Cathy Sun | January 31, 2020
Responding To: U.S.-China Relations in the Social Media Era
The Boundaries of Boundless Speech
Social media has transformed the production and consumption of news and information, especially to the enormous population in countries like the United States and China. Compared to the past, social media has enabled more information to come from sources other than just the State. It has disrupted one-way communication like the TV or radio, and established itself as a platform for mutual exchanges and expression. Nowadays, things can be discussed and responded to on social media just like in public. What’s more, social media has enabled conversations across time and space. There is no doubt that human speech is becoming boundless and more far-reaching on social media.
Zooming into the role of social media between U.S.-China relations, there has been extensive mass involvement in recent topics concerning the U.S.-China Trade War, Hong Kong SAR and Uyghurs in Xinjiang Province. Taking any from above, as a person who understands both Chinese and English, I often find discussions on mainstream media like Twitter in the United States and Weibo in China to be contrasting, not necessarily in the opinions but the perspectives and emphases on one single issue. It seems Chinese and Americans are looking at things from very different lenses, which seem contradictory to the idea that social media is bringing the world together. This has propelled me to think beyond the ideological differences of content on social media, but onto its structure. Social media is successful in breaking physical borders, expanding people’s exposure and increasing the quantity of information to unprecedented numbers, but certain boundaries exist while social media is going boundless.
Even though social media is taking us everywhere across the globe, there are areas overlooked by social media because of blockages. Regardless of intention and the ways countries put it, there have been removals of internet content in both the United States and China. An interesting example is the U.S.-Iran conflict on Chinese social media, where both the United States and Iran left their traditional media platforms to speak on Chinese platforms. It seems social media does not extend beyond the boundary of blockages, leading to things not being subject to discussion. This poses a question to people in the United States and China: to what extent is our disagreement formed by those boundaries?
In addition, the free entry of social media also makes it hard to distinguish the truth. Unlike traditional media where information is given out with comparatively high authority and professionalism, there is much less guarantee on social media. Sometimes, modern editing techniques are used to sharpen the storytelling for influence, and in the worst-case scenario, there are fake news reports and false rumors. Sadly, studies show that fake news reaches more people and spreads much faster. In addition to unavailability of information, people are also faced with intense noises that blur the boundaries of truth.
In addition, the format of social media can also be a confinement to effective expression, especially to topics concerning U.S.-China relations. Taking Twitter and Weibo as examples, while it is the rule of game to make short tweets or Weibo posts, and in some cases speeches can be both concise and powerful, the 140-character limit in Chinese and 280-character limit in English is not necessarily enough for serious expression. Especially when it comes to countries like the United States or China, issues are often multi-faceted with high levels of complication, which could hardly be solved with single, short answers. Social media is effective in having people speak out, but the format of speech could confound people that they are answering some black-and-white questions. Of course, the main purpose of social media is not U.S.-China relations, but when it comes to relevant conversations, there are significant numbers of people being misinformed. Opinions and assumptions are not useful information for those people. Social media’s fashion of prioritization as expression may not be a good place for whole stories. What is not told also matters, and only when we become aware of what is not said can we make social media conversations valid and effective.
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