Econometrics & Applied Economics Seminar - Yanhui Wu (University of Southern California)

Room 605, Level 6, FBE Building, 111 Barry Street, Carlton

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Title: Social Media, Information Networks, and Protests in China

Abstract: 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 on Sina Weibo--the Chinese equivalent to Twitter-- during 2009-2013 with detailed information on thousands of protests and strikes during 2006-2016. Using retweets by users in one city of blogposts from users in other cities, we construct a network of social media information flow across cities. The rapid network expansion generates time-series variation in these information flows that we use to identify causal effects. In particular, we develop a novel difference-in-difference methodology to estimate the impact of network interactions. We find that information diffusion over the social media network has a sizeable and significant effect on the spread of both protests and strikes. The spread of events caused by information flow over social media is fast and predominantly local -- between events within the same category (e.g., province, 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 by showing that in the attempt of using social media for surveillance and preempting anti-regime collective action, autocratic governments face the risk of triggering widespread protests.