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

Alison Fox20 January 2017

Today’s guest blog is by Xinyuan Wang of UCL’s Department of Anthropology. She is author of Social Media in Industrial China

屏幕快照-2014-08-27-下午1.55.34-3-496x290Mark 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.

About the author

Xinyuan Wang has recently been awarded a PhD by the Dept. of Anthropology at UCL. She obtained her MSc from the UCL’s Digital Anthropology Programme. She is an artist in Chinese traditional painting and calligraphy. She translated (Horst and Miller Eds.) Digital Anthropology into Chinese and contributed a piece on Digital Anthropology in China. Her book,  Social Media in Industrial China, focuses on the extensive fieldwork she did with Chinese factory workers as part of the Why We Post project. To find out more about the Why We Post series at  https://www.ucl.ac.uk/ucl-press/why-we-post.

This post originally appeared on the Global Social Media Impact Study blog. It has been re-posted with permission.

Taking Why We Post to China

Daniel Miller12 October 2016

Taking Why We Post to China

Although the Why We Post project is primarily an attempt to study the use and consequences of social media, there were other broader aims. Particularly, the hope that the project would show that while the discipline of anthropology might have originally developed for the study of tribal peoples or ethnic minorities, it is also the most effective means of understanding a global, contemporary and highly dynamic phenomenon such as social media. This would be an especially important message for the largest population of the world, China, where anthropology retains a rather conservative position within the university systems and there is a real chance that it will not survive let alone take its proper position as an effective and vanguard approach to the contemporary world.

As it happens, it is hard to think of two more effective means of making this point than our two books on social media in China. In particular, Tom McDonald’s study in rural China has a consistent narrative about how even such small rural towns are actually thoroughly imbued with digital transformations and tend to have better connectivity today than the village he comes from in Yorkshire. It is a still clearer point for Xinyuan Wang who effectively demolishes most stereotypes about Chinese society – for example the commitment to education and kin – by showing the distinctive nature of not some small exception, but the 250 million Chinese represented by her study of new factory workers. The comparison between these two books, Social Media in Rural China and Social Media in Industrial China, showcases the diversity of contemporary Chinese society and how can we better grasp the nuance and depth of a changing society through a contextualised understanding of the evolving nature of Chinese social media.

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To share our findings we organised a trip to four major centres (Hong Kong, Guangzhou, Beijing, and Shanghai) and nine separate institutions. At a major anthropology and sociology department such as in Hong Kong University, Sun Ya-sen University in Guangzhou, and the Chinese Academy of Social Science in Beijing we could highlight our key point about this potential for anthropology itself in working with dynamic and shifting new media. But it was equally important to talk to Communication Departments such as at the Baptist University of Hong Kong, the Chinese University of Hong Kong, and the Communication University of China in Beijing so that students in that discipline were exposed to the potentials of ethnographic fieldwork. Our audiences ranged from arts and humanities at NYU in Shanghai, to philosophy students in Fudan University of Shanghai. We also visited the People’s Press who had published Xinyuan’s translation of the Digital Anthropology book and where I realised that my fellow authors included both the present and all the past presidents of China.

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We carried out a live online book launch from Hong Kong (which you can watch again here) and opened an exhibition about the project at Hong Kong University where Tom now teaches. We also made sure that all the films on the Chinese version of our website were stored on UCL servers, rather than on YouTube which is blocked in China, so that students in mainland China could access them. Our trip attracted interest from Chinese local media including two of the largest Chinese online news agents, PengPai news and Tencent News, as well as the most popular English TV channel in Shanghai, Shanghai ICS, helping our message to reach more than ten thousand Chinese people within a few days.

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On a more personal level there were two striking responses. One was the delight of audiences when they realised that Tom would be lecturing in Chinese which was important to convince them that he could be an effective fieldworker in China. The other was the way young female students were clearly inspired by the elegant and articulate but also poignant presentation by Xinyuan and they made clear that they didn’t just want to emulate our way of working, but saw her as a model for what women in China could become in the future.

This post, by Daniel Miller, originally appeared on the Global Social Media Impact Study blog and is reposted with permission.

