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Authoritarianism2.0: The Internet, Political Discussion, and Authoritarian Rule in China

Final Report Summary - AUTHORITARIANISM2.0: (Authoritarianism2.0: The Internet, Political Discussion, and Authoritarian Rule in China)

The Internet is often regarded as contributing to political engagement by giving citizens the opportunity to engage in political talk and assess conflicting ideas. Critics have conversely emphasized the Internet’s potential to damage deliberative ideals by facilitating exposure to like-minded views, encouraging incivility, or decreasing satisfaction. This project investigates which social media facilitate political engagement and why. Focusing on interactivity as the defining characteristic of social media platforms we explain how the technological design contributes to environments that facilitate or hinder the expression of views on public affairs. The project also seeks to explore how netizens experience discussion in those settings and whether and how those experiences matter for political engagement.

The project has four central scientific objectives: The first objective is to explore what kinds of people engage in online discussions and differences between active and passive participants. The second objective is to understand how the technological settings that create the conditions for online discussion differ from each other. The third objective is to assess how active and passive participants see the diversity and disagreement in the discussion in these settings. The fourth objective is to assess whether citizens take action upon online political discussion depending on how they see it.

This research investigates these objectives in the context of China, focusing primarily on differences between the WhatsApp-like Wechat, the Twitter-like social media services Sina Weibo, and Baidu Tieba. These social media platforms provide three of the largest social media platforms in Chinese cyberspace. Based on qualitative and quantitative research methods we find that the interactivity on social media platforms is maximized towards one core function, which has important implications for how users experience these platforms. We find that platforms aiming to make users a source of information through public, information-centered communication, such as the Twitter-like Weibo, are more conducive to political expression; while platforms built to optimize building social connections through private, user-centered communication, such as the WhatsApp and Facebook-like WeChat, tend to inhibit political expression.

In contrast to current research on social media, which focuses on the most active users that produce content, we find that the consequences of social media can only be fully understood when taking into account that most people passively observe rather than actively participate. Active users tend to use social media for social purposes while passive users primarily use social media in order to gain information. Especially passive observers of the discussion tend to perceive the discussion as more diverse and enthusiastic compared to active participants.

These perceptions matter for whether people take political action. When citizens face a problem in their local area, people who perceive online discourse as more diverse and enthusiastic are more likely to engage in actions aimed at non-governmental actors, such as making a complaint to media and social organizations or boycotting products by companies. When citizens are approached by local government to participate, people who perceive online discourse as more diverse and enthusiastic are more likely to engage in campaign activities, such as participating in education activities and attending a public hearing. In contrast to assumptions about the political consequences of the Internet, we do not find evidence that perceptions of online discussion increase the likelihood to join contentious political action. Social media may still contribute to contentious political action by facilitating organization, but what people perceive to be discussed on social media tends to be unrelated to decisions about whether to join. Social media provide opportunities for politically less sophisticated users to become more engaged in public affairs.