Home / Articles / Volume 13 (2016) / The Role of Social Media in the Dissemination of Politically Sensitive Information: The Case of Occupy Central in Hong Kong
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Abstract

As one of the most popular social network sites in China, Sina Weibo is subject to strict government censorship. This study explores the discursive practices used by Sina Weibo participants to access and disseminate news related to the Occupy Central Movement in Hong Kong, which broke out on September 28, 2014. A body of original posts and related comments posted after the start of Occupy Central is analyzed using the multi-faceted framework of Mediated Discourse Analysis (MDA), an analytical construct useful for interpreting social practices (in this study, posting and commenting) that involve actions as well as texts. Specifically, the study applies the concepts of attention structures in relation to discourses in place, interaction order, and historical bodies in MDA as introduced by Jones (2005, 2010). A focus on attention structures within the three domains highlights the cooperation of posters and commenters in delivering and receiving messages under the radar of government censorship, and helps explain apparent disparities between the surface meanings of posts and audience members’ seemingly irrelevant comments on them. This suggests that attention structures within MDA are useful analytical tools with which to explore the subtle interaction of the three dimensions in the investigation of social issues.

Introduction

Studies of the Chinese Internet mainly concentrate on business, society, and politics (Herold & de Seta, 2015). To promote commercial development, the government encourages the flourishing of Internet use by the public (MacKinnon, 2011). However, free speech online is usually accompanied by vibrant discussion of democracy and social problems, which poses a challenge for the regime. So the authorities take measures to control online speech by blocking and marginalizing sensitive and threatening discussion (Dowell, 2006; MacKinnon, 2008; Zhang & Zheng, 2009; Zheng, 2007). Sina Weibo, an important social media platform on the Chinese Internet, is also under strict domestic surveillance (Bamman, O’Connor, & Smith, 2012; King, Pan, & Roberts, 2013; Ng, 2013; Noesselt, 2014; Sullivan, 2012, 2014; Yeo & Li, 2012). This control tries to shift people’s attention to online entertainment (Li, 2010; Wang & Hong, 2010), which partly explains why the trending topics on Chinese social media platforms are usually associated with jokes, images, and videos (Yu, Asur, & Huberman, 2011).

However, censorship does not entirely stifle sensitive discussion and online activism (Yang, 2009). Users, especially some activists, adopt various methods to bypass censorship. Practices of recoding sensitive topics by resorting to “seeable” and “sayable” expressions have grown rapidly on the Chinese web (Yang, 2014). Some users create “morphs” or variants of words (e.g., abbreviations) and newly invented words to avoid keyword-based detection (Chen, Zhang, & Wilson, 2013). Others create “cultural memes” involving “humor, simple imagery and remixing” to satirize and criticize Chinese internet censorship (Mina, 2014). Research has examined how such online cultural memes help build a “symbolic network” quickly and deeply (Tang & Yang, 2011).

Most recent studies of Weibo censorship target the behaviors of activists who give voice to people being treated unjustly in society (e.g., Gleiss, 2015; Huang & Sun, 2013; Svensson, 2014). Rarely, however, do studies of Weibo consider posts of celebrity accounts or influential grassroots accounts as their main research data, and comments on posts have hardly ever been taken into consideration in previous studies. Yet celebrity accounts and grassroots accounts are more powerful than ordinary user accounts, in that they attract Weibo participants’ attention more easily and thus have greater influence on information circulation. Comments are important because they reflect Weibo participants’ thoughts.

Occupy Central was a student protest that broke out on September 28, 2014 in Hong Kong. However, this study focuses less on the Occupy Central protest itself and more on how posters and commenters1 disseminated news on this sensitive topic and, in so doing, used their communicative practices to avoid censorship. For example, influential subscribers on Weibo (most with powerful offline identities) alluded to the sensitive topic of Occupy Central in their posts without mentioning it directly. Their posts then became platforms for various discursive practices by both themselves and their commenters. To examine discursive and semiotic practices used by Weibo subscribers, Mediated Discourse Analysis (MDA), a methodology that focuses on action as well as text, is adopted.

Two research questions are addressed in this study:

RQ1: What discursive and semiotic practices were used by influential Weibo users to disseminate information about Occupy Central under conditions of government censorship?

RQ2: What practices did Weibo users engage in to access and interpret information about Occupy Central on Weibo?

By answering these two questions, this study broadens the field of application of MDA to include crisis-related data obtained from online media platforms. Its focus on comments as being as important as posts also calls attention to commenters’ practice. Finally, the study suggests new directions for scholarship on Chinese Internet censorship.

Background

Sina Weibo and Occupy Central in the Context of CMC

Posting on Weibo is a form of interaction between posters and audience2 within the landscape of computer-mediated communication (CMC), defined by Herring (2007, n.p.) as “predominantly text-based human-human interaction mediated by networked computers or mobile telephony.” It is also a type of “graphically encoded communication” described as “keyboard-to-screen communication” by Jucker and Dürscheid (2012).

As a source of data for online discourse study, Sina Weibo deserves more attention than it has hitherto attracted. Sina Weibo was established in 2009 as a substitute for Twitter when the latter fell victim to China’s Great Firewall. By the third quarter of 2015, more than 222 million subscribers had registered on Sina Weibo, including about 100 million with active accounts.3 The authorities monitor Weibo rigorously, blocking sensitive posts and preventing searches that use sensitive keywords. In response, Weibo users are active in constructing safe content to evade it. Account holders, especially influential ones such as ‘big Vs’ (i.e., verified accounts with a large number of followers) and popular grassroots account holders (i.e., unverified accounts with a large number of followers), resort to using discursive cues and semiotic elements to stimulate discussion. Because of these practices, Weibo plays a significant role in spreading news and provoking online discussion.

