A fragile platform - social media in China

This month it was announced that social media users in China could be charged and threatened with three year jail sentences if they spread 'false' rumours through social media, writes Tom Cross, research manager at Ipsos MediaCT.

If one of these rumours is viewed by 5,000 people or is reposted more than 500 times, the source of that post would be liable.

One of the most powerful things about social media in China and elsewhere in the world is that that it can give people a platform to share their opinions that was previously out of reach. There have been examples of social media in China being mutually beneficial for both the government and the people, but in a country where censorship is normality and communication directed from above, perhaps it has been decided that unofficial voices are becoming too prominent.

Corruption

Earlier this month, a Chinese provincial official called Yang Dacai was sentenced to 14 years in jail for corruption after a social media campaign circulated images of him smiling at the scene of a bus accident last year in which 36 people died. If this caused anger, it was exacerbated further by images shared online of him wearing designer watches that would normally be unattainable for a man in his position. This led to an investigation which uncovered the real source of his income: bribes. The Chinese President Xi Jinping has made it clear that he wants to fight corruption, so online campaigns like this one have been encouraged.

With hundreds of millions of social media users operating in a fast-moving online environment, the opportunities for group action like this are vast in China. Recent data from Ipsos OTX confirms that Chinese social media users are very likely to have said that they have shared content in the last month (85%), compared to 60% in the US and 58% in the UK, for example. Social sites such as Sina Weibo, WeChat and Renren compete for market share and advertising revenues. This is also a market which, like others in the world, is seeing a growth in the mutually beneficial relationship between social media and the smartphone, with the mobile firm Xiaomi aiming to increase its market share and see off competition from brands like Apple and Samsung.

The unique nature of conversations on social media and the ability to share information with friends is clearly a key contributor in its expanding popularity in recent years. If this has been appreciated by users in countries with a recent history more rooted around the notion of free speech, it is easy to imagine how liberating it has been in a country like China where such freedoms have typically been more limited.

Now, however, it seems that despite the stories such as Yang Dacai’s and countless others which have seen the online community working together to combat corruption (with the apparent support of the government), the leadership in China has determined that there are just too many influential voices, which are not always talking favourably about government policies.

A new form of communication

The reaction of the Chinese in trying to regain some measure of control over social media is perhaps indicative of the fact that what we are currently witnessing is a relatively new form of communication without precedent. People feel comfortable in an environment they inhabit with others like them, which can empower them with certain freedoms to behave and talk about things more naturally. The evolution of the smartphone has also encouraged spontaneity in digital conversations, which arguably enhances this sense of freedom still further. However there is clearly a risk that posts that feel right in the moment could later be regretted.

One of China’s most popular microbloggers is Pan Shiyi, who has previously used his blog to criticise aspects of government policy. In a recent interview with CCTV (the state run TV network) about social media, Pan, normally an assured and confident public speaker, was visibly nervous. As he stuttered through the interview, he suggested that bloggers like him with lots of fans needed to be particularly disciplined and ‘not so casual’. The irony of course is that the whole point of social media is that it has given people the freedom to be themselves; to be casual. In China, social media as a platform for sharing opinions, like Pan Shiyi’s voice, has become a little less stable.

This article was first published on The Wall Blog

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