Cathy Sun | January 31, 2020
Responding To: U.S.-China Relations in the Social Media Era
An Internet Battleground
From traditional diplomatic talks to Twitter wars, in the new digital age, politics has shifted its platform to social media as a political tool to censor or create a biased narrative to influence public opinion. In turn, social media has become a soft power tool that deepens the tension in U.S.-China relations where the role of public opinion becomes entangled with the greater realm of great power competition. Social media is now utilized as a battleground for the two global superpowers — using digital influence as a means to prove their political prowess in the international sphere. With the integration of social media influencers such as big tech firms like Google, Facebook, and Huawei, the soft power tech war continues to gradually embody the constant state of competition between the United States and China.
Technology is used as a means to exert power, however the costs of such demonstrations cause negative implications for social media in the United States and China. These costs are demonstrated through biased information that creates an internet world that promotes hegemonic dominance in the tech sphere, where the United States and China collide as both compete to be at the forefront in the digital age. For instance, China utilizes social media to craft a narrative that shines a positive light on the Chinese Communist Party by filtering social media as a propaganda tool to promote its political purposes. Therefore, China has blocked its citizens from using American social media outlets such as Twitter and Facebook in attempts to rid China of a U.S. presence.
In 2009, China resorted to protectionist propaganda pursuits by kicking Facebook and Twitter out of China, furthering its regulated state-controlled internet use. Through social media censorship, China’s digital presence is carefully calculated to decrease the likelihood that social media will damage the nation’s brand domestically, and prevent users from collectively acting against the Chinese Communist Party. Due to the new digital age, China remains fearful of big tech firms like Facebook and Google as they begin to expand internationally, particularly in China. Their ploy to keep these American companies out of China represents their efforts to limit U.S. influence as China rises as an economic and technological competitor. No longer having Facebook and Twitter available to Chinese citizens prevents the spread of the U.S. philosophy of information freedom and also relieves the threat of U.S. presence in China.
By limiting foreign tech companies, particularly U.S. tech companies, in the social media playing field, China will have a more successful propaganda platform in social media that traditionally promotes the Chinese Communist Party’s supremacy. These biases will eventually influence public opinion and showcase favorable social media content that favors the narrative for “the rise of China.”
Vice versa, the United States also fears for China’s dominance on American soil and attempts to limit entry to Chinese tech companies. President Donald Trump blocked China’s technological expansion by issuing an executive order that limited the tech giant, Huawei, from benefiting or accessing U.S. tech services. Ultimately, the executive order serves as a containment strategy against China to place the United States at the forefront of the tech war.
With the added pressure of a modern social media craze, the United States and China have a desire to lead technological innovation and enhance their social media presence to legitimize their political power in the internet sphere. Great power competition heightens as tech giants and social media platforms become involved in U.S.-China disputes as each seeks to assert themselves in their competitor’s playing field. Other than the tech giants mentioned previously, politicians are also playing a role in social media by shifting “diplomatic” talks into a series of tweets that ultimately result in ineffective communication and misinterpretation.
Although social media can be used to connect politics to the people, it has shifted to an extreme approach where politicians use this platform to discuss sensitive policies in an informal setting. As a result, online public opinion is able to increase tension between the United States and China by having direct access to the U.S.-China battleground. Debates on social media escalate to an endless exchange of twitter wars between the U.S. and China while the public chimes in on the internet debacle. A senior Chinese Foreign Ministry, Chinese diplomat, Lijian Zhao, utilizes social media to “spread the voice of China,” as written in his bio. Zhao calls out America as “unjust” and “inhumane,” along with other anti-American rhetoric. Other Chinese officials have also taken social media as a platform to express such rhetoric. Along with President Donald Trump’s infamous tweets berating China’s politics, both the United States and China stray away from engaging in effective diplomatic practice.
Due to the politicization of social media, the internet has become a prominent platform for the U.S. and China to display their power politics for the public to view and engage with firsthand. The sense of transparency social media created has opened a new avenue for diplomacy to be ignored. It decreased the need for transparency and cooperation in real life, while allowing U.S. and Chinese officials to use social media to exchange in combative dialogue. Great power competition has now become common in an unpredictable internet battleground that further emphasizes the unsteady relationship between the United States and China.
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