The Role of Social Media for Civic Action

In recent years, optimistic discourses about the possibilities of using social media for civic engagement and political action have been very popular, especially after the Arab Spring, in which Twitter is widely believed to have played an important role. Many scholars tend to praise social media for “they can be empowering and politically transformative” [1]. While there are also scholars who argue that the Internet easily lends itself to the repressive control and the abuse of power by authoritarian government [2]. What role do social media play in civic engagement and political action? This blog post will try to explore this question based on a case study of the 2013 Southern Weekly Incident in China, which is regarded as “the first large-scale protest movement against censorship and fighting for freedom of speech in China since 1949” [3].

CHINA MEDIA CENSORSHIP

Southern Weekly, a newspaper of Nanfang Media Group, distinguishes itself from other governmental media by attempting investigative reporting and criticizing the government.

The 2013 Southern Weekly Incident

At the beginning of this year, the Southern Weekly Incident in China caught nationwide, even worldwide attention. In January 2013, the original New Year’s special editorial of Southern Weekly which calls for the cementing of rights into a constitution, was changed significantly under the pressure from the Propaganda Department of Guangdong Province. The new editorial with praise of the Chinese Communist Party was published on January 3rd. In response, the newsroom staff issued an explanation notice on the incident and announced a strike on Sina Weibo (akin to a hybrid of Twitter and Facebook), the most popular and influential social media platform in China with over 500 million users. Soon news and information about the incident spread widely, and led to heated debate on social media. Public figures and anonymous Weibo users began to post their doubts about the incident or support for Southern Weekly. The government soon censored Weibo, and accounts of some journalists and outspoken commentators got muted or deleted. However, Chinese netizens were determined to keep the cause alive. Since January 7th, protests against censorship spread widely online and translated into real-life protest. Eventually, the protest movement led to a settlement of negotiation between the newspaper staff and the governmental officials. The head of the Propaganda Department was forced to resign, and the government promised to cancel the censorship prior to publishing.

To investigate what role Weibo played in the incident, qualitative data were collected from websites, Weibo posts and comments and media coverage. In addition, an IT worker (@linghutian) who participated in the protest movement actively both online and offline and a college student (@jingran) who protested only on Weibo were interviewed.

Findings: What role did Weibo play in the incident?

First, Weibo offered a new way of facilitating collective civic action which has low threshold and low cost. According to Bennett and Segerberg, since the introduction of digital media, at least two different logics may be in play in large-scale action networks: the familiar logic of collective action associated with high levels of organization resources and the formation of collective identities, and the less familiar logic of connective action based on personalized content sharing across media networks [4]. It was the second logic that worked in the protest movement in the case. Weibo made it possible for all users to engage in public debate and express their demands and positions. In the incident, people from diverse social backgrounds including ordinary college students, urban white collar professionals and even civil servants, rallied to fight for their shared rights and called for an end of censorship. It can be seen that voluntary engagement of masses of people formed organized power without organization. “This incident marked the first time a social consensus was formed, and collective social action taken, around the pursuit of rights in a more general sense.”[5]That is the reason why the authorities got feared and agreed to the demand of Southern Weekly on the cancel of censorship prior to publishing. Thus online civic participation can be as powerful as its offline predecessors. Meanwhile, it can avoid violence or repression may be associated with offline movement.

Furthermore, Weibo accelerated the spreading of news and information about the incident and allowed the civic action to have extraordinary reach, thus contributed to the rise and influence of the incident. After the explanation notice was issued on Weibo, it got a large number of reposting immediately. The most popular and influential celebrities like Yao Chen (with 31 million followers), Kaifu Lee, Ren Zhiqiang, all stepped out to speak for Southern Weekly on Weibo. Since then, the incident became the top topic on Weibo despite the fact that many terms related to the incident were soon filtered by Sina (the company which owns Weibo). @jingran said the following when asked about how she got to know the incident and what she did after that:

“I read several posts about it on January 3rd, but didn’t pay much attention. But on the next day, whenever I checked my Weibo, posts about the incident took up nearly half of it. So I was to some extent forced to learn about it. Then I began to follow up the incident and repost posts questioning the truth of the incident. I gradually knew some details and then posted many posts to support Southern Weekly as many other people did on Weibo.”

It was estimated that those who kept following up the incident and voicing support for Southern Weekly on Weibo like @jingran numbered at least in the tens of millions [6],  while only less than a thousand people engaged in the offline protest. So It was the large-scale online protest that played a decisive role in the incident and led to the settlement.

Thus it can be concluded that Weibo can facilitate collective action and have the potential to affect the health of civic society.

However, there are also limitations and challenges. In this case, those who can take advantage of Weibo to participate in the action actively are limited to wealthier people with computer skills and media literacy. And those who joined in the protest offline remained a minority and tended to be well educated young people and media workers according to @linghutian.

linghutian

@linghutian protested outside the headquarters of Southern Weekly with a placard saying “yesterday I was online, today I am at the scene”.

Moreover, the government has extended its power to the online realm and intervened in social media through censorship and surveillance. The accounts of users who expressed extremely radical provocative opinions against the government were blocked. Posts jeopardizing interests of the government were deleted. For instance, @linghutian’s post with a photo of himself  in the offline protest scene was censored and removed from Weibo after it was reposted over 24,822 times. In addition, a long list of terms related to the incident was filtered in the Sina search engine, even including “south”.

Conclusion

As  suggests in China’s authoritarian adaptation towards social media, the censorship from the government makes social media in China more like “a giant cage”. However, the case above seems to suggest that the giant cage does not always manage to contain its birds. Whereas we should not overestimate the potential of social media for political transformation, we have the reason to believe that if used properly, Weibo may bring positive social changes to China.

References

  1. Zhai, Zheng. 2010. “Microblogs in China- Micro-changing a society”. In Social Media and Politics: Online Social Networking and Political Communication in Asia, edited by Philip Behnke, 107-118. Singapore: Konrad- Adenauer- Stiftung.
  2. Morozov, E. 2011. The net delusion: The dark side of internet freedom. New York, NY: PublicAffairs.
  3. Xiao, Shu. 2013. “The Southern Weekly Incident, an Exercise in Citizen Action”. New York Times, January 29th.
  4. Bennett. W. Lance & Segerberg. Alexandra. 2012. “The Logic of Connective Action”. Information, Communication& Society, 15:5, 739-768.
  5. Xiao, Shu. 2013. “The Southern Weekly Incident, an Exercise in Citizen Action”. New York Times, January 29th.
  6. Xiao, Shu. 2013. “The Southern Weekly Incident, an Exercise in Citizen Action”. New York Times, January 29th.
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