All FSI News News March 8, 2022

Information Flow Between Global and Chinese Social Media with Professor Jennifer Pan

Stanford professor Jennifer Pan joined SCCEI for a conversation on her new research looking at information flow from the U.S. to China via social media during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Jennifer Pan and Hongbin Li during the March 4 SCCEI China Chat lecture.

On March 4, 2022, Professor Jennifer Pan, Associate Professor of Communication and Associate Professor, by courtesy, of Political Science and Sociology at Stanford University, joined Professor Hongbin Li, co-director of Stanford Center on China's Economy and Senior Fellow at both the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research (SIEPR) and Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies (FSI), for a lecture and discussion on her research analyzing information flow between global and Chinese social media. 

Pan opened her talk by reflecting on the fact that “we are living in a world where social media is ubiquitous… sometimes it feels impossible to imagine life before the internet, before social media.” She points out that it is exactly this connectivity that can facilitate transnational conversations like SCCEI’s China Chats. Yet, she also notes that there are restrictions to global connectivity, some of which are imposed by governments, while others stem from users’ adoption of different platforms and products. Pan states that “nowhere is the effort to regulate the transnational flow of digital information more systematic and sustained than in China.” Yet, despite these regulations, “it’s not the case that there is an absolute absence of information flowing into China from the global internet or from U.S.-based social media platforms.” 

It’s not the case that there is an absolute absence of information flowing into China from the global internet or from U.S.-based social media platforms.
Jennifer Pan

In her research, Pan set out to answer that question – exactly how much information from non-Chinese social media platforms flows into Chinese social media? And what types of information flow into Chinese social media from global social media? Who facilitates the flow of information?

To answer these questions, Pan and her team of researchers looked at data from Twitter and Weibo from January to April 2021 at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Using a combination of deep learning and human annotation, they identified 14 million English-language Twitter posts with content related to COVID-19. Of those tweets, 1.8 million tweets referred to China and COVID-19. Her team then identified the most viral of those tweets and searched for them within the 6.7 million COVID-related Weibo posts.

Pan found that 44% of viral tweets appeared on both Twitter and Weibo, but that the content was co-occurring: it didn’t first appear on Twitter, but appeared on Twitter and Weibo at the same time, going viral independently of one other. In fact, only 13% of viral Tweets first appeared on Twitter and were transmitted to Weibo. Pan then turned to analyzing what type of information was shared on the social media platforms. She noted that although less than 40% of all COVID- and China-related content shared on Twitter was critical of the Chinese government, Chinese leadership, and/or racist towards Chinese people, 70% of the content that was shared from Twitter to Weibo was critical of the Chinese government, Chinese leadership, and/or racist towards Chinese people. Who was sharing this information? Of the 13% of Weibo posts shared from Twitter, 60% were posted by ordinary (non-VIP) accounts, 30% were posted by individual VIP accounts, and 10% were posted by organizational VIP accounts.

13% of viral Tweets first appeared on Twitter and were then transmitted to Weibo.
Jennifer Pan

After sharing the results, Pan postulated on why the users were sharing the information they were sharing. She noted, "one possibility is that some sort of confirmation bias is going on.” Many people may believe the narrative that the U.S. won’t tolerate the rise of China, so they share information that confirms that belief. She then turned to answer a number of questions from the audience, taking an even deeper dive into her research and the possibilities for future research. 

Watch the full recording:

At the end of the talk, Pan summarized the responses to her motivating questions:

Q: How much information from non-Chinese social media platforms flows into Chinese social media?
A: “There’s very limited flow of information from Twitter to Weibo during the emergence of COVID-19.”

Q: What types of information flow into Chinese social media from global social media?
A: “A really outsized share is content critical of the Chinese government, expressing criticism towards Chinese people and anti-Chinese sentiment.”

Q: Who facilitates the flow of information?
A: The majority of shared posts come from accounts of ordinary users. But at the same time, the users are drawing information for the tweets from posts being shared by traditional media outlets.

Bonus Question: Why are users choosing to primarily share info that is critical of the Chinese government, Chinese leadership, and racist toward Chinese people?
A: Although her research can’t answer this question, Pan postulates that it could be due to confirmation bias. Many people may believe the narrative that the U.S. won’t tolerate the rise of China, so they share information that confirms that belief.


SCCEI hosts multiple China Chats with Stanford Faculty events a year, you can view all of our past and upcoming events on our events page and register for the next China Chat!