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Prominent Effect Of The Media Media Essay

A prominent effect of the media is its ability to influence people’s perception of reality and, indeed one’s attitudes towards the world (Severn & Tankard 2001, p. 310). The process by which a person gradually forms his/her worldview can be expressed as the social construction of reality. Moreover, cultivation theory offers research strategies for the social construction of reality (Severn & Tankard 2001, p. 310). The impact of media on one’s judgments of social reality (i.e. the cultivation effect) has been researched for over 30 years (Shrum, Lee, Burroughs & Rindfleisch 2011, p. 34). The cultivation theory attempts to research the influences of television viewing on people’s perceptions, attitudes and values. This field of media research was pioneered by George Gerbner and his colleagues at Pennsylvania University’s Anenberg School of Communication through an extensive and long-term programme of television research (Gerbner, Gross, Morgan & Signorielli 1980, p. 14). Their research indicates that television has become the predominant cultural centre of society, making it both a persuasive and pervasive medium (Harmon 2006, p. 121). Furthermore, Gerbner and his colleagues assert that television is a central member of a family and often the main narrator of stories (Gerbner et al. 1980, p. 14). In addition, an increasing number of people frequently spend time using social media, and this medium now plays an important role in media and society. Scholars (Morgan & Shanahan 2010, p. 350) believe that the cultivation theory is still relevant in the new media age. However, television and social media are different modes of communication and information. In the new media age, everyone is an active producer, distributor and consumer of information rather than being a passive receiver of information, as in the past. In fact, early criticisms of the cultivation theory included the fact that the activity of the television viewer was ignored (Morgan & Shanahan 2010, p. 350). Therefore, to analyse the theory more rigorously in relation to social media, the initiative of the user must be considered.

The cultivation theory was developed from the study on the effects of television, but the theory may also be appropriately applied in the research on the effects of other media (Severn & Tankard 2001, p. 271). Morgan and Signorielli have questioned how other forms of media cultivate interest {1.1 [CN] 请检查我们所做的修改} as well as what the outcomes may be (Severn & Tankard 2001, p. 271). It has been suggested that cultivation effects have been linked to various types of media such as newspapers and the Internet. Vergeer, Lubbers & Scheepers (2000, cited in Hetstroni 2010, p. 440) studied the cultivation effects of a newspaper’s news section, whereas Peter and Valkenburg (2006, p. 640) studied the cultivation effects of the Internet’s sexual content on adults and youths. Moreover, cultivation effects are not limited to only select nations and cultures; the effects appear to be cross-cultural {1.1 [CN] 请检查我们所做的修改} (Weimann 2000, cited in Hetstroni 2010, p. 440).

The most popular interpretation of the cultivation theory in relation to television asserts that people who spend more time watching television tend to understand the real world in ways that respond to the most common and repetitive messages being broadcast (Morgan & Shanahan 2010, p. 337). In other words, heavy television viewers tend to perceive the world according to the way that television portrays it (Signoriell & Morgan 1990, cited in Harmon 2006, p. 121). For heavy television viewers, television contains and dominates their main sources of information, values and perceptions (Severn & Tankard 2001, p. 268). In an early Gerbner et al. study, it was found that heavy and light television viewers gave different responses to the same questions, with heavy viewers’ answers more closely related to the world being portrayed on television than those of light viewers. For instance, several content analyses have shown that the amount of violence on American TV exceeds the actual amount of real-world violence to a considerable extent (Diefenbach & West 2001, citied in Nabi & Riddle 2008, p. 328). Thus, heavy television viewers tend to overestimate the possibility of serious violence occurring and are more likely to believe that people do not deserve to be trusted (Nabi & Riddle 2008, p. 328). Heavy television viewers tend to lack of a sense of security and have an increased sense of danger (Severn & Tankard 2001, p. 268). As such, television appears to encourage heavy television viewers to perceive society as being violent (Severn & Tankard 2001, p. 268). Therefore, television may distort an accurate perception of the real world.

There is an issue on controlling variables in cultivation research; specifically, researchers have found that there are variables that may influence the relationship between television viewing and one’s perception of the world. This led to an attempt to restrain these independent variables (Severn & Tankard 2001, p. 268). Original research indicated that there are differences between heavy and light television users’ perception of the world across several variables, including age, gender, education and knowledge of current events by reading the newspaper (Gerbner & Gross 1976, cited in Severn & Tankard 2001, p. 269). However, this research has been criticised because of uncontrolled variables, and it is believed that the effect of television would be insignificant if these variables are effectively controlled (Hirsch 1980, cited in Severn & Tankard 2001, p. 269).