Life Within Social Media: Stories from Social Media in Industrial China

Alison Fox30 September 2016

Today’s guest blog is by Xinyuan Wang, author of Social Media in Industrial China

In recent decades China has witnessed the largest ever migration in human history. By 2015 the number of Chinese people who had left rural villages to work in factories and cities had risen to 277 million. If Chinese migrant workers were the population of a country, it would be the fourth largest in the world, and they are the human faces behind ‘Made-in-China’. While ‘Made-in-China’ products have become pervasive in our daily life, the people who produce them remain mysterious; however, a new open access book Social Media in Industrial China, reveals that Chinese factory workers actually exhibit an unexpected and sophisticated use of social media to bridge the gap between their rural roots and their industrial lives.

Xinyuan Wang, the author of the book, is a digital anthropologist from UCL who spent 15 months undertaking fieldwork in a small factory town in southeast China, living in one of the factories and tracking the use of social media. By studying this marginalized population, who have, in many ways, embraced the potential of social media to the fullest, this in-depth study sheds light not just on Chinese social media usage, but also on the nature of contemporary China.

Homeland on social media

Hua, a factory worker in her early 30s, has a strong emotional attachment to the beautiful mountain that frames her home village. During her periods as a factory worker, she misses her home village terribly. Her account on the Chinese social media platform QQ is rich in images of her home village; she has uploaded a large number of photographs of her home village into an album called ‘homeland’ (jiaxiang).

Curiously, however, when asked whether she plans to move back to her home village, Hua’s answer is always negative. As well as a lack of job opportunities there, she also feels that her exposure to modern China means that she can no longer go back to ’boring and backward’ country life.

Sometimes, when I felt sad or deflated, I will have a look at those photos … as if I visited my homeland,’ Hua said.

The homeland album is very popular among Chinese migrant workers, and most of them admitted that, even though they miss their home village, they felt unable to return after their exposure to the realities of modern China.

These rural migrants are often referred to as a ‘floating population’ — the hukou (household registration) policy implemented by the government means that they are unable to create a permanent home in the city. A consequence of this is that they are constantly looking for temporary employment, unable to settle in a single place. Hukou policy divides the Chinese population into rural or urban residents dependent on their place of birth and allocates social resources accordingly, which means rural migrants are unable to enjoy the social welfare benefits that their counterparts in cities receive.

Even when faced with rural-urban divide and severe social discrimination, rural migrants, especially the younger generation, still regard migrating to urban areas as the only way to participate in modern life, and rural life is seen as ‘backward’ and ‘boring’. In this situation, people’s attitude towards their homeland is very ambiguous.

Home village is a place you always miss, but not really a place you want to return to,’ as Hua said. Like Hua, many rural migrants see their home village more as a spiritual comfort than a practical option. On social media, all the bad memories and negative associations of village life and homeland seemed to be expunged, leaving only ideal, purified images that give people comfort. They may not be physically in the villages of their origin but, wherever the floating rural migrants are, they take their homeland with them.

However, homeland is not the only place that is rebuilt on social media. To many, social media is also where they actually live, as Xinyuan argues in her book.

Life outside the smartphone is unbearable

Lily, a 19-year-old factory girl, spends almost every single waking hour on QQ when she is working on the factory assembly line. Lily’s QQ profile is a stylish, curated space with lots of beautiful photos and pop music that she has collected online. Online, Lily is popular and she talks as if she were a princess who is waiting for true love: “In my life I have always dreamt about my true love. He will treat me very well, protect me from all the uncertainty, displacement, sadness, and loneliness. However, I always know that that person will never turn up.” However, Lily never talks in this manner offline.

Lily lives with her parents and younger brother and sister in a small factory town. They live in two small single rooms without heating, hot water or air conditioning; they share the only toilet with two other rural migrant families. In summer, when indoor temperatures regularly pass 38°C, the family wash themselves in the shared bathroom; a plastic bucket and washbasin function as a shower. The walls are heavily stained, and there is soiled toilet paper and stagnant water on the floor. In winter, when temperatures fall below freezing, the family head to a nearby public bath to shower once a week.

One day after work Lily was ‘working with’ her QQ via a smartphone, a Huawei model that she had purchased for 1,850 RMB (US$308). Captivated and absorbed by her ‘online world’, she eventually looked up and saw Xinyuan.

Life outside the mobile phone is unbearable, huh?’ Lily observed.

Lily’s insight forced Xinyuan to address the question that became central to her work in industrial China: where do people live? In this small factory town, Xinyuan has met many young rural migrants who have moved geographically closer to a modern China, but it appears that it is only online that they actually arrive there. For many migrant workers, social media has become the place where they can visualise and, in a way, achieve their aspiration towards modernity. On a wider scale, Xinyuan’s study witnessed not just rural-urban migration, but also a parallel migration from offline to online.

