Home / Articles / Volume 16 (2018 Special Issue) / Economic News Comments on a Mobile News App: An Emerging Genre of Bashing
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Abstract

Mobile news applications not only provide real time delivery of aggregated and personalized news feeds, but they also afford user engagement through the comment function. In this context, reporting on economic policies is mediated by both journalistic voices and reader interpretations. This article explores how economic news is commented on by NetEase mobile news application users in China. Commenting on economic news on NetEase is characterized by bashing, where users engage through frequent, uncompromising, and excessive criticism as the default position of participation. This newly emerging digital genre brings political dissent to prominence in China’s online public sphere. The study finds that bashing is a form of verbal play, as users seek a trigger in any news content to vent their dissent toward the current political regime in China. In order to do so, news is re-framed (Entman, 1993) in comments so that a trigger can be brought into salience. The rhetorical effect is mischievous and sarcastic. Moreover, the technical functionalities of NetEase also invite bashing practices to a certain extent. Bashing is complementary to the hyper-normative public discourses (Yang et al., 2014) in mainstream media, and it interacts with the mediatisation process associated with the emergence of mobile phone applications.

Introduction

Since the end of the 1970s, economic reform has been one of the most central topics in Chinese domestic policies and public discourses. The annual GDP growth and China’s position as the world’s second largest economy are inspiring statistics;1 however, these numbers coexist with social criticism and satire targeted at increased income inequality and the economy’s over-reliance on exports, investment, and real estate. Macro-economic policies are not only publicized and interpreted in official public discourses, like the five-year-plans;2 they are also discussed and debated by ordinary people on various online platforms. This article explores the technical affordances of, as well as the discursive features and strategies used in, online economic news comments by NetEase news application (hereafter NetEase app) users.

In popular discourses online, NetEase users are often criticised for their aggressive, extreme, and obscene verbal behaviours. Academic studies have also raised doubts as to whether online news is a “democracy booster” or a “journalistic nightmare” (Noci et al., 2012). It has been argued that online news comments are less thoughtful and more impulsive, shallow, and aggressive than earlier forms of audience participation (Reich, 2011). Such comments are considered as failing to foster a democratic dialogue due to their lack of mature and diverse perspectives (Noci et al., 2012). In a similar vein, Chinese mainstream media also criticise online news comments for being irrational and moralising, for being merely a form of cathartic psychological relief rather than meaningful public deliberation.3 However, these views tend to assume that online comments can be understood in terms of journalistic practices. Normative standards of news routines which usually apply to practitioners are thus imposed upon non-professional news readers, who may hold very different conceptions of their practices. Opposing this normative approach, some scholars argue that the quality and the role of users’ online discussions should be contextualised according to specific practices at hand, rather than proposing a universal interpretation of inappropriate online communicative behaviours. Thus users’ roles as haters, trolls, or spammers should be understood as a result of co-construction through participatory practices (Boyd, 2014; Hardaker, 2013). Lange (2014) shows that even though rant videos on YouTube’s technical, behavioural, and cultural issues are emotional, they still stimulate productive discussions, as users connect through ranting with similar concerns over their communicative rights and privileges on YouTube. Therefore, this study attempts to contextualise NetEase user comments in their social, cultural, and technical environments. Instead of inquiring into the quality of the comments, I ask what users are doing with their comments, and what role the functionalities of the mobile NetEase app may play in this practice.

In order to do so, I start from the users’ self-generated label for their commenting practice: bashing. Bashing is an extreme version of criticism, as the conduct is frequent, uncompromising, and sometimes excessive. Indeed, for many users it becomes a default position of participation. Preliminary observation reveals that regardless of what a news article discusses, users seek to identify a trigger in the news content for their criticism of the political regime in contemporary China. For instance, in an article reporting on the latest results of NASA space exploration, users question why the US government bothers to invest in scientific causes instead of the real estate market.4 As will be shown below, this seemingly disruptive comment is meant as a satire on economic policies in China.

This study conceptualises news bashing on the NetEase news app as an innovation in genre through which users engage with news and current affairs content in a playful and subversive way. Bashing as a bottom-up online genre responds to the humourless and hyper-normative mainstream public discourses in contemporary China. It is also a locale where political dissent can be expressed. This innovation of digital genre constitutes a case of sociolinguistic change (Coupland, 2014) which interacts with ongoing social transformations (Du, 2016; Standing, 2010) and processes of mediatisation in China (Livingstone, 2009). The study explores, firstly, in what ways does the NetEase news app facilitate and consolidate news bashing as a genre? Secondly, what are the discursive features and techniques involved in the practice of bashing?

Theoretical Framework

Defining Bashing as a Genre

The concept of digital genre helps us to understand the nuances of bashing behaviour and further, to distinguish the term from other similar online discursive practices. According to Georgakopoulou (2006), the most recent studies of digital genres define genre as “orienting frameworks of conventionalized expectations and routine ways of speaking and interacting in specific sites and for specific purposes” (p. 552). In this sense, genres emerge in specific technical environments and are enacted by users with certain goals. A genre is a set of normativities constraining communicative practices, but it also gives meaning to the practices and makes them intelligible. As Heyd (2016) points out, both the formal and functional aspects of digital genres deserve academic attention.

NetEase users’ behaviours are often criticised for their profanity, obscenity, cynicism, and aggression. Often, such criticism is from users of other social media platforms with a very different cultural atmosphere from that of NetEase.5 The unpleasant users on NetEase are included in an overarching category called ‘Penzi’ (喷子) by Chinese internet users. The literal translation of Penzi is someone who shoots or sprays. It’s not difficult to discern an analogy between the momentum of shooting and the aggression of users’ verbal behaviours.