To respond to the criticisms, the concepts of mainstreaming and resonance have been proposed as an extension of the original cultivation theory. These two concepts assert that various social groups experience television viewing differently. The concept of mainstreaming suggests that heavy television viewers have similar opinions on a same issue, despite being from different social groups (Gerbner, Gross, Morgan, Signorielli & Shanahan 2002; cited in Nabi & Riddle 2008, p. 328). For example, both high- and low-income heavy television viewers have the same opinion that everyone has a severe fear of crime (Severn & Tankard 2001, p. 269). However, the opinions of light viewers, whether low- or high-income, are different. The concept of resonance suggests that cultivation effects are more obvious amongst certain social groups (Gerbner et al. 2002, cited in Nabi & Riddle 2008, p. 328). For example, both male and female heavy television viewers agree that violence is a serious social problem (Severn & Tankard 2001, p. 269). However, female heavy television viewers focus more on this issue than male heavy television viewers because females tend to feel more vulnerable; therefore, they are more likely to resonate with the issue. Therefore, these two concepts modify the cultivation theory, suggesting that television does not have a uniform impact, which is consistent for all heavy television viewers (Severn & Tankard 2001, p. 269). Furthermore, independent variables influence the cultivation effect of the media, and if these variables are effectively controlled, the effects decrease (Severn & Tankard 2001, p. 269). However, the cumulative effects of the long-term use of one type of media cannot be neglected (Severn & Tankard 2001, p. 269).

Cultivation theory has also identified two key variables: first- and second-order beliefs. First-order beliefs refer to the relationship between long-term media consumption and a distorted assessment of the world (Hetsroni 2010, p. 440). These beliefs are memory-based and result from heuristic processing (Shrum 2004, cited in Morgan & Shanahan 2010, p. 344). In this process, memory-based judgment leads to one’s evaluations of reality (Hetsroni 2010, p. 441). When individuals are asked for an opinion, they extract information from memory, and ‘unconsciously, they turn to the media, which provides them with a bank of examples that were encoded in a much unelaborate manner’ (Hetsroni 2010, p. 441). Media content is easy to recall, especially for heavy media viewers because they tend to be vivid, frequent and recent (Hetsroni 2010, p. 441). Second-order beliefs refers to the connection between long-term media consumption and the perceptions, attitudes and values that can be directly linked to media information (Hetsroni 2010, pp. 440–441). This process is the result of temporal persuasion (Hetsroni 2010, p. 441). Judgments are based on typical beliefs and values, which are derived from the influence of media information rather than memory (Shrum, Burroughs & Rindfleisch 2005, cited in Hetsroni 2010, p. 441). Media consumption assists in shaping an individual’s attitudes, which may promote such judgments (Fazio, Chen, McDonel & Sherman 1982, cited in Hetsroni 2010, p. 441). However, first- and second-order beliefs are not significantly correlated (Hawkins & Pingree 1982, cited in Severn & Tankard 2001, p. 270).

According to the above literature review, the cultivation theory may be utilised in the research on not only television but also other forms of media. {1.1 [CN] 请检查我们所做的修改} The media plays an underlying role in shaping personal beliefs. For those who are frequently exposed to some form of media on a long-term basis, the same perceptions, attitudes and values may be cultivated. Thus, the media has an important, albeit unconscious, influence on the society.

Chinese micro-blog—Weibo

Weibo is a Chinese micro-blog, which offers a platform for users to post information with a 140-character limit at a time and to share other users’ micro-blog content via websites and cell phone applications, similar to Twitter. Four domestic Internet companies now run micro-blog services in China: Sina, Sohu, Netease and Tencent (Wikipedia 2012a). Unlike Twitter, their micro-blog services are not the sole or first businesses owned by these companies as each of them are large news and entertainment-portal sites, which provide the service of blogs. Among the four companies, Sina Weibo is the most popular. Furthermore, the word ‘Weibo’ was created by this company (Wikipedia 2012a). The present article will use Sina Weibo as its example. The word ‘Weibo’ not only represents a form of Internet communication but is also the appellation of Sina Weibo (henceforth referred as Weibo). While Weibo was founded relatively recently in August 2009, by February 2011, it had approximately 100 million registered users (Canaves 2011, p. 76). In contrast, it took Facebook more than four years to gather the same number of users (Canaves 2011, p. 76).

