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Benjamin K. Johnson
Media users exercise control over their information and entertainment environments. Selective exposure to media allows individual to choose channels and messages that satisfy their interests and motivations. A variety of selective exposure studies have assessed selective exposure to messages about ingroup versus outgroup members. Relevant theoretical perspectives include information seeking, confirmation bias, informational utility, self and affect management, reinforcing spirals, boundary expansion, exemplification, and social comparison. Each of these theories of selective exposure identifies an attitudinal or self-conceptual basis for media use yet also allows for the role of social identity or beliefs about intergroup members and interactions. In addition, the distinction between selective exposure and selective avoidance is critical for understanding intergroup media contact, as is the distinction between positive and negative portrayals of relevant social groups. Applicable findings from survey and experimental studies illustrate that age identity, sex and gender identity, and race and ethnicity all produce patterns of selective exposure in which ingroups are generally favored. Information about outgroups is more likely to be selected if it suits the situational or dispositional needs of the individual. Partisan selective exposure is also examined from an intergroup perspective, as is selective exposure to information about aspirational future selves and self-expansion. Depictions of persons that exemplify social groups or allow for social comparison are also discussed, yet little direct evidence exists about exposure to outgroup members in these processes. Finally, interpersonal new media are considered with regard to intergroup contact. Immersive media such as virtual reality provide interactive contact with outgroups, and social identity plays an important role in the distribution of user-generated content, the cultivation of online social networks, and the ongoing convergence between mass and social media. Selective exposure researchers are increasingly considering intergroup contact as an important type of media content relevant to their theories, and intergroup contact researchers are increasingly accounting for the selectivity factor in media processing and effects. Integrating key findings and building a more programmatic approach to this topic will enhance the understanding of individuals’ self-selected exposure to media about (and produced by) outgroups. Indeed, for intergroup media contact to be successful in producing less stereotyping, more positive attitudes, and more intergroup harmony, media users must first choose to come into contact with messages about outgroup members, specifically messages that can convey and produce beneficial effects for intergroup relations.
Kevin Arceneaux and Martin Johnson
Since the mid-20th century, communication researchers have recognized that audience members selectively expose themselves to information and opinions congenial to their pre-existing views. While this was a controversial idea during the broadcast era of mass media, the expansion of media choice on television and use of information communication technology has brought increased attention to selectivity among audience members. Contemporary scholarship investigates the extent to which people select proattitudinal information or avoid counterattitudinal information and the role these choices play in the effects of media messages on viewers.
While selective exposure is a broader phenomenon, this article substantively focuses on the use of politically partisan media, especially the research methods used to investigate media selectivity and its effects. This literature manifests an increased attention to measurement, especially how we measure the core concept of media exposure, novel experimental designs intended to allow investigators to directly view individual choice behavior in complex media environments, and attention to new sources of large-scale data from social media and large text samples.
Scholars agree that partisan websites and cable networks provide content politically distinct enough to allow viewers to segregate themselves into liberal and conservative audiences for news but that this kind of polarized viewing is only part of how viewers use media today. A nuanced picture of selectivity shows audiences selecting congenial content but employing broader media use repertoires as well. The mechanisms and effects of media selectivity are psychologically complex and sensitive to contextual factors such as the political issue under consideration.
Self-affirmation theory posits that people are motivated to maintain an adequate sense of self-integrity. It further posits that the self-system is highly flexible such that threats to one domain of the self can be better endured if the global sense of self-integrity is protected and reinforced by self-resources in other, unrelated domains. Health and risk communication messages are often threatening to the self because they convey information that highlights inadequacies in one’s health attitudes and behaviors. This tends to lead to defensive response, particularly among high-risk groups to whom the messages are typically targeted and most relevant. However, self-affirmation theory suggests that such defensive reactions can be effectively reduced if people are provided with opportunities to reinforce their sense of self-integrity in unrelated domains. This hypothesis has generated substantial research in the past two decades.
