China’s serious air pollution problem has attracted the attention of online activists who have turned to social media to pressure the government to take action. But their efforts have been co-opted by businesses wanting to sell masks and filters and government officials seeking to advance their own environmental narrative, finds a new study.
“Social media has been touted as a ‘liberation technology’ for citizens, but we found the story wasn’t so straightforward in China,” said Daniel Sui, co-author of the study and a professor of geography at Ohio State University. “Along with the positive gains brought by social media, there were negatives.”
The researchers analysed about 250,000 air-pollution posts on the Twitter-like Chinese social media site Sina Weiba from October 2012 to June 2013. Their analysis shows that the online activism did have an impact, such as when the government acknowledged that air pollution was a problem and set new air pollution guidelines and enforcement mechanisms.
But the researchers also found that companies and the government succeeded in shaping the online discussion along what the researchers describe as “narrow and often profitable lines.” For instance, corporations tried to push products that citizens could purchase to alleviate their health concerns, while the government response on Sina Weiba was to make “make air pollution a scientific rather than a political problem,” explained Sui.
Sui said this case study shows both the power and the limits of online activism in China.
“Citizens acting online made some real changes to how the government handled the air pollution problem, but government and corporations used the same online tools to advance their own agendas as well,” he said.