Penzi can appear on any type of digital platform in China’s online space. Sometimes the term is used in a sense equivalent to online ‘trolls’ in English, who intend to cause disruption and/or to trigger or exacerbate conflict for their own amusement (Hardaker, 2010). However, on NetEase news we can identify a sub-category of Penzi whose verbal behaviour is comparable to what is expressed with the concept of ‘bashing’ in English. Bashing can be defined as an extreme version of criticism: It is frequent, uncompromising, and sometimes excessive. The intense emotional momentum involved in bashing is comparable to ranting or venting. Stresses and grievances about problems which are not easily solved are aired, so that empathy can be produced (Lange, 2014). However, unlike ranting or venting, bashing is about more than complaining and rambling. It involves practices by which the target of bashing is stigmatized and spoken about in a derogatory manner. We can also further distinguish bashing from trolling in two ways. First, trolling refers to being provocative toward another user. It aims to lure a naive and vulnerable user into pointless and time-consuming discussion (Herring et al., 2002). In contrast, bashing on NetEase is a practice directed at news content and does not necessarily aim at inciting antagonism among users. Second, trolling may be disconnected from its discursive contexts and co-texts, as verbal abuse can emerge out of nowhere. The antagonizing and offending verbal behaviours hinder conversation (Boyd, 2014). In contrast, bashing is a form of verbal play and rhetorical competition where relevance between the wish to criticise and the object of criticism must be forged. Importantly, many users on NetEase acknowledge their comments as a form of bashing. They ask questions such as “how to bash this one?” when a trigger for criticism cannot be identified easily. Preliminary observation reveals that the ultimate target of bashing on NetEase is China’s political regime. Moreover, bashing is a form of verbal play where a trigger for such criticism must be identified from any type of news. To summarize, bashing is a digital genre that is emerging from commenters’ routinized ways of participation facilitated and constrained by the mobile phone news application. It involves specific discursive techniques of reading and commenting on news articles, and the mutually recognized goal of this practice is to engage in uncompromising critique directed at the political regime in China.

Techniques of Bashing

NetEase users’ bashing practices can be understood in relation to the concept of news framing. According to Entman (1993), framing is a process of selection and salience, in which certain aspects of perceived reality are selected and made salient in a text. In this regard, bashing can be accomplished by reframing the news in user comments so that a trigger for political criticism is identified and made salient. The trigger can be foregrounded through the use of schemata, categories, scripts, or stereotypes, which are culturally configured clusters of ideas comporting with the receivers’ belief systems. Framing texts in different ways will result in different problem definitions, causal interpretations, moral evaluations, and treatment recommendations regarding the matters discussed in the news, demonstrating the political power of communicated texts.

Previous studies have identified a series of common frames appearing in news articles. Based on audience interviews, Neuman (1992) identified five frames that are common in both audience reception and media: human impact frame, powerless frame, economic frame, moral value frame, and conflict frame. In a similar vein, Semetko and Valkenburg (2000) identify conflict, human interest, attribution of responsibility, morality, and economic consequences as the five most frequent frames in news articles. With a human impact frame, a news story focuses on the description of individuals or groups affected by the issues under discussion. News framed in this way presents a human face, an individual story, or an emotional angle on the issue. The powerless frame structures news articles into accounts of “the dominance of forces over weak individuals or groups” (Entman 1992, p. 67). The conflict frame foregrounds confrontations and disagreement between two or more parties. The attribution of responsibility frame seeks a cause or solution for an issue from the government, an individual, or a group. The economic frame discusses matters of winning and losing, and the related economic consequence frame presents the effects of such a win or loss. Finally, the morality frame evaluates the issue at hand by subscribing to certain moral tenets. Moreover, Iyengar (1991) distinguishes the episodic frame from the thematic frame. The former presents news stories as anecdotal evidence at the local level, while the latter understands evidence as public affairs within wider social contexts.

With these frames as a priori categories generated from previous studies, in the present analysis I examine both the frames used in news articles and the frames adopted by users in their comments on them. According to Entman, a frame can be identified by looking for a series of framing devices, including “the presence of certain keywords, stock phrases, stereotyped images, sources of information and sentences that provide thematically reinforcing clusters of facts or judgements” (1993, p. 52). Therefore, the identification of the human impact frame is indicated by the presence of a narrative from an individual perspective. The powerless frame can be identified by a dualism between the dominant and the dominated, and for the attribution of responsibility frame, evidence can be found in the mentioning of policy makers or government decisions (since my study is about economic news). The economic frame can be signalled by the presentation of numbers or quantitative trends, and to identify a morality frame, I seek the presence of moral tenets. For the conflict frame, I ask whether the news reflects disagreement between two or more parties. Finally, to distinguish an episodic frame from a thematic frame, I examine whether a single piece of evidence is generalized as a social issue at a higher level.

The Subversiveness of Bashing

In this study, in order to understand the communicative goal of bashing, we should also contextualise bashing against the backdrop of the media landscape and wider sociocultural processes in China. According to Zhang (2010), Chinese mainstream media have specific social and ideological functions. Television news often focuses on cultural propaganda and is instrumental in the construction of grand narratives, placing the function of disseminating local, accurate, in-time information in second place. Therefore, audiences may lose interest in mainstream media, as they perceive a large distance between what is represented in media contents and their daily lives. This phenomenon is described by Yang et al. (2014) as the hyper-normalization of public communication in contemporary China. The official discourses are saturated with rigid and formalized political rhetoric, in the form of endless slogans and empty-sounding clichés. In the West, audiences’ distrust of the disinterestedness and objectivity of traditional news and current affairs contents goes hand in hand with a trend toward infotainment. Turner (2012) reports that as young people in the West lose interest in traditional news programs, they turn to television comedy and satirical programs based on news content as their major sources of information.