Occupy Central was launched to protest the framework released by the Chinese government for the 2017 Hong Kong Chief Executive Elections. The word “Central” in this context refers to the central business district of Hong Kong. Protestors, mainly students, occupied main business centers such as Central for the following 79 days. From the time the protest broke out, it was covered extensively in western and Hong Kong media. In contrast, during the first crucial three days, hardly a mention of the protest was to be found in mainland Chinese newspapers, TV news reports, or even on Weibo. Specific Sina Weibo staff were directed to detect and delete all images and texts related to the crisis. By constraining reports on Occupy Central, authorities tried to marginalize the sensitive topic. However, some Weibo users who learned of it from sources outside mainland China began to report on and discuss the protest by playing hide and seek with the censors.4 On the one hand, authorities designated Sina Weibo staff to detect sensitive posts and block Weibo users’ keyword based searches for Occupy Central. On the other hand, holders of ‘big verified’ accounts (big Vs) and powerful grassroots accounts modulated the degree of saliency of their posts to deliver messages associated with the confrontation. For those who did not know about Occupy Central, Weibo comments were an important source from which they learned about the event.

Mediated Discourse Analysis

MDA is an appropriate method for the analysis of practice because it focuses both on texts constructed by users and on actions taken by them. First proposed by R. Scollon (1998, 2001a, 2001b), MDA has since been employed in a multitude of studies that have investigated discursive actions (e.g., Jones, 2005, 2009, 2010, 2012; Norris & Jones, 2005; S. Scollon, 2001; Scollon & Scollon, 2004). Although similar to CDA (critical discourse analysis) in addressing social issues, MDA is also oriented to observing actions. MDA rethinks the widely accepted notion that language plays the central role in discourse and action. It argues that language is mediational, one of several equally valid means (or cultural tools) for interpreting social practice. MDA addresses the question of how to account for discourse in the complex context of a situated social action (Norris & Jones, 2005). In short, the MDA analysts’ attention focuses on what is happening as well as on what is said.

Attention Structures within Discourses in Place, Interaction Order, and Historical Bodies

According to MDA, the process of analyzing an action has three components, namely, discourses in place, interaction order, and historical bodies (Scollon & Scollon, 2004). The three facets interact with each other and function simultaneously in influencing social actors’ practice. Discourses in place refer to an aggregate of discourses circulating in a particular place. Discourses in place can be as diverse as “a meeting, a conversation, a chance contact, (or) even a queue” (Scollon & Scollon, 2004, p.19). Jones (2012) added that semiotic signs such as images or written texts can also be counted as discourses in place. For the practice of posting on Weibo, for example, a discourse in place can be a word, an image, time, a smartphone App, or any other resource the poster might notice. All these combine to construct an environment where posters may take the action of posting. To put it in another way, the environment on Weibo reminds the poster which practices are considered proper and acceptable.

The concept of interaction order relates to the social norms and relations between social actors. Jones (2010) describes how interaction order channels our attention to different groups of people depending on the particular social situation. For example, the way celebrity posters communicate with Sina Weibo staff may be totally different from the way they talk to their fans or followers. That is because social actors’ behaviors are to some degree determined by whom they are interacting with.

The third MDA concept used in this study is historical bodies, which has to do with individual habits and embedded life experiences. First proposed by Japanese philosopher Nishida, the historical body refers to “a lifetime of personal habits that come to feel so natural that one’s body carries out actions seemingly without being told” (Scollon & Scollon, 2004, p. 13). It also encompasses “(social actors’) life experiences, goals or purposes, and their unconscious ways of behaving and thinking” (Scollon & Scollon, 2004, p. 46). Suppose that a poster produces a post; his or her body would recall the past experience of posting. Then he or she will follow the relevant procedures such as logging on to Weibo, typing words in the writing space, attaching images, and rechecking the grammar automatically before posting, without being reminded.

The practice of posting on Weibo illustrates that discourses in place, interaction order, and historical bodies are interwoven. Moreover, the components may function differently depending on a particular social actor’s attention. Different people may focus on different aspects within an environment, and what people emphasize and focus on determines the actions they take. Having noticed the essential role of attention in understanding practice, Jones (2005) introduced the notion of ‘site of attention,’ building on the concept of ‘attention structures’ (Lanham, 1993). A ‘site of attention’ can be an action that is the focus of an actor’s attention. Alternatively, it can be any social interaction that gives, gets, or displays attention in a conventional way (Jones, 2010). The concept of ‘attention structures’ looks at the direction of people’s attention in time and space. Thus, a practice is the result of an actor’s habit of paying attention to space and time throughout the whole process of a social interaction. When it comes to online interaction, social actors’ attention is also channeled by discourses in place, interaction order, and historical bodies (Jones, 2005, 2010).

