Academic journal article China Perspectives

Social Media and Collective Remembrance

Academic journal article China Perspectives

Social Media and Collective Remembrance

Article excerpt

The debate over China's Great Famine on weibo

Introduction

With the growing popularity of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs), new communication media such as the Internet, mobile phones, and social media are penetrating people's everyday lives and transforming the way they express themselves, interact with each other, articulate daily experience, and perceive the world. Beyond being merely a matter of technology, new media have become embedded in politics, the economy, culture, and social systems and are further shaping them.(1)Among them, collective memory,(2) an indicator of social and political change,(3) is one of reconfigurations under the influence of new media. As several studies demonstrate, the bottom-up, peer-to-peer, and horizontal communication enabled by low-end, easy-to-use, and networked communication technologies not only facilitates a continuous and accumulating memory, but also provides new opportunities for citizens to scrutinise and interrogate previous material archives as static memories, thus influencing how the past is remembered. (4)

This study takes weibo, China's microblogging services, as a case to investigate the impact of social media on the (re)formation of collective memory in contemporary China. China has the world's most active social media users.(5) Ninety-five percent of Internet users in major cities are regular users of social media.(6) Weibois one of the most widely used social media in China.(7) More than 290 million weibousers accounted for 45.9% of the total 632 million Chinese Internet users in 2014.(8)As an interactive and dynamic platform, weibo sees diversified voices and discourses from users from different backgrounds and social strata.(9) In particular, Chinese people's reliance on weiboas a platform for airing opinions, exposing discontent, criticising government policies, or venting anger over specific incidents is intensifying as the tightening of state control over mass media persists.(10)Studies on weiboas a means of civic engagement and deliberation(11) and of mobilisation of political contention(12) have consequently flourished. Nevertheless, a relatively large amount of research so far focuses exclusively on the analysis of contemporary, discrete online contentious events,(13) without scrutinising the political influence of weiboon a larger living context - among others, a society's collective memory- beyond a simple realisation of overt contentious possibility.

This study aims to fill this gap by exploring the influence of weiboon collective memory. More specifically, we ask: how does weibo provide a platform to articulate people's previous experiences and memories and further (re)shape collective memory in contemporary China? We first provide a critical review of current studies on collective memory and media, addressing the relevance of approaching such a topic from the perspective of social media - weiboin this study. Second, we briefly elaborate on methodological issues, followed by an overview of the selected case: the debate over "The Three-Year Great Chinese Famine" (hereafter "the Great Famine") on weibo. Given the fact that "the Great Famine" remains politically taboo(14) and that there are complicated mechanisms of censorship on weiboto eliminate or restrict discussion of politically taboo topics, (15) it is a bit surprising to us that weiboservices have not completely blocked or censored tweets containing keywords such as "the Great Famine." In other words, one can still search for and read tweets containing "the Great Famine." We do not know the reason for this, however.(16)Third, we scrutinise how weiboprovides an opportunity for ordinary people to articulate and disseminate their alternative narratives of memories that previously had never been publicly acknowledged, in particular those that had been marginalised, excluded, or subjected to "forced amnesia" by the authorities. We argue that the articulation, accumulation, and dissemination of experiences and memories on weiboengender counter- and alternative narratives that contest the official framework of memory, reshape collective memory of the famine, and thereby generate a long-term influence on society. …

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