Opinion / Zhu Yuan

Social media seems to be widening the social chasm

By Zhu Yuan (China Daily) Updated: 2017-01-05 07:36

Social media seems to be widening the social chasm


An old friend, a retiree, is so concerned about An old friend, a retiree, is so concerned about public affairs that he keeps re-transmitting stories, essays, even hearsays, on a lot of things to his WeChat contacts. What is surprising is that he had never seemed interested in many of the things in the past.that he keeps re-transmitting stories, essays, even hearsays, on a lot of things to his WeChat contacts.It is the smartphone and social media tool such as WeChat that seem to have added a lot to the meaning to his otherwise simple and monotonous home-centered life.

I have no idea where he gets his stories from, perhaps from some apps which I don't know about or from some like-minded WeChat users. One of the stories he sent to his WeChat group a couple of days ago was about the atrocities committed by eight "allied" powers in Northeast China's Liaoning province "on Christmas Eve in 1898". He had got his facts wrong. It was czarist Russia alone that invaded Northeast China in 1900.

For people who would have otherwise focused on family matters and ignored most of the things happening beyond their own communities, social media is a channel to look beyond their immediate circle and to get their voice heard in a much wider circle.

Given my experience-thanks to the WeChat groups I share with my colleagues or old friends-those who used to be the most silent tend to be most active in disseminating hearsays. They also tend to support people with extreme views on many issues.

In contrast, those who are well educated and well read and thus should be the most vocal are usually the silent ones. That's not because they are weak but because they have chosen to be the silent minority in social media. They prefer to remain silent in the face of meaningless quarrels, which a majority of online discussions are.

The more information one receives, the more informed he or she should be. This is the revolutionary change the information age should have brought about. Yet this rationale does not necessarily apply to social media. What if a person active on social media platforms gets biased or wrong information or prefers to believe in the wrong information?

One of the prominent features of WeChat is that chat groups tend to attract like-minded people, who share information that cater to their liking. Usually, WeChat users are selective in deciding what they read and share; they do not care about the authenticity of the information as long as it is to their common liking and helps reinforce their biased beliefs.

This is exactly the way uneducated or semi-educated people used to gossip about the happenings in their neighborhood. Today, they gossip about a much wider array of things with much more participants on a much wider platform and have a much bigger audience.

The more information such people receive from social media, the more biased and more misinformed they tend to become. Instead of shedding their biases, many of them turn into bigger bigots because of the fragmented, prejudiced and sometimes totally wrong information they get, or fish for, on social media platforms.

It seems mobilizing as many people as possible to participate in the political process of a country has become a new norm. But since biased and ill-informed people tend to behave like know-alls, public opinions even on such important issues as reform and social welfare keep widening.

It is impossible for a Donald Trump to be elected leader in China, or for the Chinese people to vote in a Brexit-like referendum. But that doesn't mean we should ignore the ever-widening divide in public opinions on many issues.

The author is a senior writer with China Daily.


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