December 4, 2013, by Tony Hong

Reading the writing on the wall – Recent developments in the study of Chinese Social Media

By Christian Shepherd,

Studying an MA in Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Nottingham Ningbo China.

Chinese social media is both a blessing and a curse for Contemporary Chinese Studies’ research. The potential is obvious: over half of Chinese internet users are micro-bloggers and internet penetration has reached the 40th percentile, but the pitfalls are numerous: it’s a biased sample, the sources are unverified and, of course, the data is contaminated by censorship with just under 1 million articles censored every day in 2010. 

All hope, however, is not lost. The study of Chinese social media is a rapidly growing field where many new findings and techniques blossom. These developments show how far we have come in our use of social media as a data source, while also promising hoards of information waiting to be uncovered.

Though far from a Habermasian public sphere, there is increasing evidence of meaningful discussion existing on Chinese social media. The analysis of content surrounding a hit-and-run case in 2011 showed rationality and dynamism amongst the users as they discussed a range of societal issues that contributed to the tragedy rather than sticking to the government provided interpretation of ‘morality in crisis’. 

Findings suggesting meaningfulness have been accompanied by increasing understanding of content’s impact beyond cyberspace. Naive beliefs that the Internet would directly undermine the party have been replaced by considerations of how it is used to facilitate ‘adaptive authoritarianism’. Simultaneously, there is evidence of democratizing forces at work. Micro-blogging can allow issue related networking and communication across geographical boundaries, and the mass exposure to societal issues and alternative interpretations has been shown to influence individual views and, arguably, to provide the diversity of opinion necessary for political change.

The usefulness of studying Chinese social media is exponentially increased by the use of standardized and quantitative techniques. Qualitative work always has its place, but for online content analysis there is indubitably strength in numbers. Gary King of Harvard’s Institute for Quantitative Social Sciences recently forged new ground in a randomized study of Chinese censorship, where he automatically coded millions of Weibo posts and analysed their removal, finding that it is their ability to cause collective action rather than the virility of their criticism that decides whether they are removed. While we might doubt the conclusions of individual studies, it is hard to deny that the ability to replicate, to do longitudinal studies, to randomize, and to use large samples will be an invaluable tool in the future of Weibo analysis.

It’s not all roses, unfortunately, and the problems are still myriad. The nature of the social media landscape and its censorship tends to ebb and flow with time – what was true today may be false tomorrow. Incidents such as the recent crackdown on China’s most famous bloggers – the ‘big V’s, as well as the potential relaxing of external social media censorship in the Shanghai Free Trade Zone, leave the potential impact of the Xi-Li leadership on the Internet a niggling yet titillating.

Despite the uncertainty of Chinese social media’s future, there is little to make us think that direction of change will realistically reduce its value as a data source. In fact, the second order information can be just as revealing as the content itself. New China-specific phenomena constantly arise and are often worthy of investigation. For example, the increasingly innovative methods users employ to sidestep censors, the privatization of censorship and the problems this has caused, and the way the state uses the Internet to its advantage both as a feedback loop and via specified censorship relaxation around particular events.

Bill Clinton’s likening of the Chinese Internet to Jell-O is as true now as it was when first articulated, however recent developments suggest that the social sciences are becoming increasingly capable of handling this tricky data source and extracting from it significant and useful findings concerning Contemporary China.

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