How the Authoritarian Government Delivers Messages Through Social Media During the COVID-19 Crisis Open Access

Cheng, Xinyan (Spring 2021)

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During times of public crises, governments must act swiftly to deliver crisis messages effectively to the public; failure to do so will undermine government approval and regime legitimacy. What kind of content does an authoritarian country like to communicate with citizens during a crisis? What are the effects of its strategic messaging behavior? This thesis systematically investigates the Chinese government’s communication approaches during the COVID-19 pandemic. It argues that when the domestic crisis is severe, the government will use the international benchmarking strategy to mitigate public discontent of the regime by issuing more negative information about foreign governments. Additionally, this study argues that negative reporting on foreign governments will promote a higher level of citizen engagement than positive information about foreign governments. The thesis uses data from the official account of People’s Daily – the most authoritative newspaper in China – on Sina Weibo – the most popular microblogging portal in China. By collecting and hand-coding 9,824 social media posts of People’s Daily, this study finds that when the government performance looks worse, the proportion of negative foreign information increases, but the result is not statistically significant. Surprisingly, the findings show that citizens engage more actively with positive international information rather than negative one. While this paper does not lend substantial support to the international benchmarking theory, these results contribute considerably to political communication and international knowledge in authoritarian regimes as well as shed new light on the authoritarian government’s ability to influence public opinion through social media. 

Table of Contents

Introduction 1

Background on the Development of Social Media in China 6

Literature Review 9

Strategies for Authoritarian Governments to Manage Public Opinion 9

Theoretical Framework 13

Manipulating the Beliefs of Government Performance 13

Citizen Engagement With the International Benchmarking Strategy 16

Data: Posts From People’s Daily 20

Posts in General 20

Posts About Covid-19 24

Testing H1: the Government’s Strategy 32

Model 32

Variables 32

Results for H1 42

Testing H2: Citizen Engagement 44

Model 44

Variables 45

Results for H2 49

Robustness Checks and Alternative Explanations 50

Additional Observations 55

Discussion 57

Future Research 60

Conclusion 62

Appendix (I) Social Media Posts Not About COVID-19 66

Appendix (II) Word Cloud of Weibo Posts About Foreign Governments 67

References 69

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