Social Media and Protests in China

This paper studies whether the explosive growth of social media in China affects the spread and incidence of protests. We combine a unique dataset of 13.2 billion microblog posts published during 2009-2013 with detailed information on thousands of protests and strikes during 2006-2017. We use retweets to measure the network of social media information flows across cities, and estimate the effects of this rapidly expanding network. Despite the strict media control in China and the lack of information for explicit coordination, we find that the social media network has a sizeable and significant effect on the spread of both protests and strikes. The spread of events over social media is fast and predominantly local –between events within the same category (e.g., cause and industry); event spread across categories is still significant, albeit weaker. Furthermore, we find that social media networks increase the incidence of protests and strikes. These findings shed light on the recent debate regarding the political role of social media in autocracies.
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