Twitter and the Big, Stupid Echo Chamber

Twitter is a wonderful thing. It has revolutionized the way people communicate and it has given Chinese netizens a completely uncensored playground to air their grievances, provided they can find a way to vault over the Great Firewall. I have speculated before that the whole thing is a bit dangerous, given that the government can still see what dissidents are writing on Twitter, and what’s more, can see who is following them and who they follow. It’s a veritable who’s who of Chinese dissidents, laid out for government agents on a pretty blue background.

But there may be a bigger issue. Twitter, by definition, requires brevity and defies analysis or in-depth discussion. It is, therefore, great for spreading news — when Google goes down, everyone knows within a couple hours — but not so great for exchanging views. Observe the following exchange I encountered on Twitter a few days ago (each tweet is in response to the previous one, and be warned there is some explicit language):

Liu Brothers: Do you hope that the future China will be a FLG-controlled fundamentalist state?
Lihlii: F*ck your mother’s c*nt.
Aiww [Ai Weiwei]: Hahaha
Liu Brothers: F*ck, even “Lord Ai” believes in the wheel?

Obviously, not everything one says need be important or even mature, but still, this reads like the sort of “political discussion” teenagers have over the six pack they stole out of dad’s fridge. And it’s not entirely uncommon. I wonder if in some ways, Twitter isn’t creating a sort of echo chamber for Chinese dissidents — a place where their claims are never really challenged and their proclamations, no matter how uselessly profane and banal, get retweeted by an army of dedicated followers.

Now, admittedly, I’m being a bit unfair here, especially in cutting that conversation off where I did, as there was eventually a slightly more civil “discussion” — so much as there can be such a thing on Twitter — on the truth/lies surrounding FLG. Being neither interested in the topic nor interested in getting this site GFW’ed, I’m not going to translate any of that. But it really does seem as though there’s more yelling going on every time I check my Twitter updates, and my concern is that Chinese Twitter, as a self-selecting community of GFW jumpers, is becoming a dissident echo chamber and yet another bastion of polarized “everything-the-other-side-says-is-evil” thought. And we’ve seen how well massive political polarization is working for the US.

China’s fifty cent party members and “angry youth” are already polarized. If the “free-thinker” dissident community falls into the same trap, what hope can there be of any kind of productive discussion or development?

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0 thoughts on “Twitter and the Big, Stupid Echo Chamber”

  1. How dare you try to paint layers of nuance onto this issue! You clearly must be a paid lackey of the CCP. The wisdom of our great leader 艾神 must not be questioned! 万岁万岁万万岁!

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  2. I understand the power of Twitter for spreading links, news and dissident activities, like in Iran. But for discussion? I don’t think so.

    I have never seen a good debate where the speakers could only say 20 words at a time. It makes for an amusing game at best, not a serious discussion. That is why I prefer Buzz. And by the way, we do have a good deal of dissident activity over there as well (although Ai is still not in as far as I know).

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  3. It’s hard enough for Ai Weiwei and crew to actually have their opinions heard, so I don’t think criticizing the one-sidedness of their posts is very fair. What do you expect these “dissidents” to do, hold a friendly, roundtable discussion with half of them representing the Party just for the sake of having a healthy dialogue?

    If these guys weren’t so marginalized and disadvantaged by those whom they are criticizing, they wouldn’t feel so angry, and they wouldn’t need to rely on a website that most Chinese don’t even read to express their thoughts. Yeah, Ai Weiwei loves to drop C-bombs (or B-bombs, depending on your language), but at least he’s also throwing another voice into (or at) a dialogue that doesn’t want to include him.

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  4. @ Zhuge Jiong: Yes, that’s true. My concern is that this kind of voice is alienating to a lot of people, and that these guys don’t realize it because Twitter is 99% dissident. I agree they have a right to be angry, but being angry without being stupid would still be preferable. Perhaps it’s unfair to ask more of them than of their competition, but the alternative is that the future-of-China debate turns into something completely polarized and utterly pointless. One side is already pretty polemical; if the dissidents become that way it’s going to turn average Chinese people away from the conversation entirely, because while an old Chinese lady might agree with Ai that the 遇难 Sichuan kids need to be remembered, she is not going to agree that responding to a critic with “f*ck your mother’s c*nt” is hilarious.

    That’s because it isn’t hilarious, it’s f*cking stupid and juvenile as hell. Perhaps I need to make some clarification here, my issue isn’t with the vulgarity so much as the fact that all criticisms are brushed aside with mocking, vulgar derision. But that seems to be the direction dialogue on Twitter (in Chinese about China) is heading.