Empirical evidence so far has provided relatively consistent support for a positive effect of self-affirmation on message acceptance, intention, and behavior. These findings encourage careful consideration of the theoretical and practical implications of self-affirmation theory in the genesis and reduction of defensive response in health and risk communication. At the same time, important gaps and nuances in the literature should be noted, such as the boundary conditions of the effects of self-affirmation, the lack of clarity in the psychological mechanisms underlying the observed effects, and the fact that self-affirmation can be easily implemented in some health communication contexts, but not in others. Moreover, the research program may also benefit from greater attention to variables and questions of more direct interest to communication researchers, such as the role of varying message attributes and audience characteristics, the potential to integrate self-affirmation theory with health communication theories, and the spontaneous occurrence of positive self-affirmation in natural health communication settings.
Self-disclosure, or revealing information about the self to others, plays an integral role in interpersonal experiences and relationships. It has captivated the interest of scholars of interpersonal communication for decades, to the extent that some have positioned self-disclosure as the elixir of social life. Sharing personal information is the means by which relationships are built and maintained, because effective disclosures contribute to greater intimacy, trust, and closeness in a relationship. Self-disclosure also confers personal benefits, including reduced stress and improved physical and psychological health. Furthermore, disclosing private thoughts and feelings is often a necessary precondition for reaping the benefits of other types of communication, such as supportive communication. Despite the apparent advantages for personal and relational well-being, self-disclosure is not a panacea. Revealing intimate information can be risky, awkward, and incite judgment from close others. People make concerted efforts to avoid self-disclosure when information has the potential to cause harm to themselves, others, and relationships. Research on self-disclosure has primarily focused on dyadic interactions; however, online technologies enable people to share personal information with a large audience and are challenging taken-for-granted understandings about the role of self-disclosure in relating. As social networking sites become indispensable tools for maintaining a large and robust personal network, people are adapting their self-disclosure practices to the features and affordances of these technologies. Taken together, this body of research helps illuminate what is at stake when communicating interpersonally.
Nancy Grant Harrington
Sensation seeking is a biologically based personality trait that is characterized by the need to seek a variety of sensations and experiences and the willingness to take risks to achieve them. There is a large volume of literature on sensation seeking that delineates important conceptual and operational distinctions, including several prominent measures of sensation seeking. Issues related to research design and data analysis include whether researchers treat sensation seeking as an independent or dependent variable, use total scale versus subscale scores in analyses, treat scores as continuous or grouped variables, and consider demographic variables in their analyses. Research may relate sensation seeking to a range of behaviors, from maladaptive behaviors such as substance use and risky sex to more neutral or even adaptive behaviors such as preferences for music and art or preferences for certain careers. Research may establish a genetic basis for sensation seeking and/or associate sensation seeking with neurological and physiological responsiveness. Research also explores the associations of sensation seeking to perceptions of risk, as well as the sex and age of individuals and groups in an international context.
Chase Wesley Raymond
The adjacency pair is the most basic and normatively accountable sequential structure in interaction. This structure can be expanded through pre-sequences, insert-sequences, and post-expansions, which can be seen to be relevantly oriented to by interactants themselves. Various forces drive this normative organization, including issues related to epistemics, intersubjectivity, progressivity, and affiliation. Larger structures—for example, sequences of sequences, overall structural organization, and storytelling—also exist in interaction but are nonetheless composed of smaller units of talk. While potentially open to a certain amount of cultural variation, sequence organization exists cross-linguistically and cross-culturally as a general structural feature of human social interaction.
Lucretia Monique Ward, Sarah E. Erickson, Julia R. Lippman, and Soraya Giaccardi
Major findings concerning the nature and impact of sexual content in mainstream entertainment media, with a focus on empirical studies and content analyses (published from 2000 to 2015) indicate that sexual content is prevalent in mainstream media, appearing in approximately 85% of films and 82% of television programs. On television, sexual content varies greatly by genre, sexual talk is more prevalent that depictions of sexual activity, and references to sexual risks and responsibilities are minimal. Sexual imagery is also prevalent in music videos, where the most frequent portrayals are of sexual and suggestive dance, sexual objectification, and self-touching. Women and female artists are more often shown in sexual ways than men and male artists. This trend extends to video games, where women are underrepresented, and, when present, are much more likely than men to be shown with a sexualized appearance or in sexually revealing clothing.
