By Huong Cao, George Mason University

D.C.-based Social Driver’s co-founder and chief strategy officer Anthony Shop, who was awarded an Eisenhower Fellowship to study digital and social media trends in China, shared his first-hand observations with marketers, communicators and China watchers on Sept. 12 at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.

In a lecture titled “China: Digital Revolution or Revolutionizing Digital?”, Shop discussed the impact of the digital revolution on China and what we can learn from it, by sharing stories of China’s Great Wall and The Silk Road, which are two familiar, well-known images of China. According to Shop, the story of modern or future China can also be viewed through the lens of a wall and a road: The Great Firewall of China and One Belt, One Road Initiative, respectively.

The Great Firewall of China, which can be an impolite term in the country, represents the tool the Chinese government, which strongly advocates for Internet governance, uses to regulate the Internet domestically and to prevent Chinese citizens from accessing some foreign websites. The One Belt, One Road Initiative is China’s modern-day version of The Silk Road, or can be seen as an ambitious branding campaign that the leadership of China has greatly invested in to extend the country’s economic and cultural influence. These are two important factors that make the digital landscape in China more complex and underline major differences between the American and Chinese digital landscapes.

The first major difference, noted Shop, was media centralization. He brought up CCTV, which is China Central Television, as a symbol of the centralization of information and power in the Communist Party, which provides guidelines based on socialist values. To illustrate, Chinese newspapers promote the One Belt, One Road Initiative with ads, and the Communist Party’s slogan and information are displayed through out-of-home advertising. China’s media landscape is greatly shaped by this centralization, which also means that there is little direct communication between policymakers and the public, such as what we have here in the U.S. on social media. In addition, there is little to no government regulation of paid sponsors, while government regulation of content is enforced by technology platforms. China also has the “50-Cent Party”, which is an informal term for paid Internet commentators, who are responsible for monitoring public opinion to the benefit of the Communist Party.

In addition to “50-Cent Party”, Shop also discussed other Chinese terms regarding the use of influencer engagement — a tactic in China’s and U.S’ converging media. He said that those we consider as influencers are called “key opinion leaders” (KOLs) in China. Influencers or KOLs are whom brands want to share their messages with, as they can convey brand messages to the audiences they have built. As we live in a world of converging media, Shop suggested making people the center of what they do, rather than their brands. In addition, “We Media” is a Chinese term for what we call “bloggers” or “Youtube stars”. “We Media” represents the idea that someone else, not an authorized centrally controlled media organization, fills an audience and gets to distribute his or her content — which can be seen as a threat to traditional media in both U.S. and China.

Shop shared that one of the misconceptions before coming to China as a Fellow was the assumption that China platforms like Weibo and WeChat were parallels to Twitter and Facebook. In reality, he said, social media apps in China are very different. While Facebook is a single-use mobile app used as a tool to connect people, WeChat can serve multiple purposes, including in-store payments, online shopping, transportation and much more.

Shop’s lecture presented the audiences with interesting views about China’s social media landscape. But, moreover, he also provided practical lessons by highlighting the rise of influencers and the necessity of content moderation — which raises an important but controversial question in our current media environment: Who would take on the responsibility of monitoring content: Our government, Facebook or us — social media users?

(Shop will be doing a a similar presentation for PRSA-NCC  on October 25 and you can register here. )

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