Beyond the Wall: Mapping Twitter in China

47 Pages Posted: 3 Nov 2015 Last revised: 7 Mar 2017

See all articles by Sonya Y. Song

Sonya Y. Song

Quello Center for Telecommunication Management and Law; Michigan State University

Robert Faris

Harvard University - Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society

John Kelly

Harvard University - Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society

Date Written: November 2, 2015

Abstract

In this paper, we map and analyze the structure and content found on Twitter centered around users in mainland China. This study offers a rare look at the activity of Chinese Internet users on a platform that is largely unregulated by the state and only reachable through the use of tools that circumvent state-mandated Internet filters. For Internet users that reside in mainland China, Twitter offers access to news from around the world and a wealth of ideas and perspectives that might otherwise be unavailable there, as well as a platform for building online communities that is not under direct control of the government. This study of Chinese Twitter — to our knowledge the first such study — offers a unique window into the online activities and global connections of Chinese Internet users who actively circumvent content restrictions. Based on a mixed-methods approach, combining social network analysis and a qualitative review of the content and activity of Chinese Twitter, we are able to map and provide detailed accounts of the topically based clusters that form among these networks. We identify 36 clusters that focus primarily on three areas: politics, technology, and entertainment. From one perspective, the discourse in the politically engaged portions of Chinese Twitter suggests that Twitter serves an alternative public sphere. The political group is formed of journalists, lawyers, human rights activists, and scholars, who are free to discuss topics typically not permitted in China, such as the Tiananmen Square protests, Tibetan and Uyghur issues, political scandals, and pollution. Yet China’s Internet repression is clearly succeeding. Chinese Twitter falls well short of supporting a broadly accessible networked public sphere. The proportion of the Chinese populace with direct access to the debates, communities, and shared resources on Twitter is relatively small, and the avenues by which such discourse might find its way into mainstream political discussion are severely constrained. The firewall between Twitter and the much larger social media platforms in China remains a formidable barrier.

Suggested Citation

Song, Sonya Y. and Faris, Robert and Kelly, John, Beyond the Wall: Mapping Twitter in China (November 2, 2015). Berkman Center Research Publication No. 2015-14. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2685358 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2685358

Sonya Y. Song (Contact Author)

Quello Center for Telecommunication Management and Law; Michigan State University ( email )

Communication Arts and Sciences Building
404 Wilson Road Room 409
East Lansing, MI 48824
United States

Robert Faris

Harvard University - Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society ( email )

Harvard Law School
23 Everett, 2nd Floor
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States

John Kelly

Harvard University - Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society ( email )

Harvard Law School
23 Everett, 2nd Floor
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States

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