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A talk at Oxford Internet Institute

XinyuanWang18 November 2014

by Shriram and Xinyuan

Our research Shriram and Xinyuan giving an talk about social media in India and China at Oxford Internet Institution

Our research Shriram and Xinyuan giving an talk about social media in India and China at Oxford Internet Institute

It is always good practice to exchange knowledge and ideas with scholars from other fields, as it adds immense value and vision to the research at hand. New Media and Social Media are fields that attract scholars from various other areas of study. The bridging of interdisciplinary ideas that this area of research induces is phenomenal. For example, while social media can be approached from an anthropological point of view, it can at the same time also be approached from a Big Data perspective. In a previous blog post Xinyuan talked about the difference between ‘Big Data’ and digital ethnography.

A couple of weeks ago, two of our researchers (Shriram and Xinyuan) were invited by Professor Ralph Schroeder, a Big Data theorist, from the Oxford Internet Institute (OII) to give a talk on social media in China and India, from an anthropological perspective. This opportunity, which is one of our earliest since our return from our intense 15 months of fieldwork provided great value in understanding and evaluating aspects related to disseminating our research results.

One of our first significant points of contribution was to address the need to study social media in a more traditional anthropological way. This also flowed from the strength of ethnographic evidence that the nine field sites generated over the last 15 months. Ethnographic evidence needs to be presented in a context based ‘thick description’, which anthropology does, allowing researchers present the field site in a rich descriptive and detailed format. This allows the readers/audience understand the situation/context better. The process of communicating such detailed description also brought us another opportunity to transition to a multimedia based approach. Xinyuan showed a 4.5 mins documentary film clip about her field site, Good Path town, a small factory town in southeastern China and the way she did ethnography among Chinese rural migrants who work and live in the factory town as factory workers. The result of using a visual platform to describe one’s field site was extremely positive. When the audience really saw the population and the field in the short clip, the subject no longer stayed as alienated or abstract but became far more humanized and engaging. The positive feedback received has also further encouraged us in our long-term dissemination plan for the project, which also involves a multimedia approach to report on our analyses and findings.

The discussion section was also inspiring. The questions varied from censorship in China to the influence of gender in the use of social media in India; and a few questions touched the very core issue of this comparative project, which was on how to draw conclusions from the ethnography of nine different sites.

Even from the two field sites (India and China), let alone the total nine field sites of the whole project, our audience had already strongly acknowledged the huge differences in the way people use social media as well as the impact of social media usage in local peoples’ daily life. Though the presentations were not intended to be comparative, the format in which they were delivered played a role in giving rise to a few interesting questions that leaned towards a comparison of general issues between China and India. For example: after listening to our presentations, students found that the use of social media in India was strongly influenced by the reality of offline life, however in China among Chinese rural migrants, social media offered a platform where people can simply set up a new world where they can enjoy an ideal life where their offline lives (including their social status are largely irrelevant. Although it’s always risky to over-generalize claims of totally different uses of social media by lower socio-economic groups in India and China, the ethnographic evidence gathered from our 15 months field research allowed our study to showcase the diversity of social media usage in different cultures and societies. Social media itself is by no means a unified or universal concept and its meanings are way more diverse than we can imagine. In short, this opportunity helped both the parties (OII and GSMIS scholars) to explore and understand social media in a much deeper context through an anthropological perspective that is contextually and fieldwork based.

Kurds, ISIS and internet censorship in Turkey

ElisabettaCosta7 November 2014

Facebook profile picture from south-east Turkey

Facebook profile picture from south-east Turkey

Kurds living in Mardin tend to not use social media for political expression when it involves a direct critique of the Turkish State, Turkish authorities or the Turkish nation. Social media has been described by many Kurds as a powerful tool for political control, as a new form of torture, as a weapon to scare people and prevent them from being politically active. In Turkey’s Kurdistan, the internet and digital technologies are immediately associated with control and persecution by the State. In the last couple of years, the Turkish government has banned and shut down several pages of political parties (see also this international campaign against the Facebook Company). Internet censorship in Turkey has become internationally known, when the ex-Prime Minister Erdogan banned YouTube and Twitter before and after the local election in March 2014.