The rapid development of Weibo is derived from the fact that Weibo is integrates various social media features rapidly (Canaves 2011, p. 76). This article will discuss some of the features of Weibo, which have the potential to be a special medium for the cultivation of perceptions, attitudes and thinking patterns. Initially, users can not only post a 140-character message but also upload pictures, audio and video as well as start topic discussions, polls and surveys. The limit of 140-characters on Weibo that act as real-time, fragmented communication tools are difficult to be censored (Chan 2011a, cited in Feldstein 2012). In fact, individuals registered to Weibo may also use the blog service; the blog can transform the text of an article an image and publish it on both blog and Weibo. This means that, a blog post over the 140-character limit can be posted on Weibo as an image, increasing the difficulty of censoring the content. This fundamental feature of Weibo offers a platform whereby users can express personal information, stories and opinions. Second, there is a feature in place that allows users to follow other users. User information is displayed on the Weibo pages of his/her followers rather than being displayed to all Weibo users. The number of a user’s followers represents their attractiveness and popularity (Liu, Liu & Li 2012, p. 448). The third feature is the function of comments and relay. Users can add comments to other users’ messages or relay other users’ messages with personal opinions. The relay function is an important condition to spread information across the micro-blog (Liu, Liu & Li 2012, p. 445). If a user ‘A’ relays a message from a user ‘B’, this message can be observed by the followers of the user ‘A’, which may then be replied to by these followers. Research shows that users relay important and/or interesting information (Liu, Liu & Li 2012, p. 445). This feature constitutes the potential for an information-communication environment in which users can exchange their ideas and also offers the possibility for a message to be widely replied to and spread. The fourth feature is the hot-topic area, in which several hot topics, including social and ethical issues, political affairs and entertainment news, are featured on the right side of a user’s personal Weibo page. This area guides users to participate in the discussion of specific topics. Therefore, widespread information and personal expression can be included in any given topic (Liu, Liu & Li 2012, p. 444). On Weibo, users contribute the majority of the content, wheras the Sina company controls the selection of hot topics; that is, the topics shared among all users are chosen by the Sina company. {1.1 [CN] 请检查我们所做的修改}

Weibo has a verification system for celebrities, companies and social institutions. With this system, the Sina company verifies the identities of celebrity and organisations. They are required to upload certain data to confirm their identities, and once the identity is verified, a verification symbol is included next to the account holder’s name; the account names of these users cannot be changed; otherwise, verification will become invalid. In fact, the verification system has been extended to include more fields such as government, media, education, medicine, agriculture, military and aerospace. The verified celebrities can appeal to more people to use the Weibo service. One of the reasons for Weibo’s rapid development is the participation of a large number of celebrities (Canaves 2011, p. 76). Celebrities from various fields such as entertainment, sports, writing, entrepreneurs as well as companies and social organisations were invited and persuaded to engage in this platform by the Sina company at its inception, imitating the successful methods of the Sina blog for appealing to users (Canaves 2011, p. 76). The verification system also ensures the credibility of a user’s identity. Celebrities tend to have more followers. According to the rankings of influence (Weibo 2012a) and the number of followers (Weibo 2012b), celebrities occupy the top ranks. In other words, the messages of celebrities are observed and relayed by more users; therefore, more users can be influenced. In addition, as more users from various fields are verified, the credibility of information sources can be guaranteed to a certain extent.

Chinese Internet censorship

According to the above features, Weibo provides a potential environment that can be used for self-expression in brief words, sharing messages of interest and the expression of personal views on public issues. Theoretically, this environment is both open and free, a place where information can be widely spread. However, Chinese Internet censorship directly restricts the potential for freedom. The rule of survival of any Chinese internet companies is that diligently preceding self-censorship. [Remark 1] The Chinese government believes that the negative impacts of new media will destroy the current social order (Liu 2010, p. 43). The government has developed a series of legal regulations, surveillance methods and punishments to manage the Internet, in addition to technical measures (Lum 2006, cited in Liu 2010, p. 38). Technical measures regulate the Internet via options such as settings, the scanning for and blocking of sensitive words and employing people for the surveillance of online discussion forums (Canaves 2012, p. 76). The combination of these legal policies directly controls the Internet service providers, content providers and Internet users (Liu 2010, p. 38). The regulation makes it illegal for content providers and users to share information which the authorities have deemed liekly to threaten national sovereignty and unity and/or social stability (Liu 2010, p. 38–39). Therefore, micro-blog service companies are accountable for all of the information that users generate and must guarantee that the content does not violate Internet legal policies (Canaves 2012, p. 76). To minimize the risk of losing the required licenses, the micro-blog service companies have noticed that diligent self-censorship is related to Internet survival, so each micro-blog company in China has a specific department responsible for monitoring and deleting potentially problematic content (Canaves 2012, p. 76). However, Sina’s Chief Editor Chen (n.d., [Remark 2] cited in Canaves 2012, p.77) has stated that monitoring the content is a great challenge for Weibo because the information is fragmented and widespread, in addition to moving at a high-speed. Although the Sina company’s censorship department employs over 100 skilful people for monitoring the content, it is still a major challenge to stop all problematic information (Canaves 2012, p.77).