Methodology

By its nature, data collection within the framework of MDA is ethnographic. That is because it requires a detailed record of actions over a long span of time. Inspired by S. Scollon’s (2001) MDA study of the Taiwan Missile Crisis, in this study I take a similar ethnographic approach to data collection. However, while S. Scollon kept a diary recording participants’ behavior, I collected Weibo’s posters’ practice of posting. Their posts are automatically recorded in reverse chronological sequence by the Sina Weibo website and mobile app, and the recording mechanism provided by the website has more functions than a “diary” does. Because it provides detailed time information and post statistics, the Weibo platform enables a close look at the practice of posting. To narrow the data set, three criteria were set to collect relevant posts for this study. First, the posts collected should not mention Occupy Central directly or have other characteristics that might have attracted the attention of censors. Second, the main posts examined in the study were collected from the hot post zone soon after Occupy Central broke out. 5 This is because posts in the hot post zone can reach a large audience, including both followers and non-followers. Having attracted large numbers of forwardings, comments, and likes, hot posts were disproportionately influential in disseminating information regarding Occupy Central. Third, the posts collected were confined to those that gave rise to heated discussion of Occupy Central in the comment zone below each post.

Applying these three criteria resulted in a data set comprising six ‘big V’ subscribers’ posts (see Examples 2-7) and the comments following each (see Table 1). Of the six posters, four are celebrities or influential grassroots representatives from mainland China, and the other two are celebrities from Hong Kong. Since the identity of being from mainland China/Hong Kong plays a key role in subscribers’ posting practice, the six posts are divided into two groups. The six targets’ Weibo posts were observed carefully on the Weibo website from Octber 5th, 2013 to Oct 5th, 2014 (see Table 2) to investigate their ‘historical bodies’ in posting. In addition to the users’ posts and comments, the specific times of posting, the users’ profiles, and the number of their followers were also part of the data.

Wang Sicong

Hong Huang

Zuoyeben

Yao Chen

Wong Cho Lam

Carina Lau Kar-ling

25,362

588

6,307

3,766

961

1,266

Table 1. Number of comments below each of the six posts

Wang Sicong

Hong Huang

Zuoyeben

Yao Chen

Wong Cho Lam

Carina Lau Kar-ling

196

2,277

242

613

710

205

Table 2. Number of posts by each poster from Oct 5, 2013 to Oct 5, 2014

As is evident from Table 1, the six posts attracted a lot of attention from commenters; this was especially true for Wang Sicong’s post. Table 2 shows that the six posters posted actively during the previous year, especially Hong Huang.

A limitation to the completeness of the data set is that some comments might have been deleted later by censors if they generated controversial commentary. Therefore, the research is focused mainly on investigating how information about Occupy Central was spread on Weibo, rather than exploring the particular attitudes of Weibo users towards that information.

Analysis

As posts and comments are the main data for this study, it is necessary to first address the conventional features of posting and commenting practices on Sina Weibo. For influential posters, posting is a practice mediated by the website or app. When a post is updated by an influential account holder, it will be continuously commented on, forwarded, and liked by both followers and other Weibo users. That is because the post attracts Weibo users’ attention once it emerges. Jones (2005) argues that “attention is organized around behavior” and in return, “behavior is organized around attention” (p. 152). That is, posters’ attention structures contribute to the formation of the post, and their practices of posting in turn attract the attention of readers. The participants’ attention structures prompt comments, forwardings, and likes. The power of a post grows in direct proportion to the quantity of comments, forwardings, and likes it attracts. The more powerful a post, the more effective it is in spreading news. However, a post is not alone in disseminating information; comments with multiple likes are also crucial to interpreting the post. Readers can click the like button attached to both the post and the existing comments. Clicking like is equivalent to the directing of attention. Hot comments will be ranked in the comment zone according to the quantity of likes that they gain. Apart from reading the post, participants also check out the hot comments, which become another source of information about Occupy Central. A hot comment represents a commonly accepted view within this community. The feature is especially valuable in the context of Weibo under government censorship. When Occupy Central happened, spreading messages about the protest posed a challenge for many verified and grassroots account holders. Comments became interpretations of posts that had ambiguous meanings.

Posters from Mainland China: Wang Sicong, Hong Huang, Yao Chen, and Zuoyeben

The majority of influential posters from mainland China are of a high social status that enables them to attract millions of followers on Weibo. Three of the four posters – Wang Sicong, Hong Huang, and Yao Chen – fall into this group and have registered on Sina Weibo with their real names. Wang is a young and wealthy businessman, also known for his frankness in criticizing whatever or whomever irritates him. Hong is an investor and the producer of a fashion magazine. Her posts mainly cover topics of fashion and media. Yao is a popular film actress who often exposes and criticizes social inequality. Distinct from the aforementioned verified accounts, Zuoyeben is a grassroots account holder who uses a nickname and is labeled an ‘opinion leader’ by some Weibo users. This man’s offline identity is less well-known than his online identity to most Weibo users.6

Posters’ Attention Structures within the Historical Body

As is evident from their previous posts, all the mainland posters have their own distinctive styles of expression. At the same time, they are all aware of government censorship, because they have memories of censors deleting and blocking previous posts on sensitive topics. Typically, they choose to express their observations directly and explicitly. However, when a sensitive crisis takes place, posts on Weibo are susceptible to censorship. Posters then have to shift their posting style from frankness to implicitness, for example, by embedding sensitive topics within their posts.

Zuoyeben, the grassroots poster, typically comments on social problems and criticizes the government in a tone verging on defiance. Consequently, he has been punished repeatedly in the past for his improper posts by having his account suspended for a period of time. Two posts by Zuoyeben (see Example 1) reference the fact that his posts have sometimes been deleted and his account has been closed more than once. In his historical body, Zuoyeben is thus well acquainted with the censorship mechanism on Sina Weibo; his experience has trained his skill in expressing his discontent while simultaneously bypassing the censorship.

