Students and Faculty Present Research at Big Data Conference in China

Doctoral students from Annenberg, led by Professor Sandra González-Bailón, joined other students and faculty at the recent international workshop “Big Data and Modeling Methods in Communication Research”, hosted by the School of Journalism and Communication of Renmin University.

Annenberg doctoral students Jiaying Liu, Jingwen Zhang, Sijia Yang, and Bo Mai all presented their research to the audience of 100-plus students and scholars from institutions including the Qatar Computing Research Institute; Wolverhampton University, University of Oxford, Renmin University, Peking University, the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and Microsoft Asia.

In addition to students and faculty presentations, activities included a visit to Chinese online media company Tencent, and a visit to Chinese online search engine company Baidu, giving participants a look at two of the most prominent organizations shaping the Chinese web today.

Presentation titles and abstracts by Annenberg students follow.

Web Tracking with “Chinese Characteristics" A Critical Perspective on the Emerging Online Surveillance Market in China

Presented by Bo Mai on behalf of himself and co-researcher Tim Libert.

Abstract: Though many used to predict that the marketization of the Internet in China would undermine the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and facilitate the process of democratization, one of the most mind-bending puzzles for China observers is that CCP still rules while the Internet blooms. Some attribute this seemingly beguiling equilibrium to Chinese government's ability to orchestrate highly effective Internet censorship on one hand, and Chinese Internet Services Providers (ISPs)'s inability to challenge the surveillance scheme on the other. Current trends cast doubt on this argument. Internet companies in China have localized web-tracking technologies and perfected surveillance as a business model, resulting in what we call "web tracking with Chinese characteristics". In order to determine the nature of these unique characteristics, we have empirically examined the current development of the web surveillance market in China by analyzing the presence of web tracking technologies on the most popular Chinese and US websites. Our findings indicate that while there is actually more surveillance in the US, Chinese companies are implementing the same technologies and strategies as their Western counterparts. Another focus of our study is the role of Chinese government in the emerging surveillance market. Relying on a database of government procurement records, we were able to identify corporations who supply web surveillance services to government agencies. These findings show that market forces have accelerated both commercial and political surveillance in China. We conclude with a discussion on the significance of our discoveries as well as proposals for future areas of research.


SuA Social Media Intervention to Increase Physical Activity

Presented by Sijia Yang and Jingwen Zhang on behalf of their co-researchers Damon Centola, Ph.D.; Devon Brackbill

Abstract: Sedentary lifestyle is an escalating national and global epidemic that has commanded increasing attention from health care professionals and social scientists. Paradoxically, the advent of the Internet and social media may be both an explanatory factor in this epidemic, and a potential solution. The use of the Internet and social media has become an increasingly common sedentary behavior particularly among young adults. Meanwhile, the combination of two core functionalities, broadcasting informational motivational messages and providing social influence, makes social media a promising intervention platform to increase physical activity. Although a large number of health providers and entrepreneurs have attempted to use social media as a strategic tool to promote health and fitness, previous interventions have been inconclusive regarding both the actual effects and the theoretical explanation. To this end, we used a randomized controlled experiment design to study the independent effects of informational motivational messages, and online social networks on participant engagement in a university-based fitness improvement program. The program consisted in semester-long series of workshops offered through the University Department of Recreation and Health Services. We built an online infrastructure for the program and randomly assigned participants to three experiment conditions that test the effects of broadcasting informational motivational messages and providing social influence through reporting other participants’ activities in local networks on actual workshop enrollment and attendance over 12 weeks. The results show that messages and social influence significantly improved levels of physical activity, with the strongest effects from social influence.


A Cross-Cultural Network Analysis of Electronic Cigarettes Information Diffusion on Social Media

Presented by Jiaying Liu

Abstract: The rapid proliferation of social media and their mobile-based applications in recent years is changing the traditional communication landscape by opening up rich opportunities for mediated interpersonal interactions and transforming the dynamics of information diffusion. However, the social media do not operate in a vacuum. As Burt (1987) has noted, the patterns of social communication are inextricably linked to the social network structure of the group, which matter greatly in influencing whether a novel piece of information makes full or partial penetration, at what speed and through which paths or crucial intermediaries. Among all the influential factors that might impact the information diffusion network structure, cultural characteristics have been largely under explored. Culture pervades almost every aspect of human existence, imperceptibly shapes individuals’ values, preferences, norms, hunches, traditions and provides the grounds for interpersonal interactions.

This project is based upon the traditions of diffusion research (Katz & Lazarsfeld, 1955; Katz, 1999; Rogers, 1962, 2004; Watts, 1999) and inspired by Hofstede's (1980, 1991) well-accepted multidimensional approach to culture. I propose to investigate the impact of cultural difference on network structures by examining diffusion patterns of novel health messages about electronic cigarettes on parallel social media platforms (Weibo vs. Twitter) comparatively across nations (China vs. US). I expect to see distinct network structures as predicted by the cultural differences between the two prototypic nations each representing Eastern and Western cultures, and different message diffusion patterns as predicted by the structural properties and parameters. The study will also shed light on identifying influencers who might be able to initiate information cascades under different cultural contexts.