Weibo Users

The activity and dynamics of Weibo users must also be considered because they are the producers, propagators and receivers of information, rather than being simply passive recipients of information such as the case of the earlier age of media. As producers and propagators on Weibo, personal behaviour affects the content being produced and the type of information being shared. According to the 29th report (2012, p.4–5) of the China Internet Network Information Centre (CNNIC), as of the end of 2011, the number of Chinese internet users was over 500 million, and nearly half of them had a Weibo account. The majority of Chinese Internet users are urban youth (Liu 2010, p. 37), and according to Alexa.com (2012), Sina-Weibo users tend to be 25–34-year-old highly educated people. Young Internet users tend to yearn for individual self-expression (Liu 2010, cited in Yang 2011, p. 171). In addition, Weibo is not the first online system that provides user-generated content; some Internet users of a certain age may have experienced the popularity of both the bulletin-board system (BBS) and blogging. Therefore, the use of the Internet to express personal views is nothing new. Prior to the emergence of Weibo, people believed that the Internet allowed them to express personal views on the social issues of China. In 2001, a survey implemented by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences on the influence of the Chinese Internet on the personal expression of political views showed that 60.8% of respondents believed that the internet gave them more opportunity to discuss their political views; fifty-one-percent respondents believed that it empowered them with more chances to criticise the government policy; approximately fifty-six-percent (55.9%) respondents believed that it helped their understanding of politics; and approximately forty-four-percent (43.8%) of them believed that more public opinions from citizens would be heard by top officials (Guo 2001, cited in Wu 2007, p. 210). However, the utilisation of Weibo is increasing, whereas the usage of BBS and blogs have decreased during the past two years (CNNIC 29th 2012, p. 5). In other words, the users of BBS and blog have migrated to Weibo. In addition, unlike Twitter users who are spread internationally, covering a range of cultures and languages, the majority of Weibo users share the same languages, cultures and domestic news, leading to extremely high-levels of cohesiveness among people. {1.1 [CN] 请检查我们所做的修改}

The offer of reality on Weibo

The media has an important influence on an individual’s comprehension of reality and his/her worldviews. In Stuart Hall’s (1982, cited in Stevenson 1995, p. 62) study on the impact of mass-communication media on human behaviour, he found that mass media are often harmless, and they strengthen the norms and values embraced by a pluralist society. However, in several studies, traditional media tends to be considered as a mouthpiece for authorities, with the media’s hegemony viewed as one of the main features of mass media that serves elitist groups (Gramsci 1971, cited in Stevenson 1995, p. 16; Sallach 1974; cited in Severn & Tankard 2001, p. 282). Hall also states that the media’s ideology is associated with power, and power affects the construction of ‘reality’ by the media (Stevenson 1995, p. 37–38). Becker (1967, cited in Greer & McLaughlin 2010, p. 1042) agrees that the members of elite groups can influence reality. In China, traditional mass-media institutions are mainly owned by the authorities who shoulder the responsibility of shaping the public opinion (Wu 2007, p. 211). Whether a social issue can or cannot be reported, in addition to the perspective of news reports, is controlled by the authorities. Any issue can take on a specific perspective depending on how the media presents it. Scholars (Tankard et al. 1999, cited in Severn & Tankard 2001, p. 277) point out that news media tends to frame issues by selecting, emphasising, excluding and elaborating original stories. Framing news stories may have more underlying and persuasive influences on audiences compared to biases in news stories (Severn & Tankard 2001, p. 278). Audiences may notice biased news stories, but they are more unlikely to detect a packaged news story (Severn & Tankard 2001, p. 278). Wu (2007, p. 213) highlighted the fact that the Chinese news media tends to portray the current society as being full of economic prosperity rather than disclosing real phenomena such as the miserable conditions of disadvantaged groups, corruption and shocking inside stories related to important enterprises.

Weibo provides a medium through which real and valuable stories can be released, especially stories being hidden or ignored by official media institutions. In the new media-technology era, many researchers have stated that the feature of the user-generated content breaks the dominant position of the traditional media and empowers the public to voice their opinion. Greer & McLaughlin (2010, p. 1041) believe that new media technology empowers people to generate information that challenges the official interpretation of events. Castells (2000, cited in Wu 2007, p. 213) also highlights that new media provides an opportunity to fight against the traditional power in the news media. On the basis of the Web 2.0 system, Weibo allows users to generate the content. The content that Weibo users generate is not completely real and valuable; rather, a large amount of information is related to personal gripes. From this perspective, Weibo is not a news-report platform in the fullest sense as it involves personal entertainment activities and marketing campaigns. However, many social issues are discussed, and public concerns emerge via the website, confirming the value of Weibo’s information. Scholars (Flew, Cunningham, Bruns & Wilson 2008, p. 21) have noted that user-led news and viewpoints can discover and discuss valuable information that are not being focussed on by journalists and authorities and provide a platform for the collection of public concerns around issues that have not attracted adequate attention.

