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Free Expression On Weibo: An Alternate To Facebook, Twitter? – Analysis

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By Alpana Verma

China has the highest number of Internet users worldwide (485 Million). The introduction of social networking sites (SNS) since 2009 has given impetus to the usage of internet in China. People are flocking the weibo to be in vogue and keep up to date with their peers in China. One of the leading Chinese blog, Sina weibo is said to have hosted 200 million registered users by now. This explosive growth in the usage of SNS has raised a few questions; are the weibo a reliable alternative source of information in China? Or is it a tool of propaganda against the state or just a means of free expression?

China
China

The weibo of China is an answer to the American technologies like Facebook and Twitter. Weibo are networking sites which unlike Twitter enable its users to post pieces of information, messages, videos, images and comments etc to a larger audience at the same time. The two most popular blogs in China are: Sina weibo and Tencent weibo. In authoritarian regimes like China where media is monopolized by the state facilities like weibo are nothing less than a tool of empowerment for the people. It is a means of amplifying the spread of any news which may or may not have been censored by the state. The success of the blogs depends on its content, quality and the time of its appearance.

These kinds of sites are basically used for sharing experiences on the lighter side of day to day life, thus the Chinese youth comprise the heaviest population of bloggers. Topics like health, education, pop culture, social lives etc. are discussed. Un-traversed topics like participation in make-over programmes and beauty pageants are the latest topics to be added to the list. Unlike Western countries the blogs in China are hardly political, for which platforms like the Bulletin Board System (BBS) are preferred. Recently officials at local as well as national level have begun to use the weibo to stay connected to their respective constituencies.

The weibo are definitely emerging as new sources of information wherein people can do infinite number of things without a prior state approval or revealing their identities. Anonymity however, has its own adverse effects. Sometimes it is difficult to trace the authenticity of blogs and as a result various internet sites are becoming a source of rumours. Recently, a survey conducted by the China Youth Daily newspaper showed that nearly 86 per cent of the 1,714 netizens regarded the internet as the most common channel through which unchecked rumours were being dispersed.

Yet the blogs have their own importance as a catalytic interlinking the society in China and making the popular interest quite evident. In two recent cases, for instance, one related to the setting up of a chemical factory in Dalian and the other related to a rail accident near Wenzhou, the people used the social networking sites to show their anger and remorse to the state, thus forcing the state to take proper actions.

The role played by blogs as an alternative source of information apart from the ‘state-manufactured’ media is considerable. Their importance becomes even more evident during media crackdowns and natural calamities to name a few. But unchecked blogs can cause emotional damages as well. Sina reported that it took at least two hours to trace unreliable gossips and delete them. In order to curb the freehand growth of weibo, officials from the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) pay regular visits to internet companies like Youku and Sina. It would be detrimental for the booming internet companies to invite official notice for their unacceptable practices from the propaganda department in China. Hence, these companies ask the users to register their accounts. Sina weibo has in fact warned its users that their account would be suspended for a month if it was found to contain any false information.

Nonetheless, weibo have given the people a possibility to make their grievances public. It is also carrying out a mobilization of thoughts in China. Apart from turning the micro-opinions in a collective voice, it is also assisting in the supervision of the state. Complains apart from the political issues are entertained by the state. But direct political motive, if any, is controlled before it catches fire. Weibo are actively serving a two way process in China: on the one hand, they are making the people aware of the changes occurring in their society, and on the other hand, they are playing the role of a messenger of the netizens to the state. This two-way process of interchange of information is helping in the construction of a healthy and responsible state-society relationship in China.

Alpana Verma
Research scholar, DEAS, University of Delhi
email: [email protected]

IPCS

IPCS (Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies) conducts independent research on conventional and non-conventional security issues in the region and shares its findings with policy makers and the public. It provides a forum for discussion with the strategic community on strategic issues and strives to explore alternatives. Moreover, it works towards building capacity among young scholars for greater refinement of their analyses of South Asian security.

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