Drawing primarily on the premises of cultivation theory and social cognitive theory, researchers have explored how exposure to this content contributes to the sexual attitudes and behaviors of consumers. In terms of attitudes, heavier media exposure is associated with holding more positive attitudes toward uncommitted sexual exploration; stronger support of gender-related sexual roles, adversarial sexual beliefs, and the sexual double standard; and increased estimates of peers’ sexual behavior. Evidence is sparser for a causal link between media use and attitudes toward uncommitted sexual exploration. In terms of sexual behavior, cross-sectional surveys have found that frequent exposure to sexual media content is associated with increased reports of intentions to have sex, light sexual behavior (kissing, holding hands), and heavy sexual behavior, such as intercourse. Studies have also found that heavier exposure to sexual content predicts earlier or heavier sexual activity one year later. Several factors have been shown to moderate these connections, including the race and gender of the viewer and level of parental mediation.
Sexually explicit material or pornography has become widely accessible, especially on the Internet. Among both adolescents and adults, more frequent pornography consumption has been associated with holding more permissive sexual attitudes, such as a greater acceptance of extramarital and casual sex; with gender-specific attitudes, including greater support of traditional sexual roles and adversarial sexual beliefs; and with a greater likelihood of perpetrating sexual coercion, harassment, and aggression. Evidence also connects pornography consumption to individual sexual behavior, especially among adults. Among adults, pornography use is linked to earlier coital initiation, more frequent participation in specific sexual activities, participation in casual sex, and having a higher number of sexual partners; it has not been consistently linked to condom use.
Monique Mitchell Turner
Shame and guilt are distinct emotional experiences that are often confused by lay people as similar. Yet, shame and guilt are aroused by distinct cognitive appraisals and lead to distinct emotional, cognitive, and behavioral outcomes. There are distinctions between shame and guilt in psychology and communication. Differences are correlated with personality and individual proneness for shame and/or guilt.
Andrea Kloss and Anne Bartsch
Emotions are an important part of how audiences connect with health and risk messages. Feelings such as fear, anger, joy, or empathy are not just byproducts of information processing, but they can interact with an individual’s perception and processing of the message. For example, emotions can attract attention to the message, they can motivate careful processing of the message, and they can foster changes in attitudes and behavior. Sometimes emotions can also have counterproductive effects, such as when message recipients feel pressured and react with anger, counterarguments, or defiance. Thus, emotion and cognition are closely intertwined in individuals’ responses to health messages. Recent research has begun to explore the flow and interaction of different types of emotions in health communication. In particular, positive feelings such as joy and hope have been found to counteract avoidant and defensive responses associated with negative emotions such as fear and anger. In this context, research on health communication has begun to explore complex emotions, such as a combination of fear and hope, which can highlight both the severity of the threat, and individuals’ self-efficacy in addressing it. Empathy, which is characterized by a combination of affection and sadness for the suffering of others, is another example of a complex emotion that can mitigate defensive responses, such as anger and reactance, and can encourage insight and prosocial responses.
What skills do journalists need? Why do they need them? What do we even mean by “skill” in the first place? In journalism research, the issue of skill has mainly been studied as an applied issue closely linked to journalism education. The main concern has been whether journalism education equips students with the skills they need to succeed in the job market, as well as with the skills they need to fulfill journalism’s democratic function. There is a long-standing conflict between these two “skill goals” of journalism education, where vocational or practical skills are often viewed as (at least potentially) in opposition to academic or theoretical skills. Journalism students need vocational skills in order to satisfy employer needs, and academic skills in order to satisfy wider societal needs.
Another key research concern in this area has been the issue of de-skilling: the idea that journalistic work gradually becomes less and less skilled as employers mainly demand quicker outputs across different media platforms, rather than the production of quality content. Another element of the deskilling idea is that experienced (older) journalists are phased out and/or replaced with less experienced (younger) and therefore cheaper journalists who do not necessarily possess specific or very in-depth training in journalism. This process is mainly linked to the ongoing commercialization and digitalization of journalism. Empirically, however, many research results point instead either to a general upskilling of journalism (a higher and higher share of the workforce have a university degree, for example) or to the fact that deskilling may occur in parts of the occupation, whereas other parts may experience upskilling.