For Chinese news consumers, infotainment genres in the form of satirical programs are not visible in mass media. As a result, social media platforms, with their interactive and networking affordances, become a potential locale for playful news consumption and political dissent. For instance, Yang et al. (2014) suggest that the proliferation of scatological expressions in China’s online space is a straightforward reaction by netizens to hyper-normalized public discourse. In a similar vein, Du (2016) suggests that the vulgarity, nonsensicality, and mischievousness embedded in cultural practices such as internet memes, mash-ups, and parodies are part of a process of sub-culturalisation which challenges the pretentiousness of hegemonic mainstream culture in contemporary China. In this regard, in a context where mainstream media are dominated by hyper-normative and humourless discourses, we can consider the uncompromising and ironic news bashing as a generic innovation. The playfulness and subversiveness of this discursive practice is deeply rooted in the cultural environment of Chinese online space.

Data Collection

In December 2016, the US Federal Reserve increased the interest rate of the US dollar. A direct consequence of this decision for China’s economy was the depreciation of Renminbi against the US dollar. A series of follow-up effects included the decrease of foreign reserve, asset outflow, and the crash of the real estate market in China.6 Related news articles with market analysis and projections were featured as headlines in the economic section on NetEase for several days after the US Federal Reserve decision, and they kept reporting the non-stop depreciation of RMB against the US dollar. As such an event may incite fierce discussions regarding economic scenarios in China, I chose the period from November 30 to December 30, 2016 as a window of observation.

I apply a qualitative approach to this study in the form of discourse analysis. The major goal of the analysis is to identify news framing devices. At the same time, I also pay attention to the intertextual traces and indexical meanings of the linguistic resources used in the comments, so as to contextualise the local criticism of the economic issue in relation to the wider social and political situation in China. From November 30 to December 30, 2016, I read the headline news and news articles with more than 1000 comments in the economic section every day. The user comments are ranked according to the number of thumbs-ups received from other users, and the first 10 entries feature the most popular comments and are singled out at the top of the comment section. I only read the 10 most popular comments, because they are indicative of patterns of cultural recognition by, and preferences of, NetEase users. Not all the entries in the popular comments list are bashing comments, and some of them contain the same content posted by different users. My criteria for selection were: 1) the comments contained criticism toward the political power in China, 2) leaving out trolling and ranting comments, which may also involve political criticism, and 3) leaving out comments with detailed and pertinent responses to news content. In this way, I collected 35 articles from the economic news section and 87 comments on these articles from their popular comments list. As I also browsed NetEase news in other sections from time to time; surprisingly, I found that scientific news regarding, for instance, physical cosmology can also be commented on with political criticism. Again for science news not every entry in the popular comments list is bashing, and many comments adopt the same catchphrases (with minor variations). Therefore, I collected another 20 scientific news items and 18 comments on them. I stopped collecting articles and comments when I encountered repetition in the use of news frames and catchwords. For each framing technique, I choose one or two comments to demonstrate the patterns established in the data analysis.

Economic news section

Scientific news section

Total number

Articles

35

20

55

Comments

51

18

69

Table 1. Collected news articles and comments

Data Analysis

Editorial Decisions and Technical Functionalities of the NetEase News App

Bashing can be understood using the concept of mediatisation. Livingstone (2009) defines mediatisation as a historical process through which increasing aspects of social lives and socio-cultural understandings are achieved through technologically-mediated systems. Bashing as a genre demonstrates that digital media on the one hand afford people access to public deliberation, while on the other hand constraining the style and manner of user participation. In this section, I analyse how bashing is invited by editorial decisions and reinforced by the functionalities of the NetEase news app.

Established in 1997, NetEase Inc. has its roots in web portal hosting and online gaming. Its news app features “news with attitudes” and active user engagement in the form of comments. The official app introduction describes NetEase news as “the attitude carnival of 400 million news junkies. Be it profound or mischievous, the comments are sharp and epic.”7 Considering this market positioning and promotional rhetoric, NetEase Inc. has institutionalized carnivalesque and mischievous user participation into its brand image.

Although NetEase also publishes original columns, most articles are republished from other sources. Therefore, the NetEase news app is more of a content aggregator than a content creator. This is because digital media in China do not have newsgathering rights. Although news portals, applications, and blogs can feature news and current affairs content, the practitioners are not certificated journalists, thus they cannot collect materials in the public domain with the aim of news publishing. What they can do is republish news articles or publish commentaries or opinion pieces. Chinese media researchers and practitioners (Han & Han, 2015; Liu, 2014) categorise the content on news apps into three types based on their information sources: occupationally generated contents (OGC), professionally generated contents (PGC), and user generated contents (UGC). OGC contents refers to journalistic articles published originally by the mainstream press or news agencies established in the pre-digital era. These are the institutions who have newsgathering rights. PGC contents can be blogs and other types of online content whose authors are professional bloggers but are not journalists by occupation. In the case of economic news, PGC contents can be reposted from industry insiders’ blogs or social media accounts aggregating economic content. Last but not least, UGC content refers to users’ comments.

Figure 1. A simplified news headline

For both OGC and PGC content, NetEase editors can re-edit headlines. When reading the news articles, I found that headlines are often formulated provocatively, in ways that do not necessarily map onto their contents. Figure 1 shows an example of this. This article is OGC content, as it was originally published by the state-owned Xinhua News Agency. It reports on an interview conducted with three executives from The World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the Asian Development Bank. The executives recognize China’s achievements in economic restructuring and project a positive outlook for economic growth. However, they also point out several risks in both the domestic and export markets which should be handled cautiously by China’s central and local governments. At the end of the article, the original headline by the Xinhua News Agency is given. We can see that it summarizes the news content in a general way by mentioning reform and innovation, rather than concrete positive or negative projections. However, the headline used by NetEase brings two aspects into salience: the original news publisher, and the proposition that the executives have a positive outlook on China’s economy. Obviously, this headline selectively omits the warnings and advice that account for a large part of the article. Given that doubts regarding the sustainability of economic growth in China have already been raised in public debate and that official statistics also demonstrate a slowdown in economic growth, this news headline appears to be brazen propaganda by the state-owned news agency. In this case, the editorial decision to change the headline in this way creates an image of a hypocritical and pretentious state. This image, present in the news article, becomes a handy trigger to feed newsreaders’ bashing practice.