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  6. The dissident community is already completely polarized to the point that they disagree with everything that anybody with a “official” title, like a professor or a “expert”, says, or anything that could be construe to be on the side of party. You should have seen the comments on that recent news article that was posted on netease,, something like “appreciating RMB 3% will closed down 50% of factories”. While I agree that is a typical exaggerated claim by official media with little solid reasoning, most of the dissident commentors are saying: “f*ck rich people and the party, they are not appreciating, because they want to keep us down”; “appreciating means we will have more money, f*ck CCP”; “rich people and CCP are making money off of real estate, appreciating so that housing prices collapse”. Really, they make no logical sense and this is really a mob democracy.

    It’s completely over-idealistic and simple minded to think that people will start to have all these well-nuanced rational debate when they are given “free speech”. This is especially not true when the pool of participants are huge, like the situation on Chinese forums and comment sections. Nobody even care about upholding an “online reputation” based on their username, as in nobody will remember someone else’s username and what it said, so that most people will care little about being responsible and nuanced, and it’s easier just to cuss out at everyone that disagree with you.

    Also, I seem to feel that these dissidents crowd find cussing and lewd content so funny and amazing simply because CCP is so uptight about these kind of stuff.

    It’s just luck or POV that these kind of people argue for sake of the “laobaixing”. With their closed and overheated minds where words win more than reason, if it turns out that they were actually put in places officials, they will be just as bad.

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  7. Sorry, a minor edit, see above with …”netease,, something”…

    Replace with netease, sina, sohu, etc.

    It was posted on every major news website, but the “dissident-like” opinion was particularly strong on netease.

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  8. I completely support these people’s right to speak whatever they want and I actually think Ai wei wei is useful to society (not as an artist in whatsoever sense though).

    But if these people try to start a riot (many of them articulate killing all those who don’t agree with them once someday they are in power), I’d be on the first fireline (yes, in support of the CCP) to finish them off.

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  9. @SD: My point was that this is definitely NOT a “free speech” environment out of which a rational discussion will emerge. The environment here makes it impossible for such a thing to exist.

    As I said in my first post, these guys (Ai, etc.) are completely marginalized by the authorities, and as a result have to resort to venting on sites like Twitter that barely any Chinese nationals even read. Why should they be expected to be rational and civilized? This is what censorship creates.

    And the anonymous message board poster phenomenon you mentioned isn’t just limited to political discussion. I’d guess that just about any anonymous message board in any language is filled with the same kinds of crap that these people write, regardless of topic. “F*** the CCP, man!” “F*** Tom Brady, man!” “F*** Bush, man!”

    This isn’t the issue. The issue is that Ai and crew have been backed into a corner by censorship, and there’s simply no outlet for them to engage in real debate. No one’s listening to them who (they think) should be; what do you expect them to do?

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  10. A bit late to this, but…
    I don’t follow Twitter ever, so I have no idea if your facts about the kind of discourse is right; I’ll just accept them.
    But your premise about politics is completely off the wall! You’ve linked to a piece about how polarized US politics is dysfunctional – and it is. But US politics is that way precisely *because* that’s what’s popular. It’s not called populism for nothing. The idea that being an arsehole will “turn average Chinese people away from the conversation entirely” is crazy in a reality TV world. Conflict and crassness is the best way to draw people in.
    Nor, incidentally, is US politics quite as broken as you make out. Compare China’s recent health reforms to America’s. I think the US wins that round.

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  11. Phil: China isn’t the same kind of “reality TV world” as the US. Saying “Fuck the motherland” certainly attracts attention, but it’s mostly hateful, contemptuous attention. Not really good for winning people over. Crassness is NOT a way to “draw people in” in China the way it can be in the States.

    And what popular US political figure is there who says something like “Fuck this country” anyway? Do you really think someone like that would attract a lot of followers even in the US? Conflict is one thing, but Ai Weiwei is not Bill O’Reilly (or whoever the left-wing equivalent would be).

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  12. When has the “free thinking” Chinese liberals *not* lived in an echo chamber?

    In fact, I would argue that they’re even more self-reinforcing than the angry youth. Because the angry youth by and large respect and accept official propaganda, which is less extreme and has a — believe it or not — cooling effect on them. The liberals, who are just as angry, irrational and immature as the other side, fundamentally reject and oppose any narrative by the authorities in a knee-jerk manner, and are therefore not restrained by anything whatsoever in their self-reinforcing chants.

    For how much bubbled-in the Chinese twitter-liberals are, listen to this great episode of Sinica broadcast (particularly the part starting at 19:57 about Ai Weiwei being totally oblivious that he has critics):

    http://popupchinese.com/lessons/sinica/chinas-gadflies-and-the-mine-miracle

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