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.
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