The research showed issues of most concern to web users were "living standards, public safety and social responsibility", according to the frequency of searches on Baidu. Social networking, including weibo, the study said, has made such hot-button issues no longer individual cases but interrelated. "Online topics, after being amplified and connected with related issues, can exert a bigger impact and force the authorities to think twice before making a decision," said Liu Shanying, a researcher with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, a government think tank.

Liu said that although Yu's research only included web users, it has a universal meaning in reflecting the demands society as a whole. Yu's team also concluded that weibo, on which about 20 percent of the hot-button issues first appeared in 2011, has become a major information source for public opinion. "Weibo may change China's social ecology and political context in the foreseeable future, force the dominant players to consider the reaction of the public when making a decision, and eventually achieve a balanced social ecology," Yu said.One example, Yu said, was regulations on school bus safety. China's first guidelines on school bus safety took effect on Tuesday, following a series of deadly school bus crashes that triggered public anger. Many people aired their concerns and suggestions through weibo.

The rise of weibo, however, can lead to online rumors and "harm social order", authorities have said.In the latest crackdown on online rumors, authorities have removed more than 210,000 online posts and shut down 42 websites since March, Liu Zhengrong, a senior official with the State Internet Information Office, said at a news briefing on Thursday. Liu said some netizens cannot distinguish truth from falsehood and the government and websites should "take steps" to help them make that distinction. China's Internet population has hit 513 million, the largest in the world, according to a China Internet Network Information Center report in January.