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Sunday, September 28 • 11:01 - 11:20
"The Risk Society in the Social Media Age: The PM2.5 Case, Twitter, and the Public Sphere"

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Background: PM2.5 is a measurement for Air Quality Index (AQI) that the U.S. embassy in Beijing has been monitoring and been releasing through its Twitter account @BeijingAir since August 2008 (Anonymous, 2014). When the AQI data posted by the U.S embassy reached Chinese citizens, it generated risk consciousness of PM2.5 among the public and intensified disputations over the measurement and assessment of PM2.5. Before 2012, China used PM10 to measure air quality which did not show much air pollution. The Chinese government criticized the embassy’s PM2.5 program as “confusing”, and “insulting”. But The U.S. State Department denied the accusation and continued releasing the data (Congressional-Executive Commission on China, 2012). These disputations has attracted great domestic and international media attention and fueled online discussion in and beyond the Chinese Internet sphere, including the Twittersphere.

Objective: This study integrates Ulrich Beck’s risk society theory with digital media theories to examine the process of risk definition and assessment of PM2.5 and its consequences in China in the social media age. Risk is manufactured as a predominant product of modern societies, involving human agency in its production, distribution, and management (Beck 1992). The process of defining risk is "a power game" of individuals and organizations; those who have more capacity to contest in the public sphere have greater opportunity to define risk (Beck, 2006). Fitzgerald further argues that “the framing efforts of various institutional actors” co-construct the public perception of risk (2010, p.367). In this context, media can play a critical role in the risk society (Beck, 1992). Media provides a bridge between the public and experts, serving as the risk receptor and interpreter for citizens. Media can set the agenda, making a potential risk a public issue and facilitating "risk consciousness"(Beck, 1992, p.53).

Using Twitter API, the study collected tweets with the keyword "PM2.5" from June 5th to June 10th, 2012, the time period in which the Chinese and the U.S. officials quarreled over the U.S. embassy’s PM2.5 program. The dataset contained 1151 twitter accounts and 2051 tweets. 

This study focuses on two sets of questions. First, who are the institutional and individual actors involved in the PM2.5 case? What roles do they play in the PM2.5 case? Who are the definition-givers, the agenda setters, and the opinion leaders? Second, what is the network structure among the actors competing and contending in and beyond the Twitter public sphere? Who are the bridges connecting otherwise unconnected groups? In what ways are actor attributes (language, geographic location, identity, ideology, power status, and other social markers), text (framing, emotion, and cognition features of tweets), and network properties (actors’ network size and position such as brokerage and centrality) related to being mentioned, retweeted, or replied to in the Twittersphere?

Methods: We will apply content analysis to the code actor attributes and use the text analysis software, Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count (LIWC), to capture the emotional and cognitive aspects of tweets and media coverage, to better understand the actors’ competition in defining and interpreting risk in the public sphere. Network analysis will be conducted by UCINet and Exponential random graph models (ERGMs).

Anonymous (2014). Top banana: WSJ’s Chinese readers liked Gary Locke. China Real Time. Retrieved from website: http://blogs.wsj.com/chinarealtime/2014/03/04/wsjs-chinese-readers-give-gary-locke-high-marks/

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Congressional-Executive Commission on China, (2012).State monopoly of environmental quality monitoring and reporting: State secrets and environmental protection. Retrieved from website: http://www.cecc.gov/publications/commission-analysis/state-monopoly-of-environmental-quality-monitoring-and-reporting

Fitzgerald, S. T., & Rubin, B. A. (2010). Risk society, media, and power: The case of nanotechnology. Sociological Spectrum30(4), 367-402.

Fitzgerald, S. T., & Rubin, B. A. (2010). Risk society, media, and power: The case of nanotechnology. Sociological Spectrum30(4), 367-402.

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Wenhong Chen

Department of Radio-Television-Film, Univeristy of Texas at Austin

Fangjing Tu

Department of Radio-Television-Film, Univeristy of Texas at Austin

Pei Zheng

School of Journalism, Univeristy of Texas at Austin

Sunday September 28, 2014 11:01 - 11:20
TRS 1-003 Ted Rogers School of Management

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