-screen emotional interactions between information publishers and audiences. For example, while reporting on the COVID-19 epidemic in Wuhan City, live-stream cameras were installed at hospital construction sites to give people a bird’s-eye view of the construction process, with workers, trucks, and excavators racing to make the deadline. The live streaming broadcast was relayed to tens of millions of netizens and received a warm public response. Network platforms cannot act as social mobilizers in the public opinion ecology, but can also allow for emotional healing and public opinion channeling, thus promoting the positive dissemination of mainstream values.
Communication power determines the scope of influence, while rhetoric strategies and storytelling methods all influence levels of communication appeal, credibility and social penetrability. To improve the communication power of public opinion guidance in major public opinion events and emergencies, “relating to the audience” and “reasoning” must work together to maximize information dissemination and safeguard a healthy public opinion ecology.
Measurement of emotions
The measurement of emotions is an important topic in the study of sociology of emotions. In The Sociology of Emotion, Jonathan Turner and Jane Stetz adopted new techniques, such as brain imaging and audiovisual technology, to measure emotions and quantify them as strong or weak, and to analyze the underlying mechanisms of emotions. 
Massive information on social media constitutes a noisy field of network public opinion. Big data has become the genome of network public opinion. With the help of thematic analysis, sentiment analysis, and semantic analysis, a large number of public opinion texts can be classified, so that massive, complex, and disordered texts can be sorted in advance to form a discourse framework for different categories of public events in the field of network public opinion.
Nowadays, thematic analysis, sentiment analysis, and semantic analysis are common computational communication tools used in the study of network public opinion. Moreover, with emotional data analysis and natural language processing technologies, media outlets could study network information, such as written texts on social media, to keep tabs on the emotions, attitudes, and viewpoints of netizens to predict their political and emotional preferences, as well as online influencers’ possible roles in emergencies and major public opinion events.
Big data technology makes dynamic and real-time data statistics possible, rather than the vague, rigid, and general summaries that were possible in the past. Upon determining netizens’ emotional tendencies and action trends, the weights of different indicators can be designed based on the degree of likelihood, quantity, and importance, to form a hierarchical classification of public opinion. 
From the perspective of public opinion guidance, public opinion classification indexes should be established for different events, and corresponding public opinion levels and data prediction models should be formulated, so as to provide a real-time reference for comparisons.
The management of network public opinion in the post-truth era is a comprehensive project. Emotion is the core factor guiding public opinion, so the management of network public opinion should prioritize the management of emotions. Sociology of emotions can explain online public opinion’s fundamental attributes in depth, decode the emotional logic and rules for the evolution of public opinion, and provide new theoretical support for the research of online public opinion, which is conducive to promoting the innovation and development of online public opinion research. 
Through the construction of a three-dimensional governance system of emotions, we could create “concentric circles” of online public opinion, pursue good governance, look for consensus, and explore a governance mechanism and optimization path for online public opinion in line with China’s national conditions.
Liu Nan is from the Institute of Communication Studies at Communication University of China.
Edited by YANG XUE