All of this research has in common that skill is rarely defined and that analyses of skill rarely reference the wider sociological and psychological literature on skill, expertise, and competence. A few scholars have analyzed skill among journalists at a higher level of abstraction, attempting to define what the core expertise or skill of journalism actually is. This research direction is key to the future development of research on journalism and skill.
Slavoj Žižek stands as one of the most influential contemporary philosophical minds, stretching across a wide variety of fields: not just communication and critical/cultural studies, but critical theory, theology, film, popular culture, political theory, aesthetics, and continental theory. He has been the subject (and object) of several documentaries, become the source of a “human megaphone” during Occupy Wall Street, and become, while still living, the subject of his own academic journal (the International Journal of Žižek Studies). Žižek’s theoretical claim to fame, aside from his actual claim to fame as a minor “celebrity philosopher,” is that he weaves together innovative interpretations of G. W. F. Hegel, Karl Marx, and Jacques Lacan to comment on a variety of subjects, from quantum physics to Alfred Hitchcock films to CIA torture sites. While there are as many “Žižeks” as there are philosophical problem-spaces, Žižek proposes an essential unity within his project; in his work, the triad Hegel-Marx-Lacan holds together like a Brunnian link—each link in the chain is essential for his project to function. Further, his intentionally provocative work acts as a counterweight to what he views as the dominant trends of philosophy and political theory since the 1980s—postmodernism, anti-foundationalism, deconstruction, vitalism, ethics, and, more recently, speculative realism and object-oriented ontology.
Yulia A. Strekalova and Janice L. Krieger
Risk is a social construction, and its understanding by information consumers is shaped through interaction with messages, opinions, shared and learned experiences, and interpretations of the characteristics of risk. Social actors and information flows can provide heuristic cues about risks, their relative importance and unimportance, and the attention that an information consumer ought to pay to a particular risk. Social cues can also accentuate particular characteristics of risk, further amplifying or attenuating attention to it and shaping behaviors. This, in turn, can generate secondary and tertiary effects resultant from the public’s reaction to risk. The process of social amplification of risk, therefore, has structural components that include the social elements that get enacted in the process of the translation of risk information. Risk amplification is also affected by message factors, which can dramatize information, increase attention and uncertainty, and generate shared signals and symbols. And finally, social amplification of risks results in reactions that can shape pathways for risk assessment and management, frame views, fuel intergroup dynamics in response to risk, contribute to the accumulation of experiential knowledge and signals of different risk situations, and label and stigmatize some groups or outcomes as undesirable.
Steven H. Kelder, Deanna M. Hoelscher, and Ross Shegog
Social cognitive theory (SCT) is an action-oriented approach to understanding the personal cognitive, environmental, and behavioral influences on behaviors and to developing theory-based interventions to improve the health status and inequities of societies. It has broad applications across a diverse array of health-enhancing and health-compromising behaviors and has been used successfully in a variety of cultures, with many different intervention methods. Social cognitive theory provides empirically based concepts to explain health behavior and provides useful constructs and processes with which to design interventions.
Intervention design using SCT typically follows a sequence of information gathering and project development steps. Literature about the magnitude of the heath problem, its’ risk factors, and the success of previous intervention attempts is carefully reviewed and summarized. The review is presented to the community and qualitative and quantitative assessments are undertaken with the recipients of the intervention to identify the most salient and powerful SCT constructs that are associated with the targeted behavior. Taken together, these preliminary data are then used in the application of SCT constructs for intervention design. Given the recognized differences in how SCT constructs manifest with different ethnic and cultural groups, the careful delineation, tailoring, measurement, and application of these constructs are critical for successful interventions.
Before health and risk messaging can have the best possible effect, there needs to be an understanding of what might influence health and associated risky behaviors. A wide range of elements needs to be considered, given the many possible influences on health habits and risky exposures. Since “ecology” is defined as the relationship between organisms and their environments, ecological models enable this consideration to be made. As a result ecological approaches have been widely used in health behavior, health planning, and health education.