The comment on this article that received the most thumbs ups from users indeed capitalizes on this image. It casts a dystopian frame onto the news by mocking the voice of foreign investment in general, including the three financial institutions mentioned in the news, but more specifically the foreign companies which set up factories in China. The dystopian sketch is made possible by incorporating intertextual links to previous reports about several foreign companies that are shutting down factories in south China and retreating from the Chinese market. As such, foreign businesses together with foreign investment institutions are described as if they were cooperating with the Chinese government in publicizing boasts of a stable economy. The only incentive for them to do so would be to withdraw investments from the Chinese market safely and quickly, suggesting that the reality is actually the reverse.

Of course, a provocative title in itself does not guarantee the appearance of subversive comments. The functionality of ‘popular comments’ on NetEase is also relevant here. Users’ comments are ranked according to the number of thumbs ups received from other users. A list of the 10 most popular comments is placed at the top of the comment section, thus receiving more visibility on the app. For fiercely debated news articles, a latecomer in the comment section has less opportunity to be ranked highly. Because of this, many users post comments after having only read the article titles. For instance, in the above-mentioned article, the most popular comment may be a result of only reading the provocative news title. From another perspective, NetEase users also reward mischievous and sarcastic comments with thumbs ups. This cultural atmosphere of bashing is then amplified by the popular comments section by being placed at the top of the comment section, thus receiving more attention.

The platform’s business model explains, to a certain extent, why titles are formulated provocatively on NetEase. A sensational title can increase the click-through rate of an article, and it also invites more user engagement. More traffic and engagement mean greater vitality of the platform, which is a critical parameter in attracting advertisers. This logic is not new, as the printing industry of the pre-digital era has also been criticised for sensationalism and tabloidization (e.g., Fallows, 1996). What is new is the cultural logic characterizing digital media. Turner (2010) suggests that the current media market operates in a way that attracts a core and committed audience instead of a diversified mass audience. The configuration of the audience into a loyal constituency is welcomed by advertisers who prioritize a vertical marketing strategy. Consequently, journalistic content becomes more provocative and divisive so that the audience can be divided into fragmented groups. This may be the commercial justification for NetEase to reinforce users’ bashing practices on the platform by re-editing news headlines to make them more provocative. By doing this, NetEase adopts a strategic positioning in the news app market to attract politically expressive users as its loyal and core consumers.

We may also notice what ‘political’ means in the cultural environment of NetEase. The social tagging system on this app is relevant to the politics of bashing. Users are tagged by peers based on a series of labels provided by the platform as identity markers. Some examples are, for instance, regional discrimination dog, second floor, and master. These labels first emerged in comments as a bottom-up creation where users replied to each other by judging one another’s comment content and style. The NetEase news app then recognized the prominence of this labeling practice and institutionalized it into a platform functionality. The tagging function is an example of the co-evolution of social media platforms and sociality (van Dijck, 2014): Users do not necessarily use a platform in the prescribed ways, and their agentive and innovative usage may then be institutionalized by the platform as official functionalities. Among the labels, there are two that are politically relevant. Japanese and American cat refers to users who celebrate the political system of liberal democracy, especially its instantiation in Japan and America. Its counterpart, 50 cents, are users alleged to astroturf positive comments for the Chinese government for an economic reward of 50 cents RMB.8 In this way, this tagging functionality helps to delineate the contour of the political landscape on NetEase. No matter what specific political agenda or policies are commented on by users, a user can only be tagged as either pro-Chinese government or anti-Chinese government. This functionality reinforces and contributes to a polarized and simplified political debate, and explains to a certain extent why any type of news content can be commented on by bashing the political system in China.

Identifying a Trigger for Political Criticism by Reframing the News

In this section I explore the techniques of news bashing and how a trigger for political criticism can be found in any type of news. More specifically, I identify the frames adopted in the news and compare them with the frames invoked by users in their comments. I pay special attention to the framing devices and discursive features in bashing comments.

Commenting on Impersonal Economic Situations through Life Experiences

Among the user comments I collected, I found that the most commonly adopted frames are the human impact frame, the attribution of responsibility frame, and the powerless frame. The human impact frame focuses on the impact of certain issues on individuals or groups. In news comments, this frame helps users confront and question an impersonal macro-economic situation through nuanced life experiences.

Figure 2. NetEase users wish for RMB depreciation

Figure 2 presents a news article published on December 15, 2016 that reports on the lowered RMB exchange rate against the US dollar. The general economic background for this development was introduced in the data collection section. Interestingly, although according to many market analyses – including this article – a US dollar interest hike will exert a significant negative impact on China’s economy, several comments appearing in the exchange rate related news welcomed the deprecation of RMB. For instance, in Figure 2, the user does not comment on the specific market trend as introduced in the article. Instead, s/he explains why NetEase users wish for a continuous lowered exchange rate: One cannot afford many of the most basic elements of a decent life, such as marriage, children, healthcare, and even death.9 The parallel rhetorical structure of “cannot afford” in the comment reveals the intense emotional momentum that is characteristic of bashing. Although s/he is not willing to see money depreciate into worthless paper, still the user wishes to witness the government making a fool of itself with an upcoming economic crisis. The user expresses his or her disillusion with the present government, implying in the last sentence that the economic situation in other countries is better. The news article itself is presented in an economic frame, with concrete numbers and a specific trend. However, the user only highlights the potential economic crisis as salient. The welcome of, and expectation for, such an economic crisis is justified through miserable personal experiences, presented through a human impact frame. The logic here is that a potential economic crisis might help to reshuffle the political system in China, which might then provide relief from the people’s misery.

