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China: Political Space of the Weibo Blogging Platform

Chicago University Sociology Professor Zhao Dingxin recently delivered a speech entitled “Weibo, Political Space and China Development” at East China Normal University. Zhao's reservations on the technological setting and nature of Weibo, a well known Chinese micro-blogging platform, has triggered debate and reflections amongst Chinese bloggers.

Reflections on Weibo

Zhao's speech has been partial transcribed and published in local newspaper Dongfang Daily (via NetEase) [zh]. Below is a selected translation of the transcript:

微博是一个彻底民主的同时又是可被操纵性很强的通讯手段。说它是最彻底的民主是因为微博只需写寥寥几句话,只要知道怎么用微博,谁都能写,写得好坏也无所谓。说它可操纵性强,是因为微博中的声音不具有“一人一票”的性质。…只要一个人掌握着大量的金钱或者某种技术,那个人就能通过雇佣水军把自己的声音做大,于是就形成了虚假舆论。这里面可操纵的余地太大。

Weibo is an absolutely democratic but highly manipulative mode of communication. It is democratic in the sense that the user only need to write a few sentences. Once a person knows how to login, s/he can start writing regardless of the quality. It is manipulative in the sense that each voice does not register the character of an equal vote… If a person controls a lot of money or certain technology, s/he can hire an online army to magnify their voice and create fake public opinion. The space for manipulation is huge.

前台行为和后台行为的区隔是我们社会文明处事的一个很重要的原则。但是在微博的公共空间中前台行为和后台行为的界限不再清晰。微博中的言论是面向社会的,它们本来应该是前台行为。但是微博中许多人并不在自己熟悉的圈子内混,不少人的真实面目我们完全不清楚。这些人因此能在微博中动辄破口大骂,而不怕受到惩罚。从这个意义上来说,微博公共空间的出现把人类的许多后台行为前台化了,这就是微博语言暴力趋向背后的结构性原因。

The distinction between front-stage and back-stage behavior marks the principle of our social manner. However, in Weibo, the line between front-stage and back-stage has been blurred. The speech in Weibo is directed to society and thus should be considered as front-stage behavior. However, many Weibo users are not hanging around with their own social circle and the users don't know each other's real self. Hence, they can swear and get away with peer pressure. In this sense, the public sphere of Weibo has turned the back-stage into the front-stage. This is the structural explanation for the verbal violence and abusive language [evident] in Weibo.


从一定意义上说,在微博公共空间中,人们的表现会接近于勒庞所描述的“乌合之众”,他们一方面表现得特别不服从权威,另一方面又在操纵下特别容易对权威产生崇拜甚至盲从。微博中的狂热之士很像“文革”中的红卫兵:一方面喊着打倒一切、怀疑一切;另一方面喊着谁敢反对某个权威我们就打倒谁。

In some sense, people are acting like Gustave Le Bon‘s description of “the crowd” in Weibo's public sphere. They are against authority on the one hand, but on the other hand worship authority. Some Weibo fanatics are acting like the Red Guards in the Chinese Cultural Revolution: tearing down everything and putting everything in doubt, while at the same time attacking whosoever opposes the leader's [here means Mao Tzedong] authority.

Zhao pointed out that most of the debates in Weibo are ideological and he used famous Chinese writer Han Han's ghostwriter scandal as an example to explain his point:

我本以为这一场争论的核心是真假问题,而不是价值观问题,是比较容易说清楚的。但我马上发觉支持作家的人士大致可分为相互重叠的三类人士。第一是原教旨自由主义者。这些人士认定作家是盟友,并认为打假是政治阴谋,是价值观和意识形态层面上的问题,不是一个简单的真假问题。第二就是作家的“粉丝”。不读大学就可以当作家、收入不菲还可以打扮得很酷的生活令年轻人羡慕。维护作家对他们来说,犹如维护宗教信仰一般是他们的责任。第三,就是一些缺乏常识的人,对于这些人来说,什么奇迹都可以发生,常识简直就是对他们认知的亵渎。

At first, I thought the core issue of this debate is a matter of true or false rather than value judgement. Then I found out that those who support the writer could be divided into three types of characters. First are liberalist fundamentalists. They consider the writer as their alliance and see the scandal as a political conspiracy. It is an ideological matter rather than an issue of true and false. The second type are the writer's fans. A writer without a university degree, a cool lifestyle different from typical rich people; many young people adore the writer and feel responsible to defend him. Such behavior is religious in nature. The third type of people are those who lack common sense. They believe in miracles and detest common knowledge.

Zhao believes that such irrational populist sentiment is rooted in the disintegration of the value system in mainland Chinese society as a result of the cultural revolution, the lack of direction in humanities subjects in the education, people's skepticism of the mainstream media and the culture of a mass consumption society.

Reactions online

Some Chinese netizens disagreed with Zhao's observations. For example, blogger Zuo Zhijian pointed out [zh]:

微博有商业水军潜伏,这固然是一个事实。但赵教授忽视了另外一个事实,即微博是一个开放的平台,意味着这是一个自由的言论市场。…即便是水军,在微博上也要比BBS上更容易识别。相信普通网民识别水军的能力,不会弱于公知,因为他们早就熟悉各类网络工具,在水军的风浪中久经考验了。
如果纵向比较,把微博与电视、广播做比较,应该很清楚“操控受众”的难度已经难太多了。

It is true that there is a ‘commercial army’ [promoting things] on Weibo. But Zhao has omitted the fact that Weibo is an open platform and a free speech market… It is more easy to distinguish the ‘army’ on Weibo than on BBS [Bulletin Board System]. Ordinary netizens’ ability to distinguish the ‘online army’ is not be weaker than that of public intellectuals. In fact, they have long experience in fighting against the ‘army’ across different online platforms.
When compared with TV and radio broadcast, on Weibo it is a lot more difficult to manipulate the audience.