Ecological theory, with a communication focus, has also been developed, emerging specifically from the field of “information behavior.” Grounded in the work of Bronfenbrenner, on the experimental ecology of human development, the theory grew out of a study of older adults’ information and communication needs and uses, undertaken in the 1990s. The ecological model, as developed, enabled a wide range of personal and social influences on information seeking and communication to be explored with people aged 60 and older. Analysis of the impact of multilevel factors is facilitated by an ecological approach, increasing its value for the task of designing the content of health and risk messages. The “how” of designing health messaging is not addressed specifically by this approach.
Following the study of older adults, the ecological model was broadened, modified, and applied to the study of the information and communication behavior of different community groups, involving a range of topics. The flexibility of the approach is a key strength. A study of information seeking, by women with breast cancer, indicated that several “ecological” elements, such as age, ethnicity, and stage of disease, played a part in the type of information sought and in preferences for how information was communicated. Health and risk avoidance implications emerged from a study of information seeking for online investment, providing another good example of the ways in which the model can be adapted. A range of ecological factors were shown to influence investing behavior, including level of risk taking. A study of people in the Fourth Age (the last stage of life) resulted in a further refined and extended model, as well as making a contribution to the already substantial body of accumulated gerontological knowledge.
Social influence processes play an important role in the recovery process for alcoholics who affiliate with Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). Group norms at AA emphasize the sharing of stories about past difficulties with alcohol, the circumstances that led a person to join AA, and how life has changed since achieving sobriety. These narratives serve to increase collective identity among AA members via shared experiences and to reinforce AA ideology. In discussions and interpersonal interactions at AA meetings, AA ideology is also communicated and reinforced through AA literature and the discussion of central tenets, such as the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, the idea that alcoholism is a progressive disease, and the need to be active in one’s sobriety. Moreover, AA meetings provide an opportunity for recovering alcoholics to find others who share similar experiences, an opportunity for greater social comparisons to other alcoholics than are typically available in primary social networks, and group-suggested role obligations that influence commitment to AA and long-term sobriety. These social influence processes have been linked to important health outcomes, including longer abstinence from alcohol use than with other treatment options, reduced stigma associated with alcoholism, reduced stress/depression, increased self-efficacy, and the acquisition of coping skills that are important to the recovery process.
R. Craig Lefebvre and P. Christopher Palmedo
Many ideas about best practices for risk communication share common ground with social marketing theory and practice: for example, segmentation, formative research, and a focus on behavioral outcomes. Social marketing first developed as a methodology to increase the public health impact of programs and to increase the acceptability and practice of behaviors that improve personal and social well-being. The core concepts of this approach are to be people-centered and to aim for large-scale behavior change. An international consensus definition of social marketing describes it as an integration of theory, evidence, best practices, and insights from people to be served. This integrated approach is used to design programs that are tailored to priority groups’ needs, problems, and aspirations and are responsive to a competitive environment. Key outcomes for social marketing efforts are whether they are effective, efficient, equitable, and sustainable.
The 4P social marketing mix of Products, Prices, Places, and Promotion offers both strategic and practical value for risk-communication theory and practice. The addition of products, for example, to communication efforts in risk reduction has been shown to result in significantly greater increases in protective behaviors. The Cover CUNY case demonstrates how full attention to, and consideration of, all elements of the marketing mix can be used to design a comprehensive risk-communication campaign focused on encouraging college student enrollment for health insurance. The second case, from the drug safety communication arena, shows how a systems-level, marketplace approach is used to develop strategies that focus on key areas where marketplace failures undermine optimal information-dissemination efforts and how they might be addressed.
Caleb T. Carr
Social media are increasingly ubiquitous communicative channels, used to create and maintain groups. Bearing several commonalities with computer-mediated communication more broadly, social media afford users opportunities to present both their social and personal identities, often concurrently, which can respectively activate intergroup and interpersonal communicative processes. Moreover, social media provide groups and their members some unique properties and opportunities for communication, which can both build and blur boundaries among groups. Thus, as individuals increasingly interact via services like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, QQ, and other social media channels, it is important to consider the recursive relationships and effects among intergroup communication and the use of these tools: What about social media may affect the nature of group communication, and what about groups may affect how members use social media channels? Exploring the processes and effects of activated social identities, this chapter explores the potential for social media to both silo and span disparate groups, and for group communication within social media to spill over into other channels, including offline.
