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Multiple public spheres of Weibo: a typology of forms and potentials of online public spheres in China

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The advent of online media, and particularly social media, has led to scholarly debates about their implications. Authoritarian countries are interesting in this respect because social media might facilitate open and critical debates that are not possible in traditional media. China is arguably the most relevant and interesting case in this respect, because it limits the influx of non-domestic social media communication, has established its own microcosm of social media and tries to closely monitor and control it and censor problematic content. While such censorship is very effective in some instances, however, it fails to shut down all open debates completely. We analyse the pre-eminent Chinese social media platform – Sina Weibo – and present a typology of different kinds of public spheres that exist on this platform in which open and critical debates can occur under specific circumstances: Thematic public spheres include phenomena of common concern, such as environmental pollution or food safety; short-term public spheres emerge after unexpected events; encoded public spheres are deliberate attempts of users to circumvent censorship; local public spheres focus on sub-national phenomena and problems; non-domestic political public spheres exist on political topics from other countries but are often referenced back to China; mobile public spheres exist because many people use Weibo on their smartphones and also have access to deleted content there and meta public spheres are debates about censorship itself.
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Keywords: China; Weibo; censorship; public sphere; social media

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Institute of Mass Communication and Media Research, University of Zurich, Zurich, Switzerland

Publication date: February 1, 2015

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