On 9th April, 2012, a report that appeared on both Sina Weibo and Tencent Weibo persuading readers to stop eating yoghurt and jelly, especially children, as insider information was shocking. This particular message was sent by a famous news host, Zhao Pu, from China Central Television (CCTV) by using his Weibo page. Although Zhao did not explain the specifics of the insider information, users expressed their concerns over the news. A few journalists from different news agencies then confirmed the credibility of this information on their Weibo pages: eating yogurt was like eating abandoned leather shoes. This implied that the information was likely to be hidden by CCTV. The truth disclosed on Weibo was that a few food manufactures used gelatine, a safe food additive made from abandoned leather shoes, as yogurt and jelly additive. Within five hours of the message being released on Sina Weibo, the message was shared and commented on over 143 thousand times; simultaneously, the number of Zhao’s followers quickly increased to over 3290. {1.1 [CN] 请检查我们所做的修改} The data represents the concerns of people about information on Chinese-food safety and the spread of the collective indignance from Weibo to various other websites. Because of the high-speed nature of the spreading information, the appropriate departments (the official responsible department and official media institution) and CCTV had no choice but to respond to the public criticism by formally reporting on the issue. {1.1 [CN] 请检查我们所做的修改}

Regarding this event, the information was disclosed on Weibo rather than via official media institutions. Zhao chose to utilise his Weibo account instead of his work platform to cover this issue; his peer journalists also quickly dealt with the confirmation and credibility of the information. When reports are on socially sensitive subjects such as food safety and major industrial events, traditional journalists tend to be restrained (Qiang 2011, p. 55); however, it appears that Chinese journalists have noticed the power of micro-blogging (Chan 2011a, p. 57), through which they can avoid guidelines by covering real stories on the Internet and evade the online sensitive words making the effective censorship of word surveillance more difficult (Qiang 2011, p. 55). {1.1 [CN] 请检查我们所做的修改} In fact, many Chinese journalists are living a double life: they are reporters for national broadcast institutions and Internet-content generators simultaneously (Qiang 2011, p. 55).

In January 2010, an activity named ‘click a photograph to rescue child beggars’ was launched on Sina and Tencent Weibo (Canaves 2011, p. 74), which aimed at rescuing kidnapped children and reuniting them with their families (Bandurski 2011). The initiator, Yu Jiangrong, who is a professor at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, appealed to his followers to post and share the photographs of missing children working as beggars on Chinese city streets via Weibo. He expected that the photographs would provide clues on the missing children to their families and the police. Yu launched the project before the Chinese Spring Festival, a holiday intended for family reunion, which stirred the sympathy of people (Canaves 2011, p. 74). Within one week of its inception, thousands of photographs and associated clues were posted and shared through Weibo groups established by Yu (Bandurski 2011). Soon the head of the Children Abduction office of China’s Public Security Bureau, Chen Shiqu, offered his contact and support on his Weibo page, in addition to many individuals expressing that the issue of kidnapped children should be considered important (Bandurski 2011). The official media outlets then started focussing on the project by reporting on the successful cases of rescued children.

From the above two cases, it can be observed that Weibo’s method of communication is relatively different from that of the traditional media. Different methods of communication affect the construction of reality. The information-communication methods of traditional media outlets range from top to bottom, i.e. from an official media institution to the public. Lewis et al. (Wu 2007, p. 212) mentions that the traditional top–down structure of news stories prevents the access of the common people to real media stories. In contrast, the Internet offers a space for those people without power and fame to discuss issues and express personal views (Wu 2007, p. 212). In other words, social media turns common people into the potential providers of valuable information. On Weibo, the communication network is horizontally spread, and then it progresses to the top. In the beginning stages, information is generated by Weibo users; then, it is laterally received and propagated by them. If an event then evokes public attention, Weibo then includes it in the hot-topic section, on the right side of each user’s personal page, to attract more viewers to comment on it. Thus, the public voice can be more widely spread, collected, reinforced and amplified. Fraser (1992, cited in Papacharissi 2002, p. 11) argued that the authorities who pay attention to the various voices have never existed. However, because of a large number of users on Weibo, an event can evoke a considerable amount of concern, and encourage criticism. In such situations, official media institutions and authorities must focus on and respond to the public’s concern in order to prevent the growth of a critical voice.

However, not all the information on Weibo is distributed in this manner as not all the events induce public concerns and resonance. Only certain events such as international controversy, official bribery, moral shortage and disadvantaged groups are permitted to form communications on Weibo. Furthermore, not all social issues are included in the hot-topic area.