Todd L. Sandel and Bei "Jenny" Ju
Social media encompass web-based programs and user-generated content that allow people to communicate and collaborate via mobile phones, computers, and other communication technologies. Unlike other media linked to a particular technology, social media are a phenomenon associated with a set of tools, practices, and ideologies for connecting and collaborating. Social media blur distinctions between one-to-many and face-to-face communication. They allow individuals and groups to connect across boundaries of space and time, both synchronously and asynchronously. Afforded by changing technology, social media are ever-expanding as users develop novel uses and creative content. Scholars have studied social media across a range of topics, including such issues as message content and construction, identity formation, relationship development, community development, political activism, disinformation, and cyber threats.
Social media vary culturally. For instance, in China social media are impacted by internet censorship, including not only the kinds of apps that are used in China—WeChat and Weibo instead of Facebook and Twitter—but also forms of expression and online activities. While Chinese social media can be a site for political activism, and creative, humorous, and satirical messages, they are constructed in ways that avoid online censorship. Social media also afford the construction and maintenance of local communities and cultural identities. For instance, users with a shared interest, occupation, activity, or offline connection, such as a hometown, may communicate online using a shared language, vocabulary, or code. Hence, unlike mass media that can promote a collective, national identity, social media may facilitate the re-emergence and construction of local and diverse identities. Finally, social media can empower subaltern individuals and groups to mobilize and effect change through collective action. Yet social media, when employed by the state and/or neoliberal corporate powers, can work to suppress subaltern groups by co-opting social media as a technology that affords surveillance. They may also be used to spread misinformation or extremism by both state-sponsored and non-state actors.
S. Anne Moorhead
Social media used for communication purposes within healthcare contexts is increasing and becoming more acceptable. The users of social media for healthcare communication include members of the general public, patients, health professionals, and health organizations. The uses of social media for healthcare communication are various and include providing health information on a range of conditions; providing answers to medical questions; facilitating dialogue between patients and between patients and health professionals; collecting data on patient experiences and opinions used for health intervention, health promotion, and health education; reducing stigma; and providing online consultations. With emerging advances over time, including new platforms and purposes, these uses will change and expand, increasing usability and thus providing more opportunities to use social media in connection to healthcare in the future. However, both patients and health professionals may require training to fully maximize the uses of using social media in healthcare.
Social media has numerous benefits for healthcare communication, including increased interactions with others; more available, shared, and tailored information; increased accessibility and widening access; and increased peer/social/emotional support. While there may be further benefits of using social media in healthcare, there are many limitations of social media for healthcare communication as well. The main reported limitations include a lack of reliability; quality concerns; and lack of confidentiality and privacy. From the available evidence, it is clear that maintaining patient privacy as well as the security and integrity of information shared are concerns when using social media.
As patients and members of the general public use social media widely, some may expect it in healthcare, thus it important for health professionals and organizations to manage expectations of social media in healthcare communication. This results in challenges ranging from encouraging staff to use social media to dealing with user problems and complaints. It is recommended that organizations embrace social media but have a specific purpose for each activity and platform while continually monitoring traffic. Regardless of the nature or size of the healthcare organization, it is time to adopt appropriate guidelines for the use of the social media in healthcare communication to address the challenges and the growing expectations of using social media, especially within healthcare contexts. The key message is that social media has the potential to supplement and complement but not replace other methods to improve communication and interaction among members of the general public, patients, health professionals, and healthcare organizations.