Zuo agreed that it is difficult to develop consensus via Weibo but he stressed that's the reason why public intellectuals should engage more with the open platform:

认识到微博的局限性,政治家与知识分子就更应主动应对并利用微博的长处。
作为政治家,应该更快更及时地提供公共信息,消除民众的疑惑。
作为知识分子,则应该意识到,微博传播价值远高过辩论价值,所以是一个很好的启蒙平台。在中国这样言论空间稀缺的环境下,更几乎是唯一的平台。
当下在中国,启蒙也远比辩论来的重要。知识分子也知道,民众有危险的民粹倾向,这恰恰意味着知识分子还需要做太多事情。
这个时代知识分子面临的环境,与历史上其他时期最大的不同就在于,有了互联网这样的开放平台。了解并善用互联网工具,是这一代知识分子的必修课。

Knowing the restriction of Weibo, politicians and public intellectuals should be more engaged and help to make use of the advance setting of the platform.
For politicians, they should provide accurate public information to clear people out from speculation.
For intellectuals, they should be making use of Weibo's distributive power rather than entangling in the debate of its nature. It is a platform for people's enlightenment. In particular in China where we lack free speech space, Weibo has become the only platform.
In China, the enlightenment project is more important than debate. Now that intellectuals are aware of the populist tendency, which means you have to work hard.
The environment Chinese intellectuals are facing now is very different from our precedents, we have the Internet, an open platform. The fundamental course for intellectuals is to understand and actively making use of the tool.

Blogger Shan Gu's view echoed with [zh] Zuo Zhijian's criticism and looked deeper into the nature of Weibo as an open platform:

固然,微博空间是个大杂烩,其中高雅与低俗并存,美丽与丑陋同行,真相与谣言齐飞。但同时,与传统媒体相比,微博具有更高效的记忆功能:要证明传统媒体在两年前曾经说谎,你或许需要亲自跑一趟档案馆;而要证明一名微博大V两年前曾经说过谎,则只需要点击一下鼠标。因此,微博空间虽然谣言横飞,但其自身便具备了自洁功能,任何试图用谎言、谣言或其他各种极端思想来“操纵网民”作法最终都只会落人笑柄。

The Weibo space is highly diversified. High and low culture, beauty and ugliness, truth and rumor co-exist. However, when compared with the conventional media, Weibo has very good memory function. If we have to prove that a conventional media told a lie two years ago, we have to dig into its archive. If we have to prove a Weibo opinion leader for telling a lie two years ago, we just need to hit our keyboard. Although there are a lot of rumors in Weibo, the rumors would be cleared in time. Lies, rumors and other manipulative acts would become a joke eventually.

勒宠的“乌合之众”非常强调集体行为的“在场感”,只有亲身置于集体行为的特定场域之中,个体的非理性情绪才会在交互影响中被不断加强、放大并最终主宰个人的行动;而网络上的非理性情绪则缺乏这种“在场感”,其非理性情绪没有被放大、被加强的途径,所以其非理性情绪至多也不过是凝聚为几句“气壮山河”的国骂罢了,即便真的有极少数人会付诸行动,其行动也往往是基于功利计算后的个人行为——要理解上述两者之差异,只要想一下在现场看球、和十几个在电视前看球与一个人在家里看球有何不同便可以明了。

Le Bon description of “the crowd” stresses the effect of collective presence. Only when a person is in a collective presence, would his/her irrational emotion be magnified and take control of the individual's behavior. On the Internet, irrational emotion do not have such kind of collective presence and could not be further magnified. It expresses in the form of four-letter [curse] words. Even if a minority of them take action, such action would be based upon a very utilitarian calculation. To understand the difference, we can compare the emotional effect of watching a football match at the pitch with a huge crowd and watching it on a TV screen with a dozen friends.

微博公共空间的隐忧不在于其可能被心怀不轨的“阴谋家”操纵,而在于其可能被国家机器控制——只有国家的控制才不受成本与收益的市场规律制约,并且能凭借其垄断性的资源而使其影响力超越时空范围的限制,获得主宰性的地位。因此,如果网民真的可能存在被操纵的危险,则其危险的根源绝不源于微博自身,而源自微博之外的强制性力量。

The underlying threat of the Weibo public sphere does not lie in the hand of some “conspirators” but in the state machine. Only state control will not be restricted by cost and effectiveness. Its monopolized power allows its influence to extend beyond temporal and spatial restriction and achieve domination. If netizens are to be manipulated, the threat does not stem from the Weibo platform, but the coercive force from outside the platform.

赵鼎新教授的观点则体现了一种智识上的高傲,在他眼中,“网民”是非理性、易忽悠且缺乏常识的,韩寒粉丝的认知能力更甚至是“亵渎常识”的(视他为奇迹、像维护宗教信仰一样维护他)……但他可能忘了,常识的普及永远不可能建立在“先知式”的智者对公众高高在上的“教化”基础之上,而只可能通过信息的自由与开放而实现。

Professor Zhao Dingxin's viewpoint reflects his [feeling of] intellectual superiority. In his eyes, “netizens” are irrational, easily manipulated and in lack of common sense. Han Han's fans’ intellect has blasphemed common knowledge (they defend him as if he were a miracle or a religion)… But he has forgotten that the popularization of common knowledge cannot be founded by the “cultivation” of “prophecy” of a guru upon the public. It can only be actualized in an open society with free information flow.
The thumbnail photo showing Professor Zhao Dingxin is accredited to Dongfang Daily via NetEase.

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