Authoritarianism2.0: Social Media and Political Discussion in China
49 Pages Posted: 25 Aug 2015
Date Written: August 25, 2015
The rise of new media scholars has sparked a vivid discussion about the role of social media in authoritarian regimes, some arguing that social media undermine authoritarian regimes, while others believe they can be manipulated to strengthen authoritarian rule. Most of these studies draw conclusions based on the content produced by active Internet users. However, when studying the content of social media we miss part of the story. A majority of Internet users do not post, but only read messages by others. These user experiences are important to learn about who voices their opinions online in an authoritarian context, and the potential impact online discussion may have on political engagement.
This paper studies this question by exploring differences between people who read (lurkers) and people who comment (discussants), and the motivations and concerns for censorship that may influence these respective behaviors on social media in China. Increasing importance of political discussion in the Chinese political process has led to a growing body of literature on authoritarian deliberation. We advance this literature by exploring who is joining the debate and who is observing it, placing our findings within the broader context of authoritarian deliberation in China.
Relying on in-depth qualitative interviews, online survey data including an experiment, and a case study of an online discussion regarding the death penalty for child trafficking we focus on social media users in China. We find that lurkers tend to seek information about politics online and do not join the debate out of higher concerns for privacy. Discussants tend to voice their views as a means to socialize and be recognized. Comparatively lower concerns for privacy facilitate the expression of views online, though discussants adjust their views and use fake accounts when openly expressing opinions. Our findings have implications for the role of social media in China and perhaps other authoritarian states.
Keywords: China, authoritarianism, deliberation, Internet, social media, public opinion, political participation, user behavior
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