Jingsi Christina Wu and Kara S. Alaimo
In August 2016, on the heels of the summer heat surrounding the Olympics, a major celebrity family scandal gripped mainland China. The nation watched closely as a well-known actor struggled through revelations about his wife’s scandalous infidelities, her disgraceful possession over their family properties, and most dramatically, her unilateral decision to flee to America with their two children—all while their divorce unfolded in front of the nation’s gaze. Not a political affair, this scandal was able to attract as much publicity as the Chinese people were thirsty for. Sina Weibo (Microblogging) became one of the biggest winners of this storm, as its NASDAQ stock price rose 7.05% the day after the actor made his announcement on Sina Weibo about his plan to divorce, and Sina Weibo’s market value broke through 10 billion U.S. dollars for the first time (according to Sohu Business in 2016). Within 14 hours of that announcement, the actor’s original Sina Weibo post had been forwarded 520,000 times and commented on 1,240,000 times (according to Sohu Business in 2016). Like all other major news events, many of which are often more politically sensitive and civically relevant, ordinary citizens in mainland China have grown used to looking to their social media sites for information and guidance. As of December 2015, mainland China’s social media population reached 530 million, amounting to 77% of its total Internet users (according to CINNIC in 2016). A Western media invention, social media platforms have largely permeated the lives of regular Chinese users, although not without “Chinese characteristics.” This article reviews an important body of literature that takes keen interest in the civic implications of mainland China’s social media sites, which render themselves more relevant than ever in everyday life as well as amid high-profile public events.
Following in the footsteps of many influential foreign Internet sites, including Google and the New York Times, such leading social media entities as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube have all been blocked by the Great Firewall of China, officially known as the Golden Shield Project. This exclusive characteristic, along with other unique Chinese phenomena, has given rise to a separate social media universe that China calls its own. This article draws connections among explorations about the civic significance of China’s social media landscape for the world’s largest Internet population (according to CNNIC in 2008). While unique Chinese conditions do not necessarily disconnect China’s users from universal features of social media use, this article focuses specifically on works that examine how local social media platforms have shaped civic engagement in mainland China’s restrictive political environment.
Like the spread of Internet technology to modern China, recent developments in social media have invited competing narratives about their democratic implications, which often echo Western academia’s evaluative position taking between utopian and pessimistic narratives of digital technology’s social impact. The former state that Chinese citizens have availed themselves of the unprecedented opportunities afforded by social media to keep governmental actions in check, whereas the latter voice the concern that social media simply provide new and more ready channels for governmental monitoring and manipulating of public opinion.
In 2010, Deng and Jing suggested that although the concept of civil society originated in the West, we need to understand it as historically, culturally, and socially specific. The Chinese civil society, according to the two scholars, is both separate from and interdependent with the state. Its origin stemmed from China’s state-guided transition from a planned economy to marketization, leading China’s civil society to be more dependent on state policies, while the Western civil society gains more independence from private capital. Deng and Jing note that theories of state-society relations have primarily positioned the two as confrontational entities and instead propose a “Positive Interaction Theory (BIT)” for the case of China. Under this notion, the state allows for the civil society’s independent operation and protects it with laws and abstract legislation. While there is great diversity within the civil society and often conflicts of interest, the state should interfere and mediate in legal and economic terms, when members of the civil society fail to reconcile on contractual grounds.
Under BIT as an ideal type, Deng and Jing asserted that the state should not intervene in the civil society’s political rights, and the latter should reserve the freedom to organize their political voices and push for democratization. The closer state-society relation can be to this ideal, the more robust a civil society will be. Once China’s civil society establishes its independence and autonomy, the scholars suggest, it will then participate in China’s politics and provide effective checks and balances on state decision making. However, these two stages are not neatly separate from each other. As can be seen in the cases reviewed in this article, the Chinese civil society in its current state is not a unitary and static entity. While limited in sensitive political and religious domains, it has achieved a strong voice in other social issues and positive interaction with the state at times.
This investigation into a burgeoning literature on social media in mainland China finds that although the Chinese people’s use of social media does not strike one as immediately liberating in terms of new political freedom, it bears the potential of creating a civil society that may be particularly meaningful for the idiosyncratic political environment of China. In other words, there may be a lot left to desire, but researchers can look more closely into the various ways in which users in China actively, and often creatively, organize their voices and actions via new social media outlets. In the absence of a democracy, a civil society continues to emerge.