The tight control over the internet has produced an efficient self-censorship mechanism in Mardin and elsewhere in the region; people tend to not criticize the Turkish government too openly in order to not be prosecuted. However, many Kurds have been using social media to express their support for the Kurdish cause by claiming solidarity with the Kurds living in other countries in the Middle-East. In the last two years, many people have been using an image with the word ‘Rojava’, the Kurdish name for the Siryan Kurdistan, the region inside Syria that started to achieve its autonomy in 2012, as their Facebook profile picture. Within the same period, the region has been under attack several times by Islamic groups, and more recently by ISIS. When ISIS attacked Kobane and PKK/ YPG fighters retaliated by showing resistance, news from independent news sources were circulated on social media, presenting different views on what was occurring. Before then, in the summer of 2014 during ISIS’ invasion of Sinjar in Iraq, many Kurds, together with unions, political parties and local charities, actively used Facebook to organize solidarity campaigns to collect clothes and money for the Yezidi refugees after the attack.

Over the past few months, social media has become a very important source of news for the Kurds living in Turkey. They want to know about ISIS’ attack on Kurds in Syria and Iraq; and Facebook in particular has become the main platform to organize solidarity campaign and to express support towards the Kurds in these two countries.

I don’t want to describe here the complexity of the crisis that is going on now in the Middle-East, but rather, I want to highlight the way Kurds in Turkey use social media. They continuously mediate between what they would like to share freely online, and what they know could be detrimental to them because of the draconian censorship enacted in Turkey. Far from being  the results of rational calculation every time, people have internalised a set of rules which influences what they can share publicly, what they can share on fake profiles and what they can read but not share at all. It’s only by adopting these implicit set of rules that a Kurdish “public sphere under restriction” is continuously created and recreated by social media users, with several consequences. One of these is that on social media the Kurds in Turkey tend to sustain the Kurdish nationalistic cause by expressing support towards the Kurds living in Syria (and Iraq), and they more rarely address the political situation inside Turkey.

Tencent news: in-app news delivery in QQ and WeChat

TomMcDonald24 October 2013

Newspapers arrive at the town's Post Office for delivery to local homes and businesses (Photo by Tom McDonald)

Newspapers arrive at the town’s Post Office for delivery to local homes and businesses (Photo by Tom McDonald)

One of the aims of our research is to understand the connection between politics and social media. Before we started our fieldwork we had envisaged this topic would largely revolve around how people made posts relating to specific stories in the news or shared news articles on their own Facebook pages. However, once again, China has surprised us in how different its social media is from it’s Western counterparts. People tend to refrain from making lots of public comments about news online, but both QQ and WeChat’s mobile applications (both made by Tencent) are set up by default to deliver national news items to their user’s mobile devices, with these items appearing in-between other conversations users are having with their friends.

The 'recent conversations' screen in the QQ iPhone app. The fourth contact down (showing the QQ 'penguin' icon surrounded by a tri-coloured circle) is the QQ news centre

The ‘recent conversations’ screen in the QQ iPhone app. The fourth contact down (showing the QQ ‘penguin’ icon surrounded by a tri-coloured circle) is the QQ news centre

The news to each of these in-app news services is written and delivered by the Tencent News centre. Both apps receive three new reports daily, normally containing four stories in each post, and the user receives on-screen notifications when they arrive. Occasionally, especially significant news stories may be afforded their own individual posts.

In general, the news that appears in these stories tends to be middle-brow, and written in quite accessible language, remaining largely free of the formal news about diplomatic meetings and official  language that tends to dominate the main closely government-controlled national news sources such as the  evening TV News Simulcast (Xinwen Lianbo) and People’s Daily. Instead, Tencent’s in-app news consists mostly of stories focusing on a mixture of criminal cases, ongoing government corruption investigations, sex scandals, and scientific discoveries.

It would be easy to view all Chinese media as a propaganda tool, and an extension of the government, and this is the kind of statement that is often repeated by Western media outlets. However, one of the strengths of the ethnographic approach of our fieldwork is that instead of only analysing the content of  social media, we also compare this to how normal people in our fieldsites actually use and talk about these platforms themselves. When I spoke to one of my participants in our China North fieldsite about the in-app news feature I asked him whether he thought the function might have been included at the government’s bequest. He said he didn’t think the government would have forced Tencent to add the in-app news function to their chat tool. Instead, he argued that it was probably the fact that Tencent thought that the news would ‘attract people’ and that they would find it ‘interesting’.

From here in this small town in North China, it is impossible to know exactly what decisions are made faraway in the Tencent News centre. Nonetheless, QQ and WeChat’s in-app news feature has become a particularly significant — if not the main — way in which national news is now consumed for many people who own a smartphone in the town. But also this marks a fundamental change from having to ask for news through ordering the newspaper, or turning on the television, to having the news delivered to your device without requesting it, often appearing as if it were a message from a friend.

Can social networking sites harm you?

JulianoAndrade Spyer28 June 2013

dilmabolada

Dilma Bolada facebook page

Do you think that the company that owns the social networking site is using your data for purposes that harm you?