Example 1. Zuoyeben’s posts on censorship

The influential figures’ awareness of Weibo censorship also explains the implicitness of some of their posts. Jones (2010) points out that our historical body shifts our attention to certain aspects of a practice instead of others. In the context of censorship, posters attend to how to disseminate news rather than sticking to their regular frank style of posting.

Posters’ Attention Structures within the Interaction Order

The influential figures’ experiences of being censored on Weibo also affect their attention to the interaction order. According to Jones (2010), “[i]nteraction orders channel our attention to…different kinds of people and in different sorts of social situations” (p. 153). Posters mainly distribute their attention to two types of relationships on Weibo. One is the subtle relationship between posters (targets of the censorship) and Sina Weibo staff (performers of the censorship). This relationship can become tense because of posters’ frank posting practices. In severe cases, posters’ accounts are closed temporarily. Thus, their attention becomes focused on the unseen border beyond which their posts will be deleted.

The other kind of relationship exists between the posters and their audience. Posters’ power to attract attention from multiple layers of audience both affords and constrains their practice. They have to pay attention to sustaining a positive relationship between themselves and their audiences. Their stances on sensitive events such as Occupy Central could easily provoke discussion and even verbal attack, as many commenters likely do not hold identical views. If conflict erupts, the poster’s public image will suffer damage. To avoid potential conflicts, the posters from mainland China do not display their political stance on Occupy Central. They limit their messages to delivering information (as opposed to opinion) about the outbreak of the Occupy Central protests.

Posters’ Attention Structures within Discourses in Place

A post can be considered a place where discussion and comments are located. Concurrently, each component within a post is a discourse in place and is a potential focus of posters’ attention. Elements contained within a post (e.g., text; emojis such as ) reside on the Sina Weibo website. It is the posters’ attention distribution that determines the contents of individual posts.

Example 2. Wang Sicong’s post

To illustrate this point, Wang (Example 2) constructed his post by directing his attention to ‘Sina Weibo staff,’ as indicated explicitly in his post. He expressed his sympathy to Sina Weibo staff as they ‘must have been exhausted’ and added the emoji of a doge, a reference to a popular internet meme which, according to my ethnographic observation, delivers a certain attitude of snideness. Wang also adopted the emoji of red candles to show his (mock) sympathy for the Sina Weibo staff. The lexical expressions ‘Sina Weibo staff’ and ‘exhausted’ are essential in comprehending the intended meaning of the post and simultaneously in attracting the audience’s attention. The special meaning of mentioning ‘Sina Weibo staff’ is particular to Weibo culture; it is code for government censorship. The concept is understood by the community of Weibo users who share the same codes. The tiredness of Sina Weibo staff, who are enforcers of surveillance, is a consequence of blocking and deleting posts about Occupy Central. Wang’s post satirizes those staff and at the same time alludes to their practice of stemming free speech.

Example 3. Hong Huang’s post

In Hong Huang’s post (Example 3), her attention is directed to both Weibo and WeChat, two popular social networking platforms. Jones (2010) notes that actors do not “focus on many things at exactly the same time”, but rather shift attention “rather rapidly among multiple activities” (p. 156). As Hong Huang posted, WeChat was more active in spreading news about Hong Kong than Weibo, where many of that night’s posts were about Paris Fashion Week. WeChat became the channel for her to get the information about Occupy Central that she could not find on Weibo. However, WeChat can only spread news among ‘Friends’ (reciprocal following between subscribers), whereas Weibo posts are accessible to every subscriber, and thus, Weibo can transmit a piece of news more widely. Not all her millions of followers on Weibo can access her updates on WeChat, as not all are her ‘Friends.’

Example 4. Zuoyeben’s post

Hong Huang is not alone in embedding ‘Hong Kong’ directly in her post. Zuoyeben (Example 4) and Yao (Example 5) each included ‘Hong Kong’ in their posts. Mentioning a place name can generate special inferences. Hong Kong, a place not inhabited by the online interactants, belongs to a “third space” (see Jones, 2005), in the sense that it is a “place” in a text that can serve as a topic for others to communicate about. In Zuoyeben’s post (Example 4), Hong Kong carries special meaning compared with mainland China because it is where many people from mainland China go to buy the iPhone 6. On the one hand, the adoption of the place name ‘Hong Kong’ serves as an index in meaning making. On the other hand, Zuoyeben incorporated sarcasm into his post to comment on the fact that people from mainland China would not have the same chance as people in Hong Kong to consume Apple products, as the launch date was postponed. 7

