Cathy Sun | January 31, 2020
Responding To: U.S.-China Relations in the Social Media Era
Social Media: A New Stage of Games Between the Great Powers
The term “social media” refers to websites and other Internet applications that enable users to create and share content with other users, as well as to react to such content in various ways. As social media has become more available, both in terms of Internet access and ease of use, an enormous amount of people have come to depend on it for their everyday lives and routines. For instance, according to a survey conducted in early 2019, around seven-in-ten U.S. adults (69%) use Facebook, the biggest social network worldwide, and WeChat, the largest social media platform in China, has over 1.15 billion monthly active users as of the third quarter of 2019. It is generally acknowledged that social media platforms are exerting a profound influence on civic engagement and international interactions, including Sino-U.S. relations.
Overall, the widespread use of social media provides more diverse channels for China and the United States to work towards mutual understanding. On the one hand, government officials can share their foreign policy priorities on social media platforms in an effort to receive feedback, engage in diplomacy, educate people, and attempt to influence foreign policy outcomes. The U.S. Embassy in China opened its Weibo (the second largest social networking platform in China) account as early as 2010. It has posted 25,623 updates about the U.S. legal and political system and diplomatic news, gaining 2.64 million followers. In addition, the Foreign Ministry spokesman's office and Chinese diplomats have collectively landed on Twitter recently, reflecting a new strategy for public diplomacy. Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said that it is reasonable for Chinese media to use overseas social media to introduce Chinese policies, tell Chinese stories, and communicate with local people. On the other hand, multinational corporations, non-governmental organizations, and the public carry out business operations, cultural exchanges, ideological exchanges and information dissemination on social media, which has developed into a place to display an international image, cultural attractiveness, institutional advantages and other soft power competitiveness. Ziqi Li, a woman from southwestern China whose YouTube video channel celebrating rural life is followed by nearly 8.3 million people, has been hailed by state media for her role in promoting Chinese culture.
However, Sino-U.S. interaction on social media harbors potential conflicts. With respect to ideology and values, the traditional differences and conflicts between China and the United States will extend to cyberspace, especially social media platforms. A poorly considered statement can cause offense or even spark a conflict. The tweet on October 4, 2019 by Houston Rockets’ general manager Daryl Morey may prove to be a typical case. His tweeting of the slogan “Fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong” –one frequently used by pro-democracy protesters in the city – immediately set off an outcry in mainland China, angering tens of millions of Chinese NBA fans and government officials. This dispute on a social media platform clearly reflects the value differences that are its cause. The U.S. emphasizes the importance of the openness, free access, free expression, and free exchange of cyberspace, and equates these freedoms with basic human rights, so as to promote consensus in the international community. But according to the actual needs of its own economic and social development and the principle of independent management of the Internet in China, China subordinates the free flow of information to the good of Internet security, thus implementing some restrictions on the release and dissemination of Internet content. Due to the fast-paced and widespread character of social media, traditional conflicts between American and Chinese values have the risk of being exaggerated. Moreover, sometimes the behavior of social media platform managers rises to the level of national intention. Alleged disinformation campaigns on U.S. social media platforms about the Hong Kong anti-government protests, which Facebook and Twitter said originated from mainland China, may have deepened mistrust between Beijing and Washington. Beijing has always been wary of these services, and this will only further convince China that these types of platforms are allies of the U.S. government in its technological and ideological competition with China.
Social media and digital technology are taking political responsibility and giving more and more of it to every individual. With a click of a button, people can share information unfiltered by traditional diplomatic channels and gatekeepers of media, instantaneously, nearly anywhere on the planet. However, international relations have to be handled delicately, especially Sino-U.S. relations, since they are the most significant bilateral relations in the world today. This requires that celebrities use their influence prudently and take responsibility for the discourse on social media platforms. It also entails that the public work to discern true information from false, and avoid blindly following trends.
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