Cathy Sun | January 31, 2020
Responding To: U.S.-China Relations in the Social Media Era
Why Political Engagement Should Stay Off Social Media
By now, many Americans are quite familiar with President Trump’s heavy and emphatic use of his Twitter account. He uses the account to inform followers of political developments, like the progression of the Phase One Trade Deal with China, as well as his views on other countries’ leaders, like his “friend” president Xi, and actions like his statement that Chinese economic moves were targeting American farmers. Although political leaders at times use social media to engage political counterparts, it is important to think about who the real targets of social media posts are. This is particularly interesting when considering the political and linguistic differences of the United States and China.
For many, particularly younger, Americans, Twitter is a major way to consume news. According to a Reuters study, 57% of American 18-24 year olds, 43% of 25-34 years olds, and 29% of those over 35 turn to social media for their first contact with news in the morning. Among the sources listed are ones you would expect: namely Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc. Among those not listed are Weibo and WeChat, two of the most popular social media platforms in China.
What does this mean? For one thing, it means American and Chinese citizens are not consuming the same types of social media, and therefore not consuming the same information disseminated through these media platforms. While Trump’s messages are easily conveyed to an American audience, there is a barrier in reaching a foreign audience. Linguistically, a foreign audience would find it more difficult to understand the content of President Trump’s tweets. Although translation applications exist, it is clear his tweets are not directed towards a non-English speaking audience. When we consider the Arab Spring, for example, protestors employed multilingual signs and banners so foreigners could understand their message when footage was picked up and disseminated by international news outlets. This demonstrates an active employment of multilingualism to share understanding and build unity among speakers of disparate languages and peoples of unfamiliar cultures. While it makes sense, the monolingual American president would tweet in his native language and the de facto (though not official) language of the United States, it does show he is not trying to offer any special help to spread his message to Chinese media consumers on the mainland. At the same time, the fact that media platforms like Weibo and WeChat are primarily in Chinese means they are unapproachable to a mainstream non-Mandarin speaking American audience, creating a barrier to American access and consumption of Chinese perspectives on international issues.
Another reason for this barrier of communication is political: in China, there is government enforced censorship of Twitter. In theory, Trump’s tweets would not be able to arrive to a mainstream Chinese audience. While this may excuse the monolingual nature of his tweets, it importantly reveals an actual barrier that exists to an open dialogue between the two countries. If Chinese citizens do not have access to the praises, complaints, and statements Trump makes, then it seems he is producing such, at times, provocative tweets simply to rile up and garner support among his American followers.
But taking such actions to garner support among followers is complicated when it has tangible impacts on and consequences for the international community. For example, North Korean officials said Trump’s tweet, where he called North Korean leader Kim Jong Un “Little Rocket Man” and said that North Korea “won’t be around much longer,” amounted to a declaration of war. This prompted North Korean foreign minister Ri Yong-Ho to state that Pyongyang was willing to defend itself by shooting down U.S. bombers. This precarious international political situation erupted from less than 120 characters of text that could have been sent anywhere from Air Force One to a public bathroom.
World leaders’ use of social media to take political action is an evasion and disintegration of traditional formal practices of international diplomacy. It makes it too easy for leaders to express their personal thoughts rather than those of the country they represent. In the case of North Korea, no processes took place in Congress to formally declare war, but this was the claim North Korean officials argued they perceived based on President Trump’s personal tweet. In the case of China, recently more high-level officials have begun posting content on media platforms such as Twitter in an attempt to shape an international Chinese narrative, for example by discrediting Hong Kong protesters. This comes at the ironic and duplicitous reality that high-level officials are manipulating a media environment which they deny their own people access. How then, are they reflecting their own country as a whole?
Social media makes news approachable and convenient for many people, especially young people, who primarily do not get their news through more traditional sources. But it is inherently informal, which juxtaposes the many formalities of real world diplomacy. As a method to acquire news, social media can be a valuable tool, but as a way for international leaders to engage one another, perhaps they should reserve their (sometimes snide) remarks for official channels of communication.
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