Example 5. Yao Chen’s post

In respect to ‘Hong Kong’, Yao’s post (Example 5) deserves special attention, as she emphasized ‘Hong Kong’ through a process of entextualization. Entextualization is the practice of detaching discursive language from its original context (decontextualization) to purposely integrate it in a new context (recontextualization) (Bauman & Briggs, 1990; Blommaert, 2005; Silverstein & Urban, 1996). Entextualization is “the process through which actions are turned into semiotic mediational means for taking subsequent actions” (Jones, 2009, p. 287). Norris compares entextualization to the “process whereby actions become ‘frozen’ into semiotic objects that can be transported into other times and spaces and interactions” (as cited in Jones, 2009, p. 287). Via this process, Yao quoted and forwarded a post she updated in 2012 when she was travelling in Hong Kong. The content of the original post is associated with her preference for the traditional lifestyle of the Hong Kong people. When she reposted soon after the eruption of Occupy Central, in a context totally different from the original one, she added one sentence: “I hope that she regains prosperity and peace one day.” Yao transformed ‘Hong Kong’ across times, Weibo spaces, and contexts on purpose. In so doing, her attention and intention are revealed. By repeating and stressing ‘Hong Kong,’ a spatial location, she enhanced the effect of “indexical grounding” (i.e., the use of markers referring to space, time, or a person) (Bauman & Briggs, 1990) in meaning making. Thus, both the past ‘Hong Kong’ and the present ‘Hong Kong’ permeate the post, with the function of arousing readers’ empathy to what was happening in Hong Kong. By quoting one of her own previous posts, a discourse in place stored in her timeline of posts, Yao embedded worries about Hong Kong into her new post, delivering the new message that Hong Kong was in crisis.

Audience

It is also important to analyze the audience’s practices, as they reflect the extent to which news about Occupy Central was successfully spread. The comments of the audience are noteworthy in that they tend to be more explicit than the text of the posts; this reflects a difference in discursive practice between posters and commenters.

Audience’s Attention Structures within the Historical Body

In contrast to the posters, the audience’s attention is directed in three different ways. First, audiences are in the habit of interpreting posts and expressing their opinions on them. Second, the Weibo audience is well acquainted with the posting practices of influential figures. Third, they, too, are familiar with Sina Weibo’s censorship practices. Many have had the experience of updating a post or a comment and then later having it deleted by Weibo staff. Nonetheless, they are more explicit in expressing their opinions than influential posters on Weibo because they do not suffer much by posting and commenting on sensitive topics. Their nicknames make it unlikely that their “privately public” (Lange, 2007) behavior, in which they comment publicly using pseudonyms, will lead to discovery of their real life identities. That empowers commenters, as they will not pay much for what they say as long as it is legal.

Audience’s Attention Structures within Discourses in Place

For the first several hundred comments below Wang’s post (Example 2), the majority of the commenters did not know what had happened. They were aware that something sensitive had happened, although they may not have known what it was. No one would have perceived the implications of those posts had they no awareness of the event in physical space. One audience member who had previously learned of the start of Occupy Central connected Wang’s indirectness with what happened in physical space, commenting (Example 2.1): “For blocking the event in Hong Kong?” The juxtaposition of the two seemingly unrelated subjects (i.e., Occupy Central and Wang’s post) is the result of what Jones (2010) calls “event complexes,” defined as “attention … distributed over various online and offline spaces, making it difficult to discuss one particular practice in isolation” (p. 157). Commenters naturally directed their attention to discourses both online (posts and comments) and offline (messages received in physical space). For example, another commenter stated that she heard about this protest from her boyfriend who was in Hong Kong at the time (Example 3.1).

Example 2.1. A comment below Wang’s post (Example 2)

Example 3.1. A comment below Hong Huang’s post (Example 3)

As these examples show, consistent with what Swann (2012) argues, audience members tend to combine their personal experience with what they have read (e.g., a post) to make interpretations. Comments in online interactions are entwined with information gained from offline activities and offline information sources. That means that news regarding Occupy Central was not created online, but rather originated in physical space and extended to Weibo and other online contexts.

Comments following posts, especially hot comments with thousands of likes, attract the audience’s attention. Regarding space, the most prominent discourse in place is the original post, while the importance of delivering information lies in the hot comments. Although these comments represent different views, they all serve to spread the news. A well-known practice in Sina Weibo is checking the comments. For audience members, checking the comments is amusing and entertaining, as the comments offer varied interpretations of a post, either humorous or informative. By checking the comments, the audience can know exactly what has happened.

Commenters’ Attention Structures within the Interaction Order

The attention commenters pay to the relationship between social actors is also reflected in their comments. In the data I collected, commenters’ attention does not often focus on the relationship between themselves and the posters, nor does it focus much on the relationship between themselves and the Sina Weibo staff. Commenters are more likely to interact with other Weibo users than to address the poster. In fact, one purpose of the practice of commenting is to attract likes from other users. However, the question arises as how to make their comments liked by others.

According to “the attention economy” (Goldhaber, 1997), those who can provide fresh information are more likely to gain the attention of others. Thus, audience members compete for likes by releasing news about Occupy Central. A majority of hot comments demonstrate that they are about Hong Kong and Occupy Central by mentioning lexical items such as ‘protest,’ ‘students,’ ‘young people,’ ‘democracy,’ ‘Hong Kong,’ ‘autonomy,’ and ‘election.’ Moreover, comments gain likes by stating what others are likely to agree with; Example 2.2, which attracted 5768 likes, is an example. It follows that potential viewers have an effect on what commenters will say in order to satisfy those who click like.

Example 2.2. A hot comment below Wang’s post (Example 2)

Posters from Hong Kong: Wong Cho Lam and Carina Lau Kar-ling

Although most users on Weibo are from mainland China, celebrities from Hong Kong account for a large proportion of influential posters. Distinct from posters from mainland China, their identity as celebrities from Hong Kong enables the audience to detect more sensitive information about Occupy Central and their stances toward the protests. The online interaction between posters and the audience creates a new atmosphere for attention distribution. Wong Cho Lam is a TV actor who has also established a career in mainland China. Carina Lau Kar-ling is an actress with a significant, positive reputation. However, before Occupy Central, their accounts on Weibo were not as influential as some of those from mainland Chinese celebrities, especially in terms of “indegree influence,” “repost influence,” and “reply influence” (Chen & She, 2012). Their posts typically prompt fewer forwardings, comments, and likes than comparable accounts from mainland China do.