The criticism of the government in this comment is also reinforced by a citation from a Chinese classical Tang dynasty poem by Liu Zongyuan (“It’s like hoping for cold weather so the price of coal can be higher”). The poem tells the story of an old coal seller living a poor and miserable life by chopping trees and burning them into coal. In winter, although he could not afford warm clothes, he still wished the weather to be even colder so that he could sell his coal for a higher price. At the end of the story, his coal was confiscated by government officials and he received only a skimpy payment. We can see that bashing is more than venting emotion and dissatisfaction. It involves the technique of stigmatizing the bashing target. In this comment, a derogatory image of the contemporary Chinese government is invoked through an intertextual reference to a classical allegorical poem. The user subversively implies that the contemporary government is comparable to that of the dark feudal emperor of the Tang Dynasty and is therefore responsible for the miserable living conditions of the people.

Attributing Responsibility to “Them”

When encountering cases of economic and social problem mentioned in news articles, NetEase users often attribute the cause of the problem to a vaguely defined group of people. “They” may be government officials, Communist Party members, or experts. No matter who they are, they are bashed by users as the opponent of the common people, responsible for the policies that cause people to suffer. The article in Figure 3 suggests that the aging population in contemporary China will put severe pressure on the pension system. Therefore, an elder care industry with both private and public investments should be developed to meet the future challenge. The background here is the perilous population structure in China. With the One Child Policy having been in effect for 35 years, the aging population and dwindling consumption in the domestic market will begin to cause social problems.10

Figure 3. The money-making industry for “them”

The news item in Figure 3 is structured by an economic frame and an economic consequences frame. It predicts the development of a population structure in China with concrete figures and suggests a series of policy actions to tackle the problem. The most popular comment on this article, posted by user A, expresses the idea that once a real estate tax is implemented, the real estate industry’s vitality will be replaced by that of the elder care industry, since there are inelastic demands in this market. User B seems to refute A’s prediction that a real estate tax can be carried out, since it will lower housing prices. Continuing this thread, user A suggests that housing prices will not be sustained in the end precisely due to the population structure. S/he also suggests that the industries sustained by inelastic demands function as money-making sectors for “them,” implying that those industries will be supported by preferential policies. User A does not indicate who “they” are. But “they” are not the entrepreneurs in the industry, since the user mentions that “they” charge tax and manage housing prices. “They” are not professionals either, since s/he mentions that the healthcare industry will not make money for “them,” because it only benefits doctors. So, in this case “they” can be vaguely identified as government officials. An indistinct “they” is foregrounded in the comment and is considered to be the responsible party for development in several economic sectors.

Then what have “they” done and what will “they” do in the future? This news article asks about the possible future of the elder care industry in China. User A answers in a pertinent way by suggesting that “they” will take the initiative and responsibility to develop preferential policies in this sector. However, their motivation is not an innocent one to address social problems, but rather to make money by exploiting citizens’ inelastic demands. By using the expression “money making,” user A recasts policy as conspiracy, namely a conspiracy involving the abuse of public power. The conspiracy theory is supported with reference to social problems found in other market sectors including education, healthcare, and real estate. The broader context here is that public opinion in China blames high expenditures in these areas for people’s falling living standards. We can already detect this sensitivity from the comment in Figure 1. Thus, what “they” have done is to exploit common people in the areas of education, health care, and housing.

The implicit reference of “they” is characteristic of NetEase news comments. Anyone who is familiar with the culture of the NetEase app can recognize who “they” are; it is a tacit code shared by users. In this way, a sense of solidarity is built in opposition to “them.” We can see that bashing as a digital genre is a co-construction among commenters with a mutually recognized communicative goal. People who bash the news do not incite antagonism within the commenter community, like trolls. Rather, the goal is to direct the criticism outwards, and specifically to the Chinese government in this case. Moreover, one does not need to know exactly who “they” are. They may be civil servants and policy makers in specific institutions, representatives in parliament, or judges in the courts. As long as there is a powerful and responsible “they” as the target of bashing, users do not need to go through detailed policy analysis or construct political arguments with complicated actors and power relationships. In this way, engagement with news and current affairs content on NetEase becomes uncomplicated, which is consistent with the trend of infortainment.

Dystopian Metaphor and the Powerless Frame

Many comments reframe economic issues in the news as dystopian metaphors. By dystopian metaphor, I refer to an imagined world which involves cruel dominance or persecution of one party by another. Often, the metaphors dehumanize populations into animals and plants helplessly waiting to be slaughtered and eaten. Dystopian metaphors function as schemata which transform an economic frame into a powerless frame.11 It ascribes to the faceless economic analysis in the news article a problem definition from the perspective of power relationships.

Figure 4. The common people are drained

In Figure 4, a news article explains the reasons for high housing prices in the metropolitan areas of China. It introduces a few signs which could predict the bursting of a bubble in the real estate market. The news is presented in an economic frame, in which market predictions and investment advice are given.