In the above two cases, the revelation of hidden and/or negative information depends considerably on public response and resonance. In the gelatine event, the inside story and lack of morality in the food-production industry elicited public concerns regarding Chinese-food safety. As food consumers, people were the victims of the unsafe food-production practices, leading to a shared sense of injustice. By using Weibo’s system, users can easily express their personal views and add comments to existing discussions; because of this simple system of information sharing, information is rapidly and widely distributed. Thus, self-expression, the exchange of views and information sharing creates a resonant environment. In contrast, it is difficult for the traditional media to create a sense of resonance because they lack the exchange of public views. The gelatine event resulted in criticism of the government for the ineffective monitoring of food-safety standards and the media. Regarding the child-rescue event, the launch of the campaign and the distribution of information considerably depended upon the resonance of sympathy. Certain social issues such as the miserable conditions of disadvantaged groups, lack of morals, bribery and corruption easily evoke public resonance. The gelatine event caused the resonance of indignance, whereas the child-rescue event evoked resonance with sympathy.

Research suggests that social media offers a platform for a wide distribution of information, the mobilisation of an individual, and disclosure of facts (Harp, Bachmann & Guo 2012, p. 313). In the past several years, with the development of Internet in China, online campaigns related to human-rights issues, the inappropriate behaviour of officials and nationalism has successfully gained public support and resonance (Chow 2007, cited in Harp, Bachmann & Guo 2012, p. 303). Weibo is now the most popular website used for resisting social injustice, discrimination and censorship. However, such online activities are accompanied by government control tactics (Rosen 2010, cited in Harp, Bachmann & Guo 2012, p. 303). Successful online activities depend on rapid and wide information distribution, which is more difficult to control, and a certain degree of cooperation by the central government, allowing people some level of freedom in venting frustrations to prevent stronger online resistance. {1.1 [CN] 请检查我们所做的修改} In Qiang’s (2011, p. 56) research, he found that negative criticism regarding local officials and governments, particularly in relation to corruption and illegal behaviours, are nationally spread online and resonate strongly across society; this tends to be the main subject matter directly impacted by social media. Ocassionally, the central government tolerates activities aimed at restraining local officials and government so that public gets an opportunity to vent discontent before more problematic behaviours such as protests may occur (Qiang 2011, p. 56).

Moreover, the online revelations of local social issues has become a way to offer feedback to the central government. When local officials or government are involved in a scandal, they frequently attempt to control the local media when it is within their power to enforce a blackout of the news (Qiang 2011, p. 54). However, on Weibo, a local issue can evoke resonance amongst a wider audience, beyond the scope of being controlled locally, and may even become known on a national scale (Qiang 2011, p. 53-54). The central government is less likely to stop the spread of online news in relation to local officials, leaving the public a platform for releasing their frustrations (Qiang 2011, p. 54). Therefore, there will be a scope for revealing a realistic view of local scandals to the society. {1.1 [CN] 请检查我们所做的修改} Thus, Weibo facilitates the surveillance of local government and officials, specifically those in charge of legal and administrative departments, and it may stop nappropriate activities. Such cases illustrate that Weibo may assist in the illumination of not only local issues but also nationwide issues, which adversely affect the Chinese society (Qiang 2011, p. 56–57).

The above analysis suggests that Weibo may facilitate an increase in valuable information to assist with the social construction of reality. The method of communication on the website breaks the traditional top–down communication methods of the past (Zeng 2011, p. 22) as well as reduces the impact of the state controlled media, which provides an opportunity for citizens to post about social issues, especially sensitive issues which are covered up or ignored by the authorities and official media institutions. Chinese journalists and citizens have recognised the power of Weibo to offer truth to the people. It is an easy way to express oneself, contribute to discussion and share information, and it results in fast, widespread information sharing. The resonance of citizens plays an important role in the collection and amplification of public’s voices. Because of the number of users on Weibo, an event can resonate with a vastly large number of people across the nation. Occasionally, official media institutions and authorities have no choice but to focus on the events causing concern for masses of people; they then must solve such issues to prevent the growth of negative sentiments and/or online protests. Some events, especially the negative events such as official bribery and corruption, the lack of morality and the miserable conditions of disadvantaged groups, are more likely to lead to widespread criticism, shared public concerns and the evocation of public resonance. Although online activities coexist with censorship by the authorities, many issues have been solved successfully. Thus, Weibo has created an environment in which citizens are exposed to social issues where they supervise the government, local officials and society as a whole, are exposed to the truth and resist injustice, and participate in the public discussion of social issues.