Posters’ Attention Structures within the Historical Body

Once Occupy Central began, Wong constructed a post that was different from his typical style, while Lau maintained her usual style of posting. Their attention structures within their historical bodies had to shift from focusing only on their own careers and lives to focusing on both their own careers and the sensitive topic of Occupy Central. In Wong’s case, it is necessary to analyze his actions as well as the text of his posts. Wong previously had seldom posted at 4 a.m. when Weibo interaction was not active, whereas in Example 6 below, he did. Time is not neutral, as it reflects a poster’s ideology and attention (Jones, 2010).

In contrast, on National Day (three days after Occupy Central started), Lau stressed her stance as a Chinese person by wishing fans a happy National Day. She had made a similar post the year before during the national holiday, and she appeared to have made no change in her Weibo posting practice. However, this does not mean Occupy Central had no effect on her practice of posting. On this occasion when Occupy Central and National Day came together, a context totally different from the last National Day, she shifted attention from Occupy Central to the national holiday. This concords with Jones’ (2010) argument that “the experiences stored within historical bodies help […] determine which facets of different situations require focal attention and which facets can be backgrounded” (p. 153). By backgrounding Occupy Central and directing attention to National Day, she communicates that she is, first and foremost, Chinese.

Posters’ Attention Structures within the Interaction Order

As posters, Hong Kong celebrities have to pay attention to the social interaction order between themselves and Weibo users, most of whom are from mainland China. One reason is that they need to maintain a positive relationship with people from mainland China, given their careers on the mainland. In the case of Occupy Central, Wong tried to make his stance towards the protest vague and implicit so as to minimize the risk of being attacked online. He produced a post depicting a fight between a husband and a wife after the protest broke out (Example 6). As for Lau, she did not update any information related to Occupy Central in her post. Instead, she chose to incorporate a National Day wish into her post on October 1, during the most intense period of the Occupy Central protests. That does not directly indicate her stance towards Occupy Central; nonetheless, the audience interpreted her stance, independent of Lau’s real purpose or intention in her posting practice.

Posters’ Attention Structures within Discourses in Place

To avoid misinterpretation by their audience, the two posters from Hong Kong did not mention ‘Hong Kong’ or ‘Occupy Central’ in their posts. In his post in Example 6, Wong euphemistically depicts the conflict as being between two halves of a couple and expresses his concern about the relationship between a husband and a wife. This analogy ended up confusing his audience; some comments the post received were about the anonymous actual couple and their unhappiness. According to Scott (1990), euphemism is often used to disguise something that is inconvenient for a social actor to declare forthrightly. The use of euphemism in his post protected Wong from taking a political stand. At the same time, the post invited Weibo users to interpret his ambiguity.

Example 6. Wong Cho Lam’s post

Example 7. Carina Lau Kar-ling’s post

As for Lau, the image she posted in Example 7 functions as a discourse in place. To the short text ‘Happy National Day,’ she attached an image of herself with different gestures wearing a striking red dress. According to Kress (2010), the meaning of an image is delivered not only through its position in space but also through color. As a discourse in place, color itself carries different meanings in different cultures. This red color, known as ‘China Red,’ is auspicious in Chinese culture and a symbol of Chinese nationalism. When Occupy Central and the national day celebration occurred on the same day, Lau’s post reveals where her loyalties lay. That is, she expressed her love for China.

Audience

There has been an ongoing conflict, known as the Hong Kong–Mainland conflict, between some people from mainland China and some people from Hong Kong as regards political, economic, and cultural issues.8 For this reason, audience members from mainland China were sensitive and reactive to Hong Kong celebrities’ attitudes to Occupy Central. They paid special attention to the Hong Kong celebrities’ posts on Weibo in an attempt to figure out their attitudes towards Occupy Central. The attitudes of commenters on Weibo toward Occupy Central were generally split into two sides, with some for it (Example 6.1) and others (Example 6.2) opposed.

Example 6.1. A comment below Wong’s post (Example 6)

Example 6.2. A comment below Wong’s post (Example 6)

Audience’s Attention Structures within Discourses in Place

Literal meaning depends on context, the interlocutor’s (poster’s) intention, and a reader’s interpretation (Gee, 1999). This explains why the intended meaning of Wong’s post in Example 6 lies in Wong’s narration of his hypothetical friends’ marriage problem and in commenters’ comments on Occupy Central. Based on the comments collected, audience members’ attention was drawn to the metaphor Wong used to depict the relationship between mainland China and Hong Kong. Though Wong did not mention Occupy Central, commenters pointed out that he tried to compare the relationship between mainland China and Hong Kong to that of a married couple, a comparison some found unacceptable. Some commenters insisted that the relationship should rather be one of mother and son (Example 6.3). Wong’s use of a perplexing analogy prevented his audience from determining his stance on the crisis (i.e., whether he supported the protest or not). Thus, most commenters shifted their attention to their own stance towards Occupy Central rather than addressing Wong directly.