The background to this news story is that soaring property prices have placed a severe economic burden on many households and small businesses. Young people especially have to spend a large proportion of their monthly income paying off mortgages, at the expense of their living standard. For businesses, the rent for factories and offices sharply increases expenses and leaves only meagre profits. However, as GDP growth in China depends heavily on the real estate market, and an asset-price crash will cause a devastating financial crisis, housing prices cannot be lowered.12

In the comment section, user A presumes the reason for house prices topping out is that “common people are drained.” This comment ranks fourth in the popular comment list on the current article. “Laobaixin” (老百姓) is a stock phrase, the literal meaning of which is ‘hundreds of surnames.’ It refers to common people who do not have official titles, in contrast to government officials. In public discussions, Laobaixing is used to refer to those who suffer from social inequality, as they do not enjoy the same level of social welfare as government officials. Therefore, the stock phrase Laobaixing already indicates a socially underprivileged group.13 The suffering is also described by the verb ‘drain.’ User A criticises the real estate market in China for being cruel, sucking the common people’s blood to the extent that they are “drained.” User B then rejects user A’s presumption that common people are exploited to their very last penny, but does not refute the claim that the real estate market is indeed exploiting people. By referring to population planning policy, User B implies that the Two-Child Policy enables more people to be exploited. If this is not enough, User B suggests, a new policy will allow even more children.

While the news article is a market analysis and projection using concrete statistics, User A reframes the analysis via a powerless frame. The stock phrase Laobaixing and the dystopian metaphor of blood sucking describes the suffering of common people in today’s economic situation. User B contributes to this powerless frame as s/he makes an association between the real estate market and population planning policy. In this scenario, new-born citizens become the flesh that feeds a monstrous real estate market. While one could blame real estate entrepreneurs for their greedy and inhumane actions, mentioning the population planning policy directs attention to policy makers in the government. Therefore, this thread portrays a joint conspiracy between political and economic power. In the dystopian metaphor, the criticism toward the government is achieved by demonizing the regime and contrasting it with the powerless common people. We can see that this goal is shared by the two commenters in the thread, as User B contributes to User A’s bashing.

Figure 5. A dystopian metaphor: Cooking the bullfrogs

The comment in Figure 5 invokes a dystopian metaphor that takes a grand view. It weaves the most important economic areas in China into a story of slaughter. The news article reports on the dynamics of the Shanghai Composite Index on December 15, 2016; it is a regular stock market analysis with a few tips for investors. We can identify an economic frame, as a series of numbers and trends are involved. In the popular comment list, a user tells a story that alludes to contemporary Chinese society. In the story, common people are trapped in the stock and real estate markets like fat bullfrogs in woks. Economic policies such as foreign exchange control, oversupply of money, tax increases, and price hikes are like cooking processes that make the bullfrogs suffer. In the end, the bullfrogs are cooked through and eaten by men called Mr. State. Mr. States celebrate the march from one victory to the next and use the Two-Child Policy to generate more bullfrogs.

In the metaphor, the bullfrogs are the common people in China, and the Mr. States are the government officials. The sentence “march from one victory to another” is an intertextual reference to official public discourse in China. The original sentence is “to march from victory to a new victory;” it was the headline of a Xinhua News Agency commentary published on the first Memorial Day of the Chinese People's War of Resistance against Japan.14 This metaphor describes all the macro-economic policies in China as a conspiratorial totalitarian rule, with the beneficiaries being the officials who cruelly exploit the population. It recontextualises the discourse of the nation’s victory, which originally aimed for an effect of grandiosity and righteousness, as propaganda in the dystopia, thus criticising the pretentiousness and hypocrisy of public discourse. In this example, the bashing comment becomes a literary creation, a playful contribution by the user. The topic of the stock market functions merely as a connection for this piece of creative writing.

Catchwords: From Episodic Frame to Thematic Frame

It is interesting that users often use catchwords to comment on news articles reporting on different topics. According to Li and Gao’s (2011) study in the Chinese context, internet catchwords are popular online phrases or utterances coined by netizens over the course of their long-time internet practice. These phrases or utterances are often innovative and humorous. On NetEase the catchwords emerge from news comments and become consolidated into fixed expressions through repeated use. For instance, in Figure 6, an article reports on an interview with Wang Jianlin, the founder and chairman of Dalian Wanda Group, China’s largest real estate developer, at the Forbes Global CEO Conference.

Figure 6. We have nuclear-driven banknote printers

In the interview, Wang Jianlin says that bubbles do exist in China’s real estate market, but they will not burst. In the comment section, the most popular comment explains humorously why the real estate market will not crash; because we have nuclear-driven banknote printers in China. The comment ridicules China Central Bank’s strategy of oversupplying money to sustain the real estate market. The rate of oversupply is so high and the intensity so strong it is as if the printers are powered by nuclear energy. It is also ironic that in mainstream discourse, nuclear technology is considered a symbol of a world superpower, especially in its military uses. However, in this comment the superpower technology is associated with an expedient currency policy, which is believed to stabilize the economy temporarily at the expense of common people’s living standards.

Figure 7. RMB is stable, so we should print more

Once “the nuclear driven banknote printer” is consolidated into a catchword, this humorous criticism of money oversupply is able to signal a thematic frame. With a thematic frame, news discusses general trends or matters of public policy, while an episodic frame covers personal experience, which is read as a particular instance of a general trend. In Figure 7, the news discusses a scholar’s claim regarding the internationalization of RMB, framed as an episodic instance. However, the user comments on this claim ironically with a suggestion of printing more RMB. In Figure 8, the news is about a specific rate of the depreciated RMB against the US dollar. In the comments, the user resorts to the banknote printer phrase, suggesting that if we print more money, the exchange rate will depreciate even more.