The study demonstrates the need to understand where people live, without assuming that the offline is necessarily more ‘real’ or more material. Whilst people in the West have become concerned about the authenticity of social connections on social media, for some migrant workers the situation is the opposite — it is online where they have found the most genuine relationships, even with strangers. The story of Feige, a 37-year-old forklift truck driver, presents a typical example.

‘Purer’ relationships on social media

Feige is a member of 15 QQ groups, though he only actively participates in three. Members of these groups are, on the whole, factory workers with backgrounds similar to Feige’s. Though he had never met the members of these groups offline, they seemed to know much more about him than his colleagues. Feige is extremely popular amongst his online friends. Members of the groups have great affection for him, finding him funny and smart, and always asking for his opinions on social events and news.

They [online friends] like me and talk with me because they really like me, not because I am rich so that they can borrow money from me, or I am powerful so that they can get a job from me. Here everything is much purer, without power and money involved,’ Feige explained.

Feige regards his online friendships as ‘purer’ (geng chun) than his offline relationships, as online there are no pragmatic concerns involved. That friendship on social media has been valued highly by Feige is not rare among rural migrants; for migrant workers such as him, who are often frustrated by their social status, social media provides new possibilities of sociality free from social hierarchy and discrimination.

It is on social media where Chinese migrant workers have experienced a real sense of ‘friendship’; in offline situations, kinship and regional relationships, such as between fellow villagers, are dominant. It is interesting to note that, rather than being the threat to privacy that many in the Western world perceive, social media has actually increased the experience of privacy for most migrant workers. In an environment where offline private space is usually limited, and any effort of avoiding the public gaze can be misinterpreted and stigmatized as an attempt to cover something shameful, the online world offers people much needed personal space and freedom.

The stories of Lily and Feige are just two examples from Social Media in Industrial China; Xinyuan’s field work provides many more absorbing accounts of how social media impacts the lives of rural migrants. Using these real-life tales as a basis, the book illustrates the social media landscape in China and explores the impact of social media on people’s lives. From personal development, social relationships, gender and education, to commerce, privacy, ancestor and deity worshipping and political participation, many of Xinyuan’s discoveries challenge the West’s perception of both China and its inhabitants, explaining why it is time to reassess exactly what we think we know about China and the evolving role of social media.

About Xinyuan Wang

Xinyuan Wang is a PhD candidate at the Dept. of Anthropology at UCL. She obtained her MSc from the UCL’s Digital Anthropology Programme. She is an artist in Chinese traditional painting and calligraphy. She translated (Horst and Miller Eds.) Digital Anthropology into Chinese and contributed a piece on Digital Anthropology in China. A fuller version of this piece appeared on Medium.

If you like what you’ve just read, then we’d recommend that you download Social Media in Industrial China by Xinyuan Wang which is available to download for free here.

Anything but selfies…

Daniel Miller15 August 2016

different-genres-of-selfies-768x1000In every respect we are delighted with the launch of our project. We now engage in daily interaction with the thousands of students registered on our FutureLearn course, plus many thousands more on the translated versions on UCL eXtend. The almost 20,000 downloads of our books is a real boost for Open Access.

But there has been one element that I found rather irritating. Here is a project that dealt with tensions on the Syrian-Turkish border, 250 million Chinese factory workers, the nature of Englishness, transformations in human communication, politics, gender, and education. Yet almost every single media enquiry, and we are happy that there were so many, seemed to focus upon the selfie and almost inevitably mentioned a specific kind of selfie taken in Chile of people’s feet. Which is why, given the choice, I would love to answer questions about our project on any topic under the sun – other than bloody selfies.

But as an anthropologist I have to transcend any personal feelings and always ask ‘why?’. My explanation is going to be as benign as I can make it – what I would like to believe to be the case – though certainly it may be otherwise. My supposition is that the selfie is iconic of social media because it speaks to the single dominant story we want to tell ourselves and which, by creating anxiety, also sells newspapers. We tend to argue that social media is the latest stage in an inevitable journey from the kind of intense kinship-based sociality studied by anthropologists to the fragmented narcissistic individualists studied as a kind of modern pathology by sociologists and psychologists. So the media and others find it strange that it is anthropologists, the group who are supposed to represent the other end of this story – kinship and tribes – who are talking about the selfie. Perhaps this represents a kind of profound disconnect.

