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Authoritarianism 2.0 – Social Media, Political Discussion, and Authoritarian Rule in China

Social media have often been described as “liberation technology” for citizens in authoritarian regimes, giving them a space to voice grievances and mobilize around social networks. This conventional wisdom was disputed by Daniela Stockmann at an informal talk at MERICS. The expert on social media in China did not reject the notion that the spread of social media increases individual freedoms in such regimes. However, she argued, it may in addition significantly contribute to the stabilization of authoritarian power.

Daniela Stockmann is Associate Professor of Political Science at Leiden University and currently Visiting Academic Fellow at MERICS. She presented her research project on the role of social media in an authoritarian regime to an audience of 40 on Wednesday. In the five-year project, which is financed through a grant from the European Research Council, she investigates how social media mobilizes people to act and what kind of social media are more influential than others.

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Stockmann’s research focuses on Weibo and Wechat, social media networks basically replacing Twitter and Facebook, which are banned in China. Stockmann pointed out that Twitter-like Weibo, which enables users to share and spread personal information, is currently loosing users to Wechat, a network laid out to promote intimate social relationships. “You cannot easily spread information via Wechat”, Stockmann said, speculating that this may be the reason for its popularity. During times in which media have less space for political discussion Chinese users may prefer the comparatively safe environment on Wechat, where they can communicate with a chosen, small group of friends, to the outward-orientated structure of Weibo.

Stockmann’s first findings show that the government’s efforts to control the social media sphere extend beyond deleting critical posts or user profiles.

“Their idea is to intentionally provide relative freedom on social media to then guide and steer the community by managing platforms with the help of institutions. I call that responsive authoritarianism – or authoritarianism 2.0”, she said. “Allowing users to give feedback through social media and to participate in public discourse while scanning these debates offers a solution to the dictator’s dilemma which refers to the problem of the authoritarian leaders not knowing what the people think about their leadership”, Stockmann explained.

Regarding the management of online public discourse Stockmann gave several examples: Posts containing criticism of local officials are often not censored immediately in order to place pressure on local governments to tackle the problems. In addition, robots post pro-government news on a regular basis, and certain individual bloggers are paid by the state for posting pro-government messages.

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A member of the audience added that big data analysis is being taught at universities, training people to systematically turn large amounts of information from social networks into feedback for the government.

Since Xi Jinping came to power, Stockmann added, the idea of e-governance has gained significance: By systematically steering public reactions to government policies into institutional channels, the government can directly process the information while the reactions become less visible for the public.

The ensuing vivid discussion with the audience raised broader questions Stockmann’s earlier research had addressed and which will be of importance to her current project. How to differentiate between harmless chatting and a political conversation? “In China, the term ‘political’ has a meaning very different from our conventional understanding. Media personnel associate it directly with several very sensitive topics. The term ‘social’ is the one used for political topics where there is a common sense, for example for child trafficking. I am interested in the grey area.”