Figure 8. Turn on the nuclear banknote printers

We need to note that these comments are not principled economic discussions. They oversimplify the complex relations among exchange reserves, exchange rates, market liquidity, money supply, credit scale, foreign countries’ currency policies, and other factors. From one perspective, not every news reader has the professional economic knowledge to contribute to nuanced and constructive discussions. In this case, the general rule that money oversupply leads to a lowered currency value becomes a handy diagnosis for any economic problem. The money-printing phrase shifts the focus from singular economic problems to a thematic diagnosis of money oversupply. Like the vague but tacit use of “they” in Figure 3, catchwords can also make news consumption on NetEase simpler and more playful.

Figure 9. Business harms the nation, the real estate market makes it thrive

The goal of bashing on NetEase is to criticise the Chinese government uncompromisingly, to such an extent that even science news is commented on by picking out a problem and then attributing it to the government. This phenomenon illustrates the mischievous and nonsensical feature of bashing. To understand this intertextual trajectory, we now first explore how a catchword about China’s real estate market originates from economic news in Figure 9. The news item shows an article reporting that a gym with a lot of customers in Shanghai was suddenly closed due to high rent. In the comment section, a popular comment blames the gym owner for being too stupid to not know a widely held belief regarding prosperity: “Doing business harms the nation; the real estate market makes it thrive.”15 This is a sarcastic comment on the Chinese economy’s over-reliance on the real estate sector.

Figure 10. Why be afraid? We have the real estate market

Figure 11. Get back on the right track of investing money in the real estate market

Surprisingly, the phrase “the real estate market makes the nation thrive” also appears in comments on science news. An article on cosmology discusses how a change in the energy level of the Higgs field may start a chain reaction which functions like a self-destruct button for the universe, thus wiping out all life (Figure 10). While this article can be regarded as an objective popular science article, a popular comment questions in a seemingly irrelevant way, “Why be afraid? We have the real estate market.” Similarly, Figure 11 shows two comments on a news article reporting on NASA’s Saturn mission and Cassini spacecraft. The first user suggests that the relevant country should get back on the right track of investing money in the property market. Here, “the relevant country” refers to the US. This is an intertextual reference to a common diplomatic phrase used when the Chinese government expresses dissent in international disputes. The second user questions how a country can thrive without the real estate market. The serious diplomatic phrase, hence the official voice, is mocked and recontextualised into a mischievous comment. This demonstrates that bashing can be used by commenters to react to the humourless and hyper-normative public discourse in China. It may be the case that the subject of space exploration can be easily associated with estate developers’ “enclosure” action, as they aggressively bid for land from the government. Moreover, juxtaposing an economic comment with scientific discussion conveys sarcasm about the state’s policy of economic pragmatism. Figures 10 and 11 are two examples demonstrating the momentum of uncompromising criticism in bashing.

How to Bash This One?

Sometimes it is not very easy to create relevance and identify a trigger, especially from science news. This is the moment when commenters reflect on their bashing practice, as they seek help from their peers on how to bash a news article. Bashing in this case is a cooperative practice among peer users. In Figure 12, the user responds to an article discussing a new theoretical framework in physics by stating that the article is difficult to bash. Then another user instructs him or her by pointing out that the foreign scientists have made significant advances in scientific exploration, implying that Chinese scientists are falling behind. More importantly, the user also points out that this is because of the deficiencies in China’s institutional regulations and political system. Again, we witness a scientific matter being commented on from a political perspective. Similarly, in Figure 13, the user reflects that this time, s/he shall not bash, because s/he does not understand the news at all. In Figure 14, the user seeks help from others on how to bash a current news story. One user humorously replies that even Einstein did not find a bashing target for 30 years, suggesting that scientific articles are difficult to bash.

Figure 12. It's difficult to bash

Figure 13. I'm not going to bash this time

Figure 14. Even Einstein could not find a bashing point for 30 years

Conclusion

In this analysis, I have explored techniques and styles of engaging with economic news on the NetEase news app. I have suggested that users’ participation in this specific technical and cultural environment is a genre of bashing. Bashing is an extreme version of criticism which is frequent, uncompromising, sometimes excessive, and which may be adopted as the default position in opinion contribution. Bashing the news involved identifying a trigger in any news content which can be linked to criticism of the contemporary political system in China. In this sense, bashing practices on NetEase are inherently politically subversive.

The technical functionalities of NetEase contribute to users’ style of participation. News headlines are often formulated by NetEase editors in a provocative style, which feeds bashing. The popular comment function rewards fast responses, thus encouraging users to read only the news headlines. Interacting with users’ cultural preferences for sarcastic and mischievous comments, the popular comments are placed at the top of the list, thus receiving more media visibility. Moreover, the tagging system on the platform provides only two labels signaling users’ political stances. This reduces political deliberations into polarized positions between those who support the Chinese political system and those who oppose it. In this sense, bashing as a digital genre demonstrates one of the effects of mediatisation (Livingstone, 2009). Whereas ordinary people are now entitled to access public deliberation through digital platforms like NetEase, the manners and means by which they do so are constrained by the functionalities and business models of the platforms.

We may also understand bashing in relation to the trend of infotainment on a global scale. Turner (2010) suggests that the enjoyment of younger age groups in Western countries of satirical programmes with political news and current affairs as the major contents may be due to their loss of faith in objective and disinterested news production as an industry. NetEase news bashing has a function similar to that of satirical programs. As apathy toward serious mass media contents is also prevalent in China (Zhang, 2010), the internet becomes an alternative space for users to experience a sense of playfulness. In the data analysis, I have shown that news bashing requires active participation and creativity. Some users bash the news by creative writing in the form of metaphors and humorous catchwords, while others enjoy the challenge of forging connections to political discussion from irrelevant scientific news.

