Cathy Sun | January 31, 2020
Responding To: U.S.-China Relations in the Social Media Era
Social Media as an Accelerator
With the quick development and increasing number of worldwide users of social media like Facebook or Twitter, more and more world leaders are starting to use them to engage with international affairs, including diplomats from the United States and China. In the United States, it is already common for citizens to see lots of tweets from President Donald Trump every day, as well as other American officials engaging with international affairs on social media platforms. China has also opened some accounts on Facebook, Twitter, and Weibo, the most popular Chinese national social media app, although there are few interactions between countries compared to American social media platforms. With the increasing usage of social media among diplomats and leaders, problems like extreme remarks, false information, and the ability of individual leaders to bypass agencies and release unfiltered opinions need our attention and analysis to better understand and interpret the changing diplomatic environment.
From the past case of the NBA controversy, it seems that social media functions more in a negative than in a positive way, intensifying conflicts and misunderstandings between China and the United States. When Daryl Morey tweeted his support for Hong Kong protesters, he might not realize how strong and extensive an influence his remarks can have. Social media has played a significant role in accelerating the spread of information, reaching out to millions of audiences, widening the gap of ideologies, and blurring the lines between informal remarks and formal claims.
In the case of the U.S.-China trade war, before the phase one trade talk, both the United States and China expressed uncompromising attitudes on social media. Although China and the United States mainly commented on the issue on separate social media platforms, social media use made the whole situation more complex by quickly presenting and updating various attitudes and all types of different interpretations from diplomats, officials, experts, and the public scattering around the world.
Presently, while there are few direct interactions on social media between American and Chinese diplomats or ministers of foreign affairs (MFA), any engagement between the two countries, no matter on Twitter, Facebook, or Weibo, can draw great attention from both sides, showing the significant potential power of social media diplomacy. One of the most recent and focused international interactions on social media is the "fight" between America and Iran on Weibo through the American Iranian embassy accounts, which Chinese users actively respond to although no Chinese official account has engaged. While the content released by both embassies are quite formal, the comments below are a mess of diverse opinions with a sense of both advocating nationalism and fun-seeking. Most responded negatively to the American embassy account, but approvingly to the Iranian embassy account.
So far, it may still be too early to define social media as either a beneficial tool or a dangerous weapon with limited interactions to draw from between China and the United States on social media platforms. According to past cases, social media is more of an accelerator of the U.S.-China relationship than a game-changer. Indeed, social media has features of fast propagation, complicating an event, and expanding an individual’s power, but the primary influence of social media depends on who and how to use it based on existing characteristics of relations between countries. For the NBA controversy, the conflict originated from ideological differences rather than Twitter platform itself. The platform just intensified the situation. Thus, in the Sino-U.S. relationship, social media platforms can be used to either increase or ease tension. Also, from the Weibo case mentioned above, it is necessary to take different features and systems of each social media platform into consideration. Since Weibo has been known for its strict censorship and strategies to promote nationalistic remarks, this can be misleading for people who know little about Weibo’s system and consider it as an objective presence of Chinese citizens’ opinions.
Personally, Twiplomacy or Weiplomacy, meaning using Weibo for diplomacy, will become a trend and draw increasing attention in the future. Although interactions between world leaders have dropped from 2018 to 2019, the overall interactions and registered accounts are increasing if we look at the trend in the long-term. However, even if Twiplomacy becomes more prevailing around the globe, it is still a question whether China will limit its usage of western social media like Facebook or Twitter probably due to fear of being affected by negative responses, users’ criticism, effects from western ideology or rules set by these platforms, and individual actions bypassing Chinese department’s scrutiny. Also, it is reasonable to consider that the United States would be alert with concerns of potential ideological influences or changes if China increases its usage on Twitter or Facebook. Similarly, it is hardly possible that most American officials would be willing to use Weibo with strict censorship, and China may also not be very welcoming if western leaders flood in Weibo considering the increasing amount of governmental control.
In all, it is indispensable for both sides to be more careful in dealing with each other on social media. It is very risky for two major powers in the world with vastly different ideologies to interact under highly informal, flexible, and exposed international platforms. While there have not been any essentially serious conflicts between China and the United States caused by social media diplomacy, both countries need to pay special attention to the fast-developing social media landscape and be cautious with their remarks.
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