Viral news event case studies – Social media networking and the distribution of news in China

Presenter: Weiwei Xu, PhD candidate, University of Sydney.

With the innovation of Web 2.0 and the rise of mobile Internet (Goggin, 2011, 2012), the emergence of social media platforms have transformed the ways that people acquire and distribute news. This means that news producers become simultaneously receivers or, as Bruns calls them, “produsers” (2005).

This paper investigates how news events become viral on major social media platforms in China, through an analysis of several cases including the Tianjin explosion (Dwyer & Xu, 2015), the death of Lei Yang, Baidu-Weizexi case and the Wenzhou high-speed train crash. The argument is made that these viral news events possess their own sharing characteristics, producing varying impacts on public opinions.

A fundamental question addressed by the paper is: ‘Does the mass distribution of news on social media empower online users of China in case of crises, including natural and man-made disasters?’.

Kümpel et al note that: “Social media also simplify and facilitate news sharing—both for media organizations and individuals” (2015: 1). I make the argument that the interaction between the social media platforms and traditional media plays an important role in the dissemination of news. However, the dissemination of such news necessarily interacts with the regulation of the Internet by governing bodies, and lacking the editorial gate-keeping typically found with traditional news, it is prone to rumor, speculation and inaccuracies (Nip and Fu, 2016, Liu & Xu, 2011; Tong, 2014). Braun (2015) argues that social media platforms have controversially served as both distribution channels and automatic gatekeepers, emphasizing the value of “distribution studies”.

The paper will first explore various scholastic definitions of what it means to ‘go viral’ (Penenberg, 2015). It then draws on Habermasian theories about the public sphere and its transformation or “Public Sphere 2.0” (Rui et al, 2012). boyd (2010) also explores the construction of social media as networked publics, leading to the breaking up of public and private boundaries in communication. Kokas specifically explains China’s ‘blended public sphere’, defined as “a digital space in which conversations about different modes of access counter the rigorously controlled Chinese media landscape” (2015: 144).

The paper includes a theoretical discussion on citizen journalism (Bruns, 2012; Allan, 2011) and the boundary defence of professional journalism (Tong, 2014; Lewis &Westlund, 2015). I will also tease out implications for news distribution of Qiu’s (2007,2009) “Information have-less” and Chen and Goodman’s (2013) rise of middle class to see how mobile social media facilitate the communication needs of less privileged groups by offering free or affordable services. Finally, the paper will be based on the political economy of social media (Fuchs, 2014, 2015), critically analyzing the nature of platforms and how it influences their distribution affordances.

I use a combination of case study and textual analysis to examine content shared and the patterns of sharing. I use visualisations and statistics to highlight the reporting trends. To what extent digital platforms contribute to giving Internet users a “greater voice” in China is open to debate, and the impact of this wide-spread dissemination has to be further observed and tested.


Allan, S. (2013). ‘Citizen witnessing: revisioning journalism in times of crisis’. Key concepts in journalism. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Bruns, A. (2005) ‘Some Exploratory Notes on Produsers and Produsage’, Snurblog, 3 November 2005, (assessed 10 December 2007)

Bruns, A. & Highfield, T. (2012) Blogs, Twitter, and breaking news: the produsage of citizen journalism. In Lind, Rebecca Ann (Ed.) Produsing Theory in a Digital World: The Intersection of Audiences and Production in Contemporary Theory. Peter Lang Publishing Inc., New York, pp. 15-32.

Braun, J.A. (2015) ‘Social Media and Distribution Studies’. Social Media + Society, April-June 2015, vol. 1 no. 1 2056305115580483

boyd d.. (2010) ‘Social Network Sites as Networked Publics: Affordances, Dynamics, and Implications’ In Networked Self: Identity, Community, and Culture on Social Network Sites (ed. Zizi Papacharissi, 2010), Florence, K Y: USA Routledge.

Chen, M., Goodman, D. (2013) Middle Class China: Identity and Behaviour. Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar Publishing.

Dwyer, T., Xu, W. (2015) ‘Tianjin Disaster Takes Social News Sharing to New Levels in China’, The Conversation, August 25, 2015. Accessed at:

Fuchs, C. (2015) ‘Baidu, Weibo and Renren: The Global Political Economy of Social Media in China’. Asian Journal of Communication. July 2015:

Fuchs, C. (2014). Social media: A critical introduction. London: SAGE Publications

Goggin, G. (2012) New Technologies and the Media. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampsire: Palgrave Macmillan.

Goggin, G. (2011) Global Mobile Media. London, United Kingdom: Routledge imprint of Taylor & Francis.

Kümpel et al (2015) News sharing in social media: A review of current research on news sharing users, content and networks. Social Media & Society,1(2), 1-14

Lewis, S. C. & Westlund O. (2015) ‘Big Data and Journalism – Epistemology, expertise, economics, and ethics’, Digital Journalism, 3(3), 447-466.

Liu R. and Xu, W. (2012)《微博的发展态势、传播特征及治理策略》Trends, Characteristics and Governance of Micro-blogging, in Yin, Y., (Ed.) 《中国新媒体蓝皮书:中国新媒体产业发展报告》Blue Book of New Media: Report on the development of China’s media, in Chinese. Beijing: Social Sciences Academic Press (China).

Nip J. & F K. (2016) ‘Challenging Official Propaganda? Public Opinion Leaders on Sina Weibo’. The China Quarterly, Available on CJO 2016 doi:10.1017/ S0305741015001654

Penenberg A. (2015)  Viral Loop: From Facebook to Twitter, How Today’s Smartest Businesses Grow Themselves, New York : Hyperion Books.

Qiu J. (2007) ‘The Accidental Accomplishment of Little Smart: Understanding the Emergence of a Working-class ICT’, New Media & Society, Vol 9 (6): 903-923

Qiu J. (2009). ‘Working-Class Network Society: Communication Technology and the Information Have-Less in Urban China’. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Ruiz, C. et al. (2011)  “Public Sphere 2.0? The Democratic Qualities of Ci-tizen Debates in Online Newspapers”. The International Jour-nal of Press and Politics, 16, p. 463

Tong, J. (2014) ‘The Defence of Journalistic Legitimacy in Media Discourse in China: an Analysis of the Case of Deng Yujiao’, in Journalism, online first

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