Bashing is done by reframing news contents in comments so that a trigger for political dissent can be foregrounded. The most frequently adopted frames are the human impact frame, the attribution of responsibility frame, and the dominance frame. Firstly, users transform impersonal discussions on economic policies and economic trends into narratives of life experience through a human impact frame. The anger and frustration with life at the local level form a sharp contrast to official claims and policy actions at the societal level. The emotions also justify users’ disillusion with the contemporary political regime in China. Secondly, users often adopt an attribution of responsibility frame to bring government officials into salience. Importantly, the officials are described in comments as a vague category who work in the public sector. “They” are representatives of the state and are the opponents of the common people. In this way, it is not only the case that government officials are responsible for undesirable or inefficient public policies. Importantly, it is the antagonism between the state and the common people that is the major issue here. Again, we can identify the comments as subversive. Thirdly, user comments use dystopian metaphors. By dehumanizing the common people as animals and plants waiting to be slaughtered and harvested by governmental officials, the common people’s sense of powerlessness is highlighted. In this context, economic policies are imagined as conspiracies. Fourth, economic news comments yield a series of catchwords signaling the thematic frame. By posting the same catchwords to different news articles, different economic problems are diagnosed with a universal cause. In this way, commenting on an economic frame does not necessarily require professional economic knowledge.

While we may identify the communicative goal of a digital genre from the perspective of pragmatics, bashing on NetEase is characterized by its specific social and political embeddedness. Bashing on NetEase news is a genre innovation signaling a case of sociolinguistic change (Coupland, 2014). It shows how the changing social conditions in contemporary China are experienced through language. In the framework of the emerging precariat class in China, Du (2016) suggests that educated young people express their experiences of anxiety, anomie, alienation, and anger online. Zhang (2010) also comments that there seems to be a sense of worldliness in online space in China. He is describing the fact that the internet is a major locale for the exposure of social inequalities, which may not have visibility in mainstream media in China. In the bashing comments, we can identify the same sensitivity, as users are anxious about their lives due to economic pressures from the education, healthcare, housing, and elder care sectors. However, their mode of response on NetEase is cynical and carnivalesque rather than subscribing to rational deliberation.

Notes

  1. According to the annual GDP ranking of 217 countries by The World Bank in 2015. Source: http://data.worldbank.org/data-catalog/GDP-ranking-table, retrieved March 15, 2017.

  2. China’s Five-Year Plan is a series of initiatives and guidelines for economic development in China. Every five years, a plan is formed and approved by a plenary session of the central committee of the Communist Party of China and the national congress.

  3. http://theory.people.com.cn/GB/9831681.html , retrieved March 15, 2017.

  4. See Figure 10 for a detailed discussion of this example.

  5. For example, on Zhihu, a question-and-answer platform based in China, many users problematize the commenting styles on NetEase. For instance, 15 out of the 36 top questions related to NetEase news comments touch upon the issue of its undesirable quality. We may note here that Zhihu is a platform claimed to be populated by users with a relatively high educational level. User behaviours on Zhihu are also often criticised for being pretentious. Source: https://www.zhihu.com/topic/19575680/top-answers?page=1 , retrieved March 21, 2017.

  6. For more detailed analysis and prediction, see, e.g., https://www.forbes.com/sites/sarahsu/2016/12/12/bad-news-for-china-fed-reserve-expected-to-raise-interest-rates-this-week/#4c74b02a384b, retrieved March 27, 2017.

  7. App description on ITunes App Store, https://itunes.apple.com/cn/app/id425349261?mt=8 , retrieved January 9, 2017. The original app description is in Chinese : 网易新闻,4亿新闻爱好者的态度狂欢。可深刻可没品,时评犀利跟贴奇葩, translated by the author.

  8. AstroTurf is a brand of artificial playing turf. In plain language, it is fake grass. This meaning is used to describe online practices which are regarded as fake grassroots support.

  9. The background information behind the comment on unaffordable death is that a grave in a cemetery in China costs a lot of money. See, e.g., http://www.scmp.com/news/china/article/1756302/sky-high-property-prices-go-grave, retrieved May 16, 2017.

  10. The One Child Policy was discontinued at the end of 2015. However, population planning still goes on. According to the Two Child Policy, each couple can give birth to two children. The policy change is a reaction to population ageing in China. See, e.g., https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/oct/29/china-abandons-one-child-policy , retrieved March 23, 2017.

  11. Although conflicts exist between the dominant and dominated parties, the uneven power distribution foregrounds a powerless rather than a conflict frame.

  12. For more detailed analysis, see, e.g., https://www.forbes.com/sites/wadeshepard/2016/03/30/how-people-in-china-afford-their-outrageously-expensive-homes/#2501b7a5a3ce and https://www.bloomberg.com/view/articles/2016-12-14/pinpointing-the-bubble-in-china-s-real-estate-market , retrieved March 22, 2017.

  13. An example of inequality in this domain is the dual-track pension system. Employees working for the public sector used to be exempted from paying into the state pension system, but they still received a pension after retirement. Fortunately, this system has been reformed. See, e.g., http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/china/2015-01/14/c_133919705.htm and https://www.ft.com/content/3141eb64-9c97-11e4-a730-00144feabdc0

  14. http://news.xinhuanet.com/politics/2014-09/02/c_1112331792.htm , retrieved January 9, 2017.

  15. This sentence is an intertextual reference to the words of China’s former president Deng Xiao: “Empty talk harms the nation; practical action helps it thrive.” The statement aimed at ending the ideological debate about the choice between capitalism and socialism in the economic reform of the early 1990s, and represents Deng Xiao’s political and economic pragmatism. Here, “thrive” refers specifically to an exuberant market economy in China.

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Biographical Note

Mingyi Hou [M.Hou@tilburguniversity.edu] is a lecturer of online culture at Tilburg University, the Netherlands. Her research interests include media studies, celebrity and fandom culture, and political communications in digital media.


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