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From Facebook to ‘fakebook’ – who controls the information on social media?

By Xin Yuan Wang, on 24 November 2016

A young Chinese factory worker reading on his smartphone

A young Chinese factory worker reading on his smartphone.

Mark Zuckerberg finally said that Facebook plans to have a more effective control of misinformation, which is a sharp reversal in tone from the comment he made immediately after the US election that the “the idea that fake news on Facebook…influenced the election in any way is a pretty crazy idea.” The fake news that circulated widely on Facebook is believed to have influenced the US election. It is reported that some fake news was created by teenagers in Macedonia who cashed in by catering fake news to demand, and many more were posted by ‘alt-right’ people who cooked up stories on platforms such as 8chan, 4chan, and social media.

The story of how fake news circulated on Facebook reminds me of what I have witnessed about the information consumption on social media among Chinese factory workers during my 15 months of field work in a small factory town in southeast China. Certainly, in many ways the two cases are incomparable, whereas the pattern of information dissemination seems to bear certain similarities.

For Chinese factory workers whose average education level is below middle school (most of them dropped out of school before the age of 17), social media has become the most important, if not the only, information resource. Therefore, social media actually plays an extremely important role in those less-educated people’s communication and (informal) education. What are the consequences of people being dependent on social media as their major information resource? Well, first of all, there will be a higher chance that the information people get will become unbalanced. For people who simultaneously consume news from other traditional media with ‘gatekeepers’, such as TV, newspapers, and magazines, social media is only one of the tools to get news.  Therefore, even if there are fake news stories on social media, the reliability of that news will be constantly tested in a more rounded information environment and any possible hazard of fake news will be diluted in a more balanced ‘informational ecology’ – just like natural purification. However, if social media has become the only or the major information resource, the risk of fake news can be amplified. Generally speaking, the higher education people receive, the lower the chance that social media will become their only or major information resource.

To add another layer to the problem. Unlike traditional media where information is distributed in a relatively neutral way, information on social media is not only filtered by customised algorithms based on users’ personal information, but is also filtered by people’s personal social network online – that is to say, each social media contact is a potential news agent who feeds you news on a daily basis. To give an example, as written in the book Social Media in Industrial China based on my research, a comparison of the shared postings on 145 social media profiles of factory workers and 55 profiles of middle-class Chinese in Shanghai shows that there is almost no information flow between two different social groups. Over a period of four months only one out of 6,000 articles (0.03 per cent) was found to have been shared in both groups, though 5.1 per cent of articles were shared within the factory workers group and 1.6 per cent within the Shanghai group. In the case of factory workers, the possibility of the same information being shared within the social group with similar social-economic status is 170 times higher than the possibility of it being shared across groups with different socio-economic statuses.

Also, the amount of fake news I encountered on factory workers’ social media profiles was much more than that on the  profiles of middle-class Chinese. Most of the fake news were sensational and dramatic stories about conspiracy, romance, or crime. Even though a few factory workers commented that they could imagine that there were certain ‘untruth’ elements in those news items, most people who shared the news believed the news was based on true stories and those who were not 100% sure certainly enjoyed the reading – as a kind of entertainment. “I would say there must be some truth in it (fake news) otherwise there won’t be so many people sharing it, right? Well, at least I feel for the story, that matters,” a 25-year-old male factory worker told me.

So while there is now the debate about how a social media company can take responsibility to control fake news on social media, for all intents and purposes one also has to acknowledge that in many cases, the most powerful information control comes from people’s sociality – on social media there is a certain truism: ‘who you know may decide what you know’. Among like-minded friends, on social media one receives news that is in most cases only confirming the beliefs shared by the social group one belongs to.

What ordinary Chinese people post on social media after the Tianjin Blast

By Xin Yuan Wang, on 24 August 2015

For two days, my WeChat news feeds has been awash with all kinds of articles and images about the Tianjin blast. But after merely two days, the routine on social media came back, food photos, holiday photos, kids photos, articles teaching you how to deal with the relationship between you and your mother-in-law all came back. People seemed to forget about the disaster already.