This is the one question from a demographic survey our team is currently piloting that makes my informants stop and think. Only one person – out of five, so far – have answered “yes” to it, and it was an emphatic “yes”. But the others were convinced that there could not be such thing. And the rationale behind these answers seems to be: – Why would a company want to harm its clients?

These optimistic informants also add that everything they do or say on Facebook, the most popular social networking site in Brazil, is both true and already known by others so there is no possibility their posts could produce any harm.

This particular topic came back to my mind earlier this month as Facebook was accused of political censorship here in Brazil.

Dilma Bolada” is the name of a fictional character inspired on the personality of Brazil’s current president, Dilma Rousseff. The author of the character, a 23 year old college student, has attracted  350,000 followers on Facebook alone.

His character mixes the (strong) personality of the President with a relaxed tone typically used here on social networking sites to comment on politically-related news stories. As a result, following Dilma Bolada is like being part of circuit of close friends with access to what could be Dilma’s Facebook posts.

At the end of May, Facebook erased a post published on Dilma Bolada’s page mentioning an alleged involvement of Aécio Neves on a corruption scandal. Neves will likely be one of her strong opponents on the next presidential race.

The post was based on a news report published by a known magazine and, as the author of Dilma Bolada wrote on a later post, its content did not break Facebook’s user policy.

Folha de São Paulo, an important national newspaper, picked up the story of an apparent act of censorship by Facebook to protect a politician. Other news venues followed.

At first Facebook refused to comment on the decision, but the repercussion both online and through the press pressed the company to revoke the decision and to issue an explanation.

According to Facebook, an automatic feature that detects harmful content was responsible for the deletion. The system bases its decision on feedback sent by users. The company explained that, in this case, the system did not operate correctly.

The erased post was also reestablished – here, in Portuguese – on Dilma Bolada’s timeline, but the question that remains is: would Facebook have changed its decision if the problem had not drawn so much attention and noise?

Understanding the Chinese internet: anthropology’s contribution

TomMcDonald23 June 2013

Broadband advertisement in village (Photo: Tom McDonald)

Broadband advertisement in village (Photo: Tom McDonald)

I spent last weekend in Oxford at the China and the New Internet World conference. In addition to presenting some of my PhD research, I found the conference a really valuable opportunity to get an idea of what people who are researching the Chinese internet are working on.

Several things impressed me during the conference. The majority of papers focussed on topics of legislation, censorship, political theory, etc., and a large number of them resorted to quantitative analysis or clever automated computer methods in order to reach often quite grand conclusions about ‘the Chinese internet’.

I must confess that, in comparison to such well-composed papers with finely-honed ‘take-home messages’, my own presentation’s conclusion was slightly more muddled. It is always quite unnerving to have to tell your audience at a conference that your conclusion is that you perhaps don’t really have one.

This got me thinking about the role of anthropology in understanding the Chinese internet. Anthropology is one of the most difficult of disciplines, in that it demands that the anthropologist immerses themselves in the lives of their research participants for an extended amount of time. This often means living alone in difficult and tiring conditions amongst people who often hold radically different beliefs or engage in practices that you at times find disagreeable. Not only that, but once this period is over, the same researcher has to grapple with the task of turning the data collected in the field into something understandable to (mostly) western educated readers.

The problem is that very few people want to do this in their lives. Furthermore, not many people want to read the results of what happens when someone does do this, because typically there are no ‘clean’ conclusions. Such stuff makes slightly uncomfortable reading, in that it often challenges the basic assumptions each of us hold that make us confident that the way that we live our lives are necessarily correct.

The vast majority of papers at the conference concentrated on issues of censorship, democracy and urban middle-classes. But as I listened to these papers I wondered what my friends in my fieldsite, a small town and its surrounding villages in north China might have made of this concern with issues of censorship and privacy. It seemed to me as though all the time us academics had been spending in computer labs, libraries and talking to other academics might actually be working to increase the distance between us, as academics, and the people that we claim to be protecting the interests of.

David Kurt Herold summed this issue up quite nicely in his own conference paper, where he commented:

We need more studies that look at how people in China are using the Internet to do what they want to do, i.e. in what practices are Internet users in China engaging and how are they constructing their own offline and online lives in relation to these practices (Hobart, 2000: 41f)? To ask a leading question: Is politics and the pursuit of democracy really the most important issue for Chinese Internet users, or is it just the most important issue for us researchers?

I am still not sure precisely what is going to come out of my own fieldwork in north China for this project. But I have every reason to expect by virtue of my placement in a very ‘normal’ part of China, that the people I will meet over the next year-and-a-half have every chance of changing the way we understand the Chinese internet, and Chinese people, for the better.