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Tianjin disaster takes social news sharing to new levels in China

China’s mourning over the Tianjin disaster has taken place both online and off. Kim Kyung Hoon/Reuters

Tianjin disaster takes social news sharing to new levels in China

The tragic explosion in the Chinese city of Tianjin, which has so far claimed the lives of 114 people including 19 firefighters, triggered a nationwide online conversation in China.

The widespread social sharing of video and chatter prompted various public and official responses. Among the most shared tweets, a screenshot of a tear-shedding conversation between two firefighters on WeChat, the country’s most popular instant messaging tool.

Also popular was a cartoon named the “world’s coolest retrograding”. It was retweeted more than 700,000 times on the micro-blogging site Sina Weibo, attracting more then 57,000 comments and 300,000 likes within hours.

The fireman cartoon that went viral. Weibo

The disaster has become the most viewed news event on a social media platform. The hashtag #Tianjin Tanggu massive explosion has so far had 3.32 billion views on Sina Weibo, 3.62 million comments and 420,000 followers (weibo.com).

Controlling the information flow

With the surge in sharing, China’s internet regulators have busied themselves monitoring “unhealthy” tweets on social media platforms including both Weibo and WeChat. Shortly after the disaster, rumours including tweets referring to, “terrorist attacks”, “shops looted”, “no survivor within 1 kilometre of the site” and “sodium cyanide leaking into city’s sewage”, were widely dispersed.

Chinese officials have displayed “zero tolerance” towards online rumours after the Tianjin events, according to China’s internet watchdog, the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC). More than 360 social media accounts on Weibo and WeChat have been investigated, resulting in 160 being permanently shut down and 200 more suspended. Fifty “rumour-mongering” sites were investigated in further detail, leading to 18 of these accounts being revoked.

The WeChat account of Zhengzhou Evening News, a municipal level local newspaper, was forced to close for a week after the account circulated information that the leadership of Tianjin government would reshuffle.

The open access of social media platforms has rendered the production and dissemination of “speculative” content both free and instantaneous, while the exponential growth in access to social media has allowed content to go viral.

Some of the messaging has created panic and fear among online users affected by the disaster.

However, the problematic proliferation of rumours has led to a push for more transparency and timely release of information from the government and state-run media. Chinese Premier Li Keqiang said:

“Rumours will fly if authorities do not release enough up-to-date information.”

He requested that the rumours stop, and that government agencies not fail to disclose any information.

Social media trends in China

China’s news industry, like many others, is experiencing rapid change as social media rewrites the patterns of communication that have been in existence for hundreds of years. The China Internet Network Information Center predicts that increasingly online news will be algorithmically recommended to users in a more individualistic way, exploiting data collection and mining techniques to push popular news to a user via a model that combines social network links, and digital browsing traces.

China has the world’s largest internet community and the most mobile users. The widespread use of mobile phones and web use has developed with the expansion of the middle class in China, which includes the new, old, marginal and “entrepreneurial” middle classes, as discussed in David Goodman’s book “Middle Class China”. While traditional media is simultaneously under attack and reinventing itself, new media enterprises are often the most nimble, strategic and innovative in this space.

By June 2015 the country’s online population had reached 668 million, around half of its total population. Expanding 4G mobile network use has further facilitated the use of social media networks. Growth in social media platforms and markets is central to this change – these powerful intermediaries are reconfiguring how we produce, distribute, promote and consume news.

More than 90.8% of China’s internet users have taken up instant messaging services including WeChat. More than 200 million people - almost 10 times the population of Australia - are registered on micro-blogging services including Sina Weibo.

The tension between innovative social media distribution businesses and a government with no intention of giving up control is forging the new mass-scale connective news culture in China.