The perception of reality on Weibo

In new media, it is not only the traditional mass media that influences the people’s perception of the real world. As the cultivation theory suggests, people who are more exposed one specific medium are more likely to perceive the world in ways that reflect the repetitive information they are exposed to. {1.1 [CN] 请检查我们所做的修改} As such, heavy Weibo users may perceive the world in ways that Weibo conveys it. An increasing amount of social issues are now exposed to individuals through Weibo. Weibo brings more real news to citizens; on the other hand, the constant exposure to negative events may affect the way people perceive the real world. Traditional Chinese media are regarded as the medium through which society maintains the image of peace and prosperity (Wu 2007, p.213); thus, negative social phenomena remain hidden, and there is a distortion of reality. The question is whether Weibo conveys a realistic portrayal, allowing for more accurate perceptions. What will the constant exposure to negative social issues on Weibo result in? Will Weibo promote a rational discussion, or encourage anarchy?

People have a less deferential and passive attitude towards authorities and traditional media institutions with the increasing revelation on Weibo. The rise of the user-generated content has been accompanied by a decline in the loss of trust in authorities and official organisations (Seldon 2009, cited in Greer &McLaughlin 2010, p. 1054). The gelatine-event criticism resulted in the exposure of facts. The government was criticised for neglecting the rights of citizens, whereas national media institutions were blamed for attempting to cover up the issue. The fact that this event was released on Weibo and not on national media led to even further criticism. In the coverage of rescuing child beggars the collective voice on Weibo was centred on an increased sense of morality and sympathy, leading to increased assistance for victims. Other social issues such as corruption and the lack of morality in enterprises are the responsibility of government. According to second-order beliefs, the media content can directly influence people’s perceptions, attitudes and values which determine their judgments to some extent. One may hypothesise that the disclosure of such negative events, accompanied by the criticism of authorities and disappointment in the country, may lead to deeper mistrust of one’s society.

Although some online activities involving the criticism of authorities are tolerated by the government, such negative events may distress government officials. In previous examples, the government expressed their position and attitudes stating that they would solve the issues and provide the answers people needed; however, they attempted to control the distribution of information and minimise people’s negative sentiments. In a leaked memo about the child-rescue campaign, the Chinese Central Propaganda Department asked news agencies to reduce people’s excitement by ceasing to report on Yu’s campaign on Weibo and to reduce the presence of Weibo on news sites. The official media then covered editorial criticisms, and Yu ceased to accept interviews (Canaves 2011, p. 76). However, the government’s attempts to control people’s sentiments does not always result in the desired effect, occasionally worsening the situation. During the gelatine event, people were confused about Zhao Pu’s disappearance, and speculation rose with people believing that his disappearance was due to CCTV and the government, which led a further decrease in the trust on both the state and official media.

The consistent coverage of negative events on Weibo may distort the people’s perception of reality, not unlike official media sources. The official media is regarded as being responsible for blocking exposure to negative news stories, whereas an over-exposure to negative news stories on Weibo may have the opposite effect, leading to the belief that the world is unstable. First-order beliefs suggest that a distorted assessment of the world is associated with long-term media consumption. As mentioned previously, an increasing number of negative events are exposed via Weibo, and negative social events tend to be accompanied by criticism of the state. It is common for people who frequently use Weibo to receive negative information. Thus, negative beliefs about the nation, government and official media may be higher for Weibo users. With the increase in negative news being exposed via Weibo, an increase in negative beliefs about the state may occur. Heavy Weibo users may underestimate the positive aspects of the nation, while neglecting the fact that the nation also experiences positive events and is in the process of further development. Therefore, people who are exposed to the negative information shared on Weibo on a long-term basis may possess a distorted view of the society.

According to the concept of mainstreaming, the perception of the real world by heavy Weibo users may be different compared to that by non-Weibo users. Nearly 250 million Chinese have Weibo accounts, and users tend to be young, urban and well-educated; they are thus important members of the Chinese society. They may, however, misevaluate the current state of the society and underestimate the occurrence of positive developments. Thus, the mistrust and disappointment on the nation may accompany Weibo’s growth.

Moreover, there are many factors affecting people’s perception, which must be analysed. The first factor to be analysed is the user-generated content, through which not all the content being produced is credible. The quality of information cannot be guaranteed, especially in light of the fact that there is much verbal abuse and irresponsible criticism occurring on the website (Shi 2011, p. 24). As Greer & McLaughlin (2010, p. 1045) stated, the user-generated content has various issues, including false information and a lack of a sense of responsibility by content generators. Furthermore, personal expression on the website may have strong individual characteristics and may be irrational (Yuan 2011, p. 10). Unlike traditional news sources, wherein the content is censored by editors, there is no one responsible for the credibility of each message being posted online. It is also difficult to control the quality of information on Weibo as there is a mass of disordered information.