Example 6.3. A comment below Wong’s post (Example 6)

In Lau’s case, the use of an eye-catching image and symbolic color was what first drew the audience’s attention. Kress (2010) proposed that people’s interests will direct their attention to certain elements and that people will interpret the elements in their own way, in effect constructing new meanings. While the visual image attracted considerable attention, other posters’ attention was drawn to the lexical expression ‘Happy National Day.’ From the audience’s perspective, Lau’s identity was redone by her, involving “affinity, alignment, emotional attachment and ideological notions of togetherness” (Leppänen et al., 2014, p. 114), a message delivered by both text and image. That is, the poster from Hong Kong positively indicated that she would celebrate National Day, in alignment with the practice of audience members from mainland China. This was in contrast to the protest (i.e., Occupy Central) by many other people in Hong Kong of the framework released by the Chinese government. It is unsurprising then that many of the comments her post inspired were messages of praise and appreciation (Example 7.1).

Example 7.1. Three linear comments below Lau’s post (Example 7)

Comments represent commenters’ interpretations of a post, and they also attract audience attention as a form of discourse themselves. As in the hot comments posted below the two aforementioned posts, most comments focused on the topic of Occupy Central. In this sense, comments contributed to the further distribution of news on Occupy Central.

Audience’s Attention Structures within the Historical Body

In the case of Occupy Central, an unprecedented event for many Weibo subscribers, sticking to the historical body sometimes proved unhelpful. This is evident in participants’ changing commenting style as compared with their previous practice. Before Occupy Central, they were less likely to comment on Wong’s and Lau’s posts. However, their posts collected during Occupy Central show an increase in numbers of both forwardings and comments (Tables 3 and 4).

Date of post

Forwardings

Comments

Likes

Oct 1 (post for this study)

298

961

4,500

Sept 28 (previous post)

57

464

1,635

Sept 26 (previous post)

44

330

2,319

Table 3. Wong’s post for this study compared with his previous two posts

Date of post

Forwardings

Comments

Likes

Oct 1 (post for this study)

989

1,266

7,362

Sept 28 (previous post)

153

364

2,394

Sept 26 (previous post)

116

228

2,612

Table 4. Lau’s post for this study compared with her previous two posts

Table 3 compares the audience actions in response to Wong’s post selected for this study with two previous posts he made before Occupy Central. As can be seen, the numbers of forwardings, comments, and likes of the posts for this study soared upward; the same is true for Lau’s post in Table 4. These numbers suggest that Weibo users who were not in the habit of commenting on, forwarding, or liking Wong’s and Lau’s posts focused on their posting practices as a consequence of Occupy Central. That is, the audience’s attention structures changed within their historical body of commenting, forwarding, and clicking likes, resulting in the expansion of comments below the two posts. They paid attention to Wong’s and Lau’s identities as Hong Kong celebrities and their own identities as netizens from mainland China. The Hong Kong celebrities’ reactions to current issues attracted their attention in a special ‘situation’ where National Day celebration and Occupy Central overlapped. Here, ‘situation’ refers to the concept defined by Rowe (2005) of “a socioculturally particular type of activity or context that specifies what we are doing at a given moment or what we take to be the background against which our utterances and actions are to be interpreted” (p. 123). In this situation, Hong Kong celebrities’ posts become an “interest-based affinity space” (Gee, 2004; Gee & Hayes, 2012) for commenters. Without such special context, it is unlikely that Weibo users would have paid much attention to the two Hong Kong posters’ posting practice.

Audience’s Attention Structures within the Interaction Order

In the context of Occupy Central, the audience’s focal attention was on the stance of the posters towards the protest. Posters’ stance, therefore, was the most significant factor in determining the interaction order between them and the audience. When the audience’s interpretation of Wong’s stance towards Occupy Central was not consistent with their own, some commenters threatened to unfollow the poster (Example 6.4). Others argued with or attacked the posters directly (e.g., Example 6.5). If a poster’s stance was aligned with that of a commenter, the interaction order between them would remain unchanged or be positively enhanced.

Example 6.4. A comment below Wong’s post (Example 6)

Example 6.5. A comment below Wong’s post (Example 6)

Discussion and Conclusion

When a sensitive crisis breaks out, usually little news about it can be found on Sina Weibo because of media censorship. Accordingly, information about the sensitive Occupy Central crisis was immediately blocked. However, in the digital era, thoroughly separating Weibo users from sources of news is impossible, as some Weibo users can get information in physical space and also online, through other means. The fact is that some Weibo users got information about Occupy Central from their friends’ eye-witness descriptions in Hong Kong. Influential figures were more aware than others of what happened in Hong Kong, as the data gathered for this study show. Regardless of their motivations for posting, influential account holders on Weibo served as loudspeakers to disseminate information about Occupy Central. Under severe surveillance, they were nonetheless able to spread news of Occupy Central in a vague and euphemistic way and succeeded thereby in avoiding deletion of their posts by Sina Weibo staff. As Scott (1990) asserts, euphemism has proven to be a surefire strategy for escaping embarrassment and direct attacks. Instead of discussing Occupy Central forthrightly, posters delivered their messages by constructing implicit allusions. It was only through the comments on their posts that the meaning of their messages became clear.

Whether consciously or not, attention interacts with action (Jones, 2005). To construct posts during this sensitive event, influential posters directed their attention to the three domains of historical body, interaction order, and discourses in place, shifting constantly from one to another. Aware of Weibo’s surveillance as part of their historical bodies, some posters altered their posting style, which was reflected in the form of their posts. However, historical body was not the only determiner of posting style, as social relationships also attracted posters’ attention. Posters adopted no obvious stances towards Occupy Central, because they were cautious in dealing with the interaction order, defined as the relationship between posters and followers, as well as the relationship between posters and Sina Weibo staff. The posters utilized various elements and tools to organize their posts, including images stored in their iPhones and in the multimodal context of Weibo. These discourses in place served to channel their attention.

