Does society under authoritarian rule believe in the information provided by autocrats? I approach this question by examining the responses of residents in Kunming, a city in southwest China, to information provided by the government regarding a terrorist attack on the city’s railway station in 2014. I find that these responses show an attitude of skepticism and reservation—distrust rather than trust—in the autocrats’ information, even though, superficially, it sounds helpful and reassuring. Distrust is indicated not only through opinion but, more convincingly, in residents’ behavior of avoiding the railway station even as autocrats and Party functionaries repeated their reassuring stories.
My study, which is based on a unique dataset from social media and geo-tagged smartphones, shows happenings immediately before and after the attack – that is, in real time rather than retroactively, as it would be were I to use standard survey-and-interview techniques. Theoretically, I postulate that in authoritarian societies, people are likely to distrust autocrats’ information when it is loud and univocal, even in a crisis when, in the midst of uncertainty and impending chaos, a clear and authoritative voice might seem called for. ABOUT THE SPEAKER Charles Chang is the Postdoctoral Fellow in Chinese Studies at Stanford University. Before Stanford, he has earned his Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2016. His research focuses on the political communication in contemporary China. With the rise of the internet, smartphones, and social media, social science is becoming increasingly computational and often involves the collection and analysis of massive data. This computational trend is reflected in his dissertation. For him, one purpose of such an approach is to understand how Chinese internet users, who number more than 700 million, respond to an unprecedented political event, namely, the most recent anticorruption campaign. His analysis follows two paths. One path makes possible the identification of urban land use at a community level. Mapping the distribution of netizens onto different communities allows him to gain more precise knowledge of their social status, means of communication, and social behavior. A second analytical path complements the first and takes us further into precise knowledge by graphing, following each official news announcement, human interaction at a micro-spatial granularity as well as temporality, from day to day and even moment to moment. His novel approach uses massive social-media data. He intends to apply to other socio-political issues in his dissertation book. Its merit lies in that it offers a departure from and a check on the more common sampling, "snapshot" approach in the social sciences.
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