It may then follow that the best way anthropology can be presented as a repudiation of this simple story is by noting that as anthropologists we have refused to regard the selfie as this icon of the fall of humanity from the graces of proper and intense sociality. A photo of unpretentious feet is the opposite of the self-absorbed look-at-me selfie of the face. If this explanation is correct it would be parallel to my early blog post about the ‘no-make-up selfie’ where adults in my fieldsite only started posting selfies when they found a cancer charity-based model which seemed to repudiate the association between the selfie and supposed teenage self-centeredness.

We do indeed repudiate the simple story of a decline in humanity and indeed we try and show why even these teenagers are more complex, mature and social than this story implied. If this is the case then I should be happy that the media has made our point so succinctly. Hopefully once that point has burst the selfie boil, this then clears the way for the media and others to focus on the way we tell a hugely different story of highly socialised and diverse social media that has important consequences for almost every other aspect of our lives. For example, the way we use our analysis to critique the very concept of ‘superficiality’ which is the premise of much of this discussion of the selfie. Perhaps now we can argue that in most respects social media takes society in the opposite direction: more social, less individual, closer to the way society is represented by anthropology and less close to the pathologies of the individual studied in psychology. At least that is the story I hope we will eventually be allowed to tell.

About the author

Daniel Miller is Professor of Anthropology at UCL and author of 37 books including How the World Changed Social Media,  Social Media in an English VillageThe Comfort of Things, Stuff, Tales from Facebook and A Theory of Shopping.  Find out more about the Why We Post series at  https://www.ucl.ac.uk/ucl-press/why-we-post.

This post is an updated/adapted version of a post that originally appeared on the Global Social Media Impact Study blog, using the title ‘Anything but Selfies’. It has been re-posted with permission.

Social media and Brexit

Daniel Miller28 June 2016

Screen Shot 2016-06-27 at 14.22.03One of the common claims made about social media is that it has facilitated a new form of political intervention aligned with the practices and inclinations of the young. Last week I attended the launch of an extremely good book by Henry Jenkins and his colleagues called By Any Media Necessary which documents how young people use social and other media to become politically involved, demonstrating that this is real politics not merely ‘slacktivism’, a mere substitute for such political involvement.

And yet, currently I am seeing social media buzzing with young people advocating a petition to revoke the Brexit vote, which only highlights the absence of a similar ‘buzz’ prior to the vote. I await more scholarly studies in confirmation, but my impression is that we did not see the kind of massive activist campaign by young people to prevent Brexit that we saw with campaigns behind Bernie Sanders in the US and Jeremy Corbyn in the UK.

The failure to create an attractive activist-led mass social media campaign to get young people to vote for Remain is reflected in the figures; although 18-24 year-olds were the most favourable segment towards Remain, only 36% of this group actually voted at all. As such, Brexit represents a catastrophic failure in young people’s social media, from which we need to learn. Being based in ethnography, our Why We Post project argued that we need to study the absence of politics in ordinary people’s social media as much as focusing on when it does appear. But the key lesson is surely that just because social media can facilitate young people’s involvement in politics doesn’t mean it will, even when that politics impacts upon the young.

One possibility is that social media favours a more radical idealistic agenda. By contrast, even though the impact of Brexit might be greater and more tangible, the remain campaign was led by a conservative prime minister, backing a Europe associate with bureaucracy and corporate interest, and was a messy grouping of people with different ideological perspectives, that made it perhaps less susceptible to the social media mechanisms of aggregated sharing.

At the same time I would claim that our work can help us to understand the result. My own book Social Media in an English Village is centred on the way English people re-purposed social media as a mechanism for keeping ‘others’, and above all one’s neighbours, at a distance. I cannot demonstrate this but I would argue that by supporting Brexit the English were doing in politics at a much larger scale exactly what my book claims they were doing to their neighbours at a local level: expressing a sense that ‘others’ were getting too close and too intrusive and needed to be pushed back to some more appropriate distance. And it is this rationale which may now have devastated the prospects for young people in England.

About the author

Daniel Miller is Professor of Anthropology at UCL and author of 37 books including Social Media in an English VillageThe Comfort of Things, Stuff, Tales from Facebook and A Theory of Shopping.  Find out more about the Why We Post series at  https://www.ucl.ac.uk/ucl-press/why-we-post.

This post originally appeared on the Global Social Media Impact Study blog, using the title ‘Social Media and Brexit’. It has been re-posted with permission.