Weibo posts can be compared to a stage where audience members perform and interact. Few previous studies have focused on the importance of comments in spreading news. This study has revealed that comments reflect a tension within the audience’s attention. During Occupy Central, commenters altered their practices as they attended more to Hong Kong celebrities’ posts than they had before. Moreover, by focusing their attention on posters’ habits, the audience became aware of the difference between the posters’ current obscurity of style and their previous frankness. Certain meanings were thus indexed through stylistic choice.

For many mainland commenters, these posts were the first information they received about the crisis. Thus many of the earlier comments were questions about what had happened. Then within a time frame of just a few hours, there was a rush of updates to comments and likes indicating growing support. Hot comments became the main discourses in place from which audiences were able to obtain clearer information about Occupy Central. Moreover, through the practice of checking comments, they gained additional knowledge from commenters’ interpretations. For commenters, compared with the interaction order between themselves and posters, the interaction order between themselves and other audience members grew in significance. One reason is that some posters, especially posters from mainland China, did not demonstrate their political stances towards Occupy Central; thus they were not directly addressed by commenters. Also, commenters cared more about the relationship between themselves and other members of the audience because commenters could gain likes by saying what others agreed with, based on the principle of “the attention economy” (Goldhaber, 1997). Celebrities from Hong Kong, in contrast, were more frequently addressed during Occupy Central, and commenters paid attention to the interaction order between themselves and those posters. This is because of their identities as Hong Kong public figures and because their relatively obvious stances drew the focal attention of commenters. This could result in a change of the interaction order: While some commenters adopted a neutral stance towards the celebrity posters’ views, as displayed in the comment zone, other commenters actively agreed with or disagreed with them.

The attention of posters and commenters eventually resulted in the successful dissemination of Occupy Central information in spite of government censorship. Discourses in place, interaction order, and historical body both amplified and constrained the attention of the two groups. While celebrity posters are powerful in attracting the audience’s attention and comments, they are more constrained in posting on censored topics. However, because of their anonymous accounts, audience members have more freedom to express their comments on sensitive topics directly. These factors worked together to disseminate the news about Occupy Central. Severe censorship gave rise to new techniques for Weibo users to embed sensitive topics in their posts and bypass government censorship.

One implication of this study is that a focus on attention structures within the three domains highlights the cooperation of posters and commenters in conveying messages. This suggests that attention structures within MDA are useful analytical tools with which to explore the subtle interaction of the three dimensions in the investigation of social issues. In this study, attention structures served as a lens through which to examine the processes of communicating and receiving news about Occupy Central on Sina Weibo and helped to elucidate the apparent disparity between the surface lexical meanings of posts and audience members’ seemingly irrelevant comments on them, such as when many comments about Occupy Central appeared under Wong’s post about a quarrel between a husband and a wife. Another implication of this study is that the power of influential figures to attract attention can play a key role in disseminating news about social crises under conditions of censorship.

Finally, this study contributes to research on computer-mediated communication through its analysis of posting innovations under conditions of censorship. As the study has shown, censorship can foster alternative discourses that are both creative and powerful. This phenomenon deserves more attention from researchers in the field of language and Internet studies. Further study of hot comments on Weibo could prove illuminating, in that hot comments present different interpretations of a post and provide information that cannot be directly mentioned in the post in case of censored topics. Strategic mention of place names, alteration of posting time, change of posting style, and usage of semiotic tools such as emoji are also practices that deserve more attention in future studies.

Acknowledgements

My deepest gratitude goes to Dr. Brian King, for his warm encouragement, precious advice, and patient guidance in the process of completing this article. Also, I would like to thank Professor Susan Herring and three anonymous reviewers for their valuable suggestions for improving it.

Notes

  1. ‘Commenters’ in this article are Weibo users who leave comments below posts.

  2. ‘Audience’ in this article refers to Weibo users who read posts.

  3. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sina_Weibo, retrieved August 10, 2016.

  4. Some Weibo users got the news through other channels, for example, by accessing Instagram, which was blocked in China after Occupy Central began.

  5. The hot post zone is a public timeline of the most circulated posts within roughly the past 24 hours.

  6. The poster is a man, according to the Baidu Encyclopedia. See: http://baike.baidu.com/link?url=V4NjtIJgAH8JF9eJau9e9a9IK6gCUxLINJLhAI8SgEyOYUYXdvaazjoh_ThqYdvSgK9s7zQYtwCJh_DraDW1QTt0984wFLGmBZ-cBqQwdEm#1, retrieved August 10, 2016.

  7. Apple launched the iPhone 6 and the iPhone 6 plus in Hong Kong in September. It was not until October 17 that the products were introduced into the mainland Chinese market, however. The main reason is that the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology delayed its approval. See: http://www.wsj.com/articles/china-approves-sale-of-apples-iphone-6-1412045510, retrieved August 10, 2016.

  8. Hong Kong–Mainland conflict. See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hong_Kong–Mainland_conflict, retrieved August 10, 2016.

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Biographical Note

Lixin Wan [wanlx120@163.com] is a graduate of the City University of Hong Kong. Her research interests include mediated discourse analysis, computer-mediated communication, multimodal discourse analysis, and social network sites.


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