A week after the appalling blast in Tianjin, China on 12th August, Zhou, a free-lance journalist and photographer, who I got to know when I was doing field work in Southeast China last year, told me her feelings concerning Chinese social media reaction to this event. She could not hide her disappointment.

Zhou’s remark accords with my own observations of my informants’ posts on both QQ and WeChat, the two Chinese dominant social media platforms. And like Zhou, I heard the news for first time from my personal WeChat. Social media has become the main (if not the first) channel for access to various kinds of information. But unlike traditional channels, social media presents these different kinds of information from news to a whole range of personal conversation together without curation. This clearly contributes to Zhou’s feelings about information fragmentation on social media where significant news becomes diluted by the huge amount of the ‘daily life’ content on social media.

But what exactly ordinary Chinese people post on their personal social media profiles vis-a-vis the blast? After the completion of  15 months fieldwork, I continued to follow two groups on social media on a daily basis. One comprise the rural migrants in a factory town where I did most of my field work (50 persons), and the other one a control group with whom I conducted in-depth interviews in Shanghai (30 persons). The table below shows how remarkably different the Tianjin blast related social media performance are of these two groups of people (All the people in Shanghai use WeChat, and the majority of rural migrants remain with QQ). Taking the four days following the blast (from 13 August to 17th August), on all 80 social media profiles, 44% of postings (42 postings out of 95) were related to the blast, of which almost 53% were posted the day after the blast. In general, there are five themes: News about the blast (36%), Prayers for Tianjin (26%), Hero stories (20%), in-depth analysis (9%), and patriotism postings (9%).

chart_blast

 

The News postings were straightforward, usually news reports with photos and very simply comments by people who shared it, such as “It’s shocking!”, “How terrible!” or “I am so sorry for Tianjin”. 60% of those news-based stories shared on social media came from people in Shanghai.

The ‘Prayers for Tianjin’ postings are those memes with text like ‘pray for Tianjin’  (see screenshots below). Some postings shared on people’s profiles went even moralized by claiming “Tonight we are all from Tianjin and suffer the same suffering, if you are Chinese please share this!”, a bit like “We are Charlie”. The majority (64%) of those memes come from rural migrants.

屏幕快照 2015-08-18 下午8.08.49

The ‘hero stories’ are also widely shared on people’s social media profiles where both people from Shanghai (50%) and rural migrants (50%) seems to show similar interests in stories like how firemen sacrificed their own lives, running into the fire when everybody was fleeting away; or how sniffer dogs worked day and night in order to save human beings.

屏幕快照 2015-08-19 上午11.09.00

In-depth analysis refers to editorials focusing on the cause of the accident. Articles of this kind were only shared only by people from Shanghai, who had education at master-level and above. In one of the articles the government and disaster relief system is strongly challenged. There is explicit criticism of the way that after a disaster people only share ‘pray for ***’ memes on social media, rather than really asking for the truth behind the disaster.

In contrast to the situation of ‘in-depth analysis’, rural migrants contributed all the ‘patriotism’ postings.  One typical ‘patriotism’ (see screenshots below) started with a list of Chinese celebrities and companies who had donated money for the disaster relief, followed by the list of foreign celebrities and companies (such as south Korean stars, Samsung and Apple) who didn’t donate any money for this Tianjin blast. In the end of the article, it was urged that Chinese people should love the state since only the Chinese army can protect them and people who are big fans of foreign stars and foreign products should feel ashamed of themselves. Though I happen to know that one such person, a factory worker, had just spent on whole month salary on a iPhone prior to a blind date with a girl arranged by one of his fellow villages,

屏幕快照 2015-08-19 上午11.49.45

A close inspection of this pattern of posting on social media is revealing then not just about reactions to a disaster, but also key issues in contemporary China, such as the differences created by education and the appeal of nationalist ideology.