The development of new technology in China has brought changes in social, political or commercial aspects. Though analyzing the demographic statistics in internet usage and focus on the trend in social media and forums, we can further address how it gives rise to citizen journalism. How netizens engage in social media can indicate that challenge social norms and foster self-expression in monitoring the government and social issues.
Usage Pattern of Chinese Internet
From the statistics from China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC) and surveys of internet usage and impact in Chinese cities from Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, China has the largest number of Internet users, which surpassed that of U.S in 2008 and account of nearly 49% of total population in China.
Although netizens tend to be younger, compared to eight years ago, there are increasing amount in users aged over thirty. In terms of income and education structure, they follow a similar pattern, which show that more and more people with lower income and education level are becoming Internet users. While the percentage continues to rise in education level below junior high school and lower income groups, it also indicates that Internet is becoming more accessible to the poorer and less educated public.
For social media users, the people engaged are 504 million, which shows that 90% of internet users, and 48% of total population are actively using social media as in 2015. What is worth noticing is that 87% of social media users would instead utilize mobile phones as their main platform assessing social media. As for netizen’s attitude, people’s perceptions of the reliability of Internet contents have been increasing to around 56%. Therefore, the active participation in social media and other videos or photo sharing forums have become a vital part in Chinese society, and the growing accessibility among the public also changes the landscape of Internet, which gives rise to functions of criticizing and monitoring government or society and establishing subculture through forums
Citizen Journalism in Social Media
Citizen journalism by definition is when ordinary citizens take up an active role to collect, report and information and news (Bowman & Willis, 2003). It is a self-empowerment process that focus on individuals and community building. To further elaborate on the point, I will use the case of Wenzhou train crush, where social media plays an important role.
On July 23, 2011, two high speed trains crushed into each other and caused serious casualties. However, before the news was released by Xinhua agencies, citizen journalist and photographers quickly responded to the incident and spread photos and news on Weibo, which accumulated to more than two million related tweets in a month. The eyewitnesses also serve as evidence to criticize and monitor government’s doing, and the public were further mobilized by social media to provide immediate assistance to the victims.
How social media become essential in citizen journalism can be illustrated into two points. First, micro-blogging serves as a tool to respond to crisis rapidly (Yan, 2011). In the Wenzhou train crush, the first citizen reporting came thirteen minutes after the train crash on Weibo, and within 10 hours it was reposted more than 100,000 times. Timeliness is the key value to news reporting, and it has come across social and spatial boundaries. Compared to traditional media such as Xinhua News Agency, stories coverage on social media has much more personal attachment, which include photos, videos heart-breaking stories that appeal to social media users. Citizen Journalism on social media directly spoke to the public and react to crisis in a fast manner.
Second, social media provides an important platform for community building. In this case, Weibo has mobilized the public for volunteer work in Wenzhou. Thousands of volunteers even turned up for blood donations within hours of train crush, and Weibo becomes the platform for searching dislocated family members with various forums established for local communities through reposting and commenting. What’s more, netizens together questioned the government in industrial development and whether they put the public’s lives at risks (Yan, 2011). Social media has gathered collective opinions through different communities and urge changes in the society when facing crisis.
Citizen journalism through the platform of social media also encounters opportunities and challenges, and brings huge impact into the society. Bei (2013) examines the growing trend of using micro-blogging for investigative reporting, and conclude that the characteristics of social media has prompted the public to challenge social norms or regulations. For instance, Weibo combines multiple functions such as commenting, posting texts, videos or photos, and journalists use it as a way to attract viewers and intensify certain news. By appealing to the public, it becomes a tool to reveal issues in the society. The biggest challenge and also opportunity of citizen journalism is bypassing censorship.
When certain news is published, and journalists are banned from their publications, social media offers an alternative in news reporting to finish the banned stories. Although social media operators and authorities still can censor the news by deleting posts and closing down accounts when they violate certain interests or contain unfavorable news, such widening gap between officials and the public, those with power and ordinary people makes relevant news a snowball effect on social media.
For instance, in 2010 the “My dad is Li Gang” case, which a drunk driver shouted at the police and claimed that his father is the deputy police chief. It became all over social media overnight and reflected the deep-rooted conflict between ruling elites and the public, and the criticism eventually leads to the government propaganda department establishing new regulations. Although bypassing censorship is difficult and remains a tug of war, those deep-rooted problems in the society cannot always be hindered, and when similar incidents of inequality in the society, they will foster discussion on the social media and exert certain influence as whistleblowers providing evidence of corruption and misconducts.
Creating Citizen Engagement
Citizen journalism has expanded the role of social media to a platform that instantly respond to social issues, mobilize the public to assist in crisis. The nature or social media brings certain political and social issues into discussions and further challenges the existing problems and regulations.
The use of social media and online forums has become dominant in Chinese society and the increasing engagement opens room for self-expression and freedom in social and political discourse. Social media and online forums contribute to the rise of citizen journalism in which ordinary citizens can take up active roles in creating contents in quick response to social events and form mobilize public discussions in challenging or monitoring the society. Such impacts of new technology have indeed provided freedom and new forms of citizen engagement in current Chinese society.
Bei, J. (2013). How Chinese journalists use Weibo microblogging for investigative reporting. Reuters Institute Fellowship Paper, University of Oxford.
China Internet Network Information Center (2016) Statistical Report on Internet Development in China. China Internet Network Information Center
Guo, L. (2007) Surveying Internet Usage and its Impact in Seven Chinese Cities. Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
Yan, W. (2011) Micro-blogging as a Rapid Response: News Service in Crisis Reporting. Swansea University.