False information is widespread on Weibo and may even be regarded as authentic by news institutions. The director of Titanic, James Cameron, said in an interview that Chinese censors cut Kate Winslet’s nude scene from Titanic 3D as they worried about the male audience’s reaction, which may have impacted the rest of the audience. However, this was false information generated by a Weibo user to mock the Chinese-film censorship, and it was widely shared on Weibo, covered by news websites and even believed by foreign media institutions.

It can be observed that irrational action occurs during the process of information propagation. Users tend to share the information that they are most interested in; however, in this case they did not consider the truth of the information. This is not a rare phenomenon, but it happens frequently on the website. The collective and mass share options leads to the propagation of false news. Although the James-Cameron issue was only an entertainment news item, it coexists with the lampoon towards Chinese-media-censorship institution and policy as well as the state.

In a TV interview, Chen (2011), a Chinese critic, said that Weibo was a hangover of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, in which people rallied together to criticise a person or an event. Although it is difficult to admit that Chen’s views are unbiased, what he explained was a reflection of collective irrationality. In one sense, it may be concluded from these cases that mass sharing derives from the agreement of views or attitudes, or sentimental resonance, which may also involve irrational considerations. In another sense, these collective actions may result from group influence. Scholars have recognised that people’s attitudes, behaviours and even perceptions are easily influenced by others (Severn & Tankard 2001, p. 185). An individual who is in a group can give up his/her independent personality and thinking and have blind faith because of group thinking and/or opinion leaders (Fromm n.d., [Remark 3] cited in Yuan 2011, p. 10). In particular, during critical incidents or emergencies, individuals who either lack information or have abundant information {1.1 [CN] 请检查我们所做的修改} readily accept the predominant views of the group, though not rationally tested (Yuan 2011, p. 10). The independent thinking of individuals may be ignored by or excluded from the group, whereas any rational debate may be overshadowed by the resonance with a collective sentiment. Therefore, it is difficult to avoid the occurrence of collective irrationality on Weibo and other social media websites due to group influence (Yuan 2011, p. 10).

Another people’s debate on Weibo involves the issue of rationality. Media plays an important role in guiding the people’s debate (Flew et al. 2008, p. 20); therefore, the debate being created on Weibo must be studied as it affects the construction of reality. This issue will be discussed in terms of the relationship between the online public sphere and rationality. In the new media age, some researchers conceptualise the emergence of an online public sphere as a migration or extension of the existing public sphere, deeming it a renaissance of the failing public sphere (Goldberg 2010, p. 741). However, whether the public sphere envisioned by Habermas exists is a debatable. Habermas (1991, p. 172) deemed the public sphere to be an important part of people’s social life, in which rational public debate can attain form. But what types of discussions can be regarded as rational, and who can be considered as a rational individual?

The initial public sphere is considered to have occurred between 1680 and 1730 in European cafes and salons, where the bourgeois, nobles and intellectuals engaged in various discussions (Habermas 1991, p. 9). Habermas stated that although participants were limited to an elite group of people, the rationality of discussions was ensured (1989, cited in Stevenson, p. 49). In contrast, Weibo’s technology lowers the standard of participation in public discussions; therefore, it is imposible to ensure rational debate. As Papacharissi (2002, p. 12-13) pointed out, the Internet is a worthy resource for involvement with social issues, but it does not ensure an enlightened discourse; the Internet tends to induce a fragmental, irrational and angry discourse (Papacharissi 2002, p. 10). Furthermore, it is doubtful that a collection of people with such diverse backgrounds will result in rational dialogues. Some scholars praise the fact that the connection of people from various different fields may lead to pluralist discussions (Papacharissi 2002, p. 15). However, the rationality of disparate groups assembling to debate an issue is doubtful. In fact, by researching the information on the hot-topic-discussion areas of Weibo, it was found that messages tend to attain the form of self-expression rather than debate. Papacharissi (2002, cited in Goldberg 2010, p. 742) argued that the internet appears to be a public space, but does not constitute a public sphere. In addition, Weibo does not constitute rationality, rather, it encourages criticism, individuality and anarchy, having a negative influence on the social construction of reality.

In addition, the content created by Weibo users is not always related to reality; it involves entertainment activities, business activities and the expression of personal gripes. As Mulder (2007, cited in Goldberg 2010, p. 743) stated, ‘You are under order to be yourself-for the system. [Remark 4] You have to reveal yourself for who you are. In fact, you become who you are in expressing yourself’. Personal expressions or gripes do not tend to be newsworthy. Each user is an information source; he/she can produce information without the limitations of time, place or format, leading to information overload (Hu 2011, p. 18). Moreover, digital content has the quality of becoming viral with propensity to replicate without limitations (Goldberg 2010, p. 745). Thus, Weibo is an information platform where the masses sound off, leading to disordered, futile and excessive information, resulting in a challenging and complicated environment to perceive the real world.

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