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“Positive Energy” and Chinese perceptions of COVID-19 info on social media

News organizations such as The New York Times and the BBC have recently covered the role of the Chinese government in closely managing information related to the COVID-19 pandemic, including the arrest of Chinese journalists who produced information that was in opposition to official narratives and the details of thousands of secret government directives related to managing public perceptions that were acquired by The Times and ProPublica. But direct censorship is only one of the forces shaping the information environment in China.

A new paper looks at the concept of “positive energy”, (正能量), a notion that has seen broad adoption in Chinese political discourse on social media that refers to the phenomenon in which social media users have “internalized the interests of the state as their own good”, influencing the way they understand and share information related to events such as the pandemic.

Led by Zhicong Lu, a computer scientist at City University of Hong Kong, a team of researchers conducted a qualitative review of “semi-structured interviews with 33 Chinese citizens located in rural or urban mainland China between February and May 2020.” The interviewees all utilized a diverse range of information sources, but most regarded “positive energy” content as desirable- even necessary- during the pandemic.

Some key findings include:

  • Interviewees indicated trust in Chinese media. “Interviewees’ generally indicated trust in domestic media, and thus did not seek out domestic COVID-19 information from foreign media.”
  • “Positive energy” content was embraced due to its perceived benefits to the individual and to society. Corresponding to content and discussion “relevant to positive emotions, including cohesion, love, care, social responsibility, pride for one’s country, and so on,” and all the interviewees used terms such as “positive energy” and “negative energy” when referring to their engagement with information related to COVID-19.
  • Valence is more important than veracity. Interviewees were less concerned about the veracity of “positive energy” content than about its potential rewards to society. “For information with ‘positive energy’, no matter if it is true or false, I think it should be allowed to be spread online. It will not have a negative impact on society,” said one respondent.
  • Interviewees distinguished between official media and social media, which they regard as more of a source of “negative energy”: “I followed many WeChat public accounts, for example, local life related. They all began to share COVID-19 information since its outbreak. A lot of articles are very emotional and lacking evidence … They sometimes share articles with ‘negative energy’ to drive traffic.”
  • Those who had more access to foreign media and interest in international affairs were more critical of “positive energy” content. Indeed, some shared concerns about Chinese nationalism and the behavior of extreme nationalists known as “War Wolves” who use VPNs to go on social media platforms blocked in China to “troll users who have anti-China opinions.” “The Ministry of Foreign Affairs even supports them,” said one respondent.
  • The majority of interviewees “exhibited pro-censorship attitudes.” Comments from the interviews suggest general agreement “that censorship affected the spread of information and helped maintain ‘positive energy’, thus contributing to social stability and efficiency in communication.”
  • Some interviewees regard censorship as necessary to preserve a healthy information ecosystem. “Without censorship, it would be harder for the public to know which information is true, while getting reliable information is particular important in such public health crisis.”

“No one is wearing a mask on the street. People in other countries refused to cooperate with the government. They always want ‘freedom’. I think the Chinese are doing better than them as we know how to follow [the] government’s lead.”

-Rural Chinese kindergarten teacher

The authors argue that “the use of ‘positive energy’ as a propaganda discourse tool should be considered to be a strategic information operation,” and distinguish it from other phenomena such as astroturfing because it relies on turning audiences into “unwitting agents”, i.e., “actors whose views are shaped by [the] information operation and who unwittingly support the generation and transmission of the operation’s preferred narratives.”

This qualitative study supports the idea that citizen attitudes to the information ecosystem in China are markedly different than in the West, and should inform future studies on the relationship to censorship, the state, and citizen or social media, particularly during a crisis.

Zhicong Lu, Yue Jiang, Chenxinran Shen, Margaret Jack, Daniel Wigdor, and Mor Naaman. 2021. “Positive Energy”: Perceptions and Attitudes Towards COVID-19 Information on Social Media in China. Proc. ACM Hum.-Comput. Interact. 5, CSCW, Article 177 (April 2021), 25 pages.

(Disclosure: Justin Hendrix collaborates with one of the authors of this paper, Mor Naaman, on a course jointly taught at Cornell Tech and NYU.)