Chinese activists, scribes jumping firewall to use Twitter

From one perspective, the discourse in the politically engaged portions of Chinese Twitter suggests that Twitter serves an alternative public sphere.

IANS| Last Updated: Nov 05, 2015, 14:54 PM IST
Chinese activists, scribes jumping firewall to use Twitter

Washington: The blocking of the micro-blogging site Twitter in China has not deterred people from the influential quarters to jump the firewall and other content restrictions and use the platform to reach out to the world, researchers from Harvard University report.

Offering a rare look at the activity of Chinese internet users on Twitter that is largely unregulated by the state and only reachable through the use of tools that circumvent state-mandated internet filters, the report found that Chinese internet users - activists, journalists and others - are actively circumventing content restrictions.

“In this paper, we map and analyse the structure and content found on Twitter centered around users in mainland China,” said the team of Sonya Yan Song, Robert Faris and John Kelly from Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society.

They identified 36 clusters that focus primarily on three areas: politics, technology and entertainment.

From one perspective, the discourse in the politically engaged portions of Chinese Twitter suggests that Twitter serves an alternative public sphere.

The political group is formed of journalists, lawyers, human rights activists, and scholars who are free to discuss topics typically not permitted in China, such as the Tiananmen Square protests, Tibetan and Uyghur issues, political scandals and pollution.

“Yet, China’s internet repression is clearly succeeding. Chinese Twitter falls well short of supporting a broadly accessible networked public sphere,” the authors pointed out.

The proportion of the Chinese populace with direct access to the debates, communities, and shared resources on Twitter is relatively small, and the avenues by which such discourse might find its way into mainstream political discussion are severely constrained.

“The firewall between Twitter and the much larger social media platforms in China remains a formidable barrier,” they noted.

“But for internet users that reside in mainland China, Twitter offers access to news from around the world and a wealth of ideas and perspectives that might otherwise be unavailable there, as well as a platform for building online communities that is not under direct control of the government,” they emphasised.

Based on a mixed-methods approach, combining social network analysis and a qualitative review of the content and activity of Chinese Twitter, the team was able to map and provide detailed accounts of the topically based clusters that form among these networks.

“Twitter is used by residents of mainland China to follow popular accounts that are not found on Sina Weibo or other Chinese microblogging platforms; the focus of attention includes political, technological, and cultural topics,” the study pointed out.

The political crowd, who would face the highest risks for their online speech, appear to be the least likely to seek anonymity.

“Many of these advocates openly tweet under their real names and include their face in their profiles,” the study concluded.