Chinese authorities have employed some two million people as "Internet opinion analysts," more than the total payroll of the People's Liberation Army (PLA), official media reported, amid accusations that the web monitors manipulate online opinion.
Distinct from the less well-paid "50-cent army" hired by Internet service providers, government agencies and academic bodies to make pro-government comments and delete posts, these "opinion analysts" feed back to the ruling Chinese Communist Party, educational institutions and government agencies condensed reports on vast amounts of social media postings.
But they have also been implicated in attempts to manipulate online opinion, according to a recently leaked document detailing online debate at Peking University surrounding plans for a controversial new building.
The university's Youth Research Center, a branch of the Communist Party's Youth League, reportedly tried to influence that debate by attacking those who objected to the plans, the document shows.
"Public opinion analysts are better qualified, get more money and slightly higher status than the '50-cent army'," Zhejiang-based rights lawyer Yuan Gulai, who has a special interest in online freedom of speech, told RFA.
"Opinion analysts will regularly have dealings with party leaders and government departments at every level."
According to former Peking University journalism professor Jiao Guobiao, the role is fast becoming professionalized in China.
"Opinion analysis is actually a form of social research, similar to that undertaken by sociologists in a university," Jiao said.
"They are using a professional form of a pretty basic research method."
But Yuan said the analysts are also heavily involved in governance.
"All Chinese cities, large or small, have a special working group for 'public opinion leadership'," he said.
"Their job is to analyze, but also to take action."
He said the government regards the newly created profession as highly sensitive, however, and few details see the light of day.
"Recently, I saw some photos online of training programs for public opinion analysts ... but they later got deleted," Yuan said.
"I think [the government] regards the Internet as the place of greatest strategic advantage."
According to the leaked document, the Youth Research Center, party office and university officials colluded to set up fake accounts on the college's internal bulletin board system (BBS), which they used to hit back at overwhelming criticism of the Yenching project.
But BBS users smelled a rat, and eventually tracked the user accounts back to an IP address in the office of the university president. One of the user accounts was believed to be that of university party chief Yang Dawei.
BBS users then posted their findings on social media sites like Sina Weibo, Renren and WeChat.
The document analyzes the public relations debacle, concluding that opinion analysts should avoid antagonizing people whose opinions they want to change, and make concessions to "reasonable" requests.
Operatives should also work to "prevent infiltration from both domestic and foreign forces," coordinating with party propaganda officials and the State Council Information Office to ensure that opinions are "controlled" on broader social media as well as BBS.
Chinese netizens were quick to pick up on the report's implications, passing it around rapidly, though with scant comment for fear of reprisals, Hong Kong-based blogger Oiwan Lam wrote on the Global Voices Online website.
The exact numbers of people grouped under the "50-cent army" of Internet commentators is unknown, and many are employed by separate organizations under different job titles.
But their role is to try to swing the opinions of China's increasingly frustrated netizens in the direction of the status quo, posting pro-government opinions and trying to deflect criticism and dissent among China's 600 million Internet users.
In March, China announced a certified training course for future "public opinion managers," in a bid to train large numbers of new recruits.
China's Ministry of Industry and Information Technology recently set up the National Online Public Opinion Management Skills Proficiency Test Center, which has a website at www.npst.org.cn.
The program teaches aspiring "opinion managers" how to covertly direct online discussions on "mass incidents" of civil unrest and rioting that are a common occurrence in today's China.
They will also receive training in the influence of "Big V" tweeters with huge followings on popular microblogging platforms like Sina Weibo, who have been warned by the government to exhibit "social responsibility" after some posted comments highly critical of the government.
Organizations can send people to train as assistant analysts before they move up to analyst and senior analyst grades, or senior network engineer grade, by taking further tests, official media reported at the time.
Trainees will benefit from the experience of "veteran" manipulators of online public opinion, and learn through analysis of case studies, simulation, and group discussion.
China has cracked down on a number of high-profile journalists and tweeters in recent months, including veteran journalist Gao Yu, who is accused of "leaking state secrets" after she wrote a report for an overseas website.
On Sept. 1, 2013, China's highest judicial authorities issued a directive criminalizing online "rumor-mongering," in a move widely seen as targeting critical comments and negative news on the country's hugely popular social media sites.
Last year saw increasing levels of official control over freedom of expression, including criticisms of the government that were merely implied, the Hubei-based rights group Civil Rights and Livelihood Watch said in an annual report issued in February.
Reported by Xin Lin for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.