Challenges and Opportunities: How Social Media Shapes Chinese News

Social media presents challenges and opportunities to Chinese news market.

Chinese News Media Has Struggled For Very Long, Both in Objective Reporting and In Garnering Profits

For Professor Yanhui Wu, an economics professor from Hong Kong University, the problem is the tradeoff between commercialization and political bias. 

In his recent paper “Whither Journalism? The Impact of Social Media on News Production in China,” co-authored with Ph.D. candidate Ruoyu Qian, Wu talked about whether or not the surge of social media influenced newspapers’ production of news content in China, and its likely mechanisms. 

“This research shows one way to understand the Chinese economy,” said Wu during the interview with China Focus, “The dynamics of the political-economic tradeoff is one key determinant of the current or future Chinese economy. I try to use media as a window as well as a setting to see through the dynamics.”

In 2012, Sina Weibo became the largest social media platform in China back then, with 500 million users active on the platform. The news was widely circulated online, gradually crowding out traditional print media. As a result, traditional news media generated less revenue and lost ground to the emergence of online media. After following around 1,000 general-interest newspapers, Wu’s team found out the paper number and the circulation went down after 2012, with a 20 percent loss of newspapers in four years. 

On the other hand, given the lowered costs of news circulation, social media supposedly reduced the political risks of reporting sensitive issues. 

This Was True–Partially 

The emergence of social media provided a platform for public discourse, and ample discussions on various sociopolitical issues followed. However, in response to the public discussions, extensive censorship from the Chinese Communist Party was raised along with the rise of the platform, along with a large presence of official accounts that dominated the platform. In other words, the more information resources, the higher the costs of political constraints became for the government.

To Combat The Higher Costs, The Government Loosened Its Political Constraints

Wu’s research team found some evidence for this conjecture of political relaxation. The team calculated that the volume of political propaganda significantly decreased following 2009, when Weibo was founded. Instead, more entertainment and commercially-driven content began circulating throughout the media. Starting from 2004, the number of market-oriented newspapers steadily increased, and 20 new newspapers came into the market from 2004 to 2011. This indicates that the existence of social media stimulated newspapers to report on more entertainment topics, motivated by commercial revenues.

Wu measured the news quality based on its truthfulness and biasedness, by examining the content, sensitive event coverage, as well as the resemblance between commercial newspapers and party outlets, which are the mouthpieces of CCP. As a result, the newspapers followed a similar pattern as above. The more revenue the newspapers absorbed, the more diversity they would show on the story coverage, and the less resemblance they would have compared to party news media.

However, Just Like Other Economic Experiments, The Study Came With Its Own Limitations 

“We try to understand the big picture about how social media works in China. And we try to get a slice to generate some insight, hopefully, but they are also limited to certain periods,” Wu explained, “And eventually the limitation would be a causal influence. Even if something happened during this period, we cannot say generalize this period to another period.” 

Despite the lowered risks of reporting politically sensitive issues, Wu realized the narrative bias of media coverage on sensitive issues was severely reduced. In other words, social media reduces pro-government bias to some extent and diversifies the media market by introducing more entertainment content, driven by high advertising revenues. 

“At a micro level, this economic theory is about [the] economics of persuasion and information, and then we apply this theory to different settings like propaganda, censorship, misinformation. It’s basically a political theory about an industrial organization.” Said Wu.

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Tianrui Huang

Tianrui is a senior student at UC San Diego studying philosophy, economics, and communication. Her research interests include social protests, China's social policy, and U.S.-Chinese media studies. As a journalist, her works appeared in the oldest LGBT news Washington Blade, the investigative outlet Voice of San Diego, the largest journalism association Society of Professional Journalists, and Hong Kong-based online media RADII.

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