Lies to Friends, Truths to Strangers: Preference Falsification 2.0 in Authoritarian China

The social media revolution has fundamentally altered the way that we communicate with one another. Through the push of a button, we can express emotions with such incredible amplified magnitude compared to face-to-face exchanges where feelings are often muted. By this token, political communication and the expression of sentiment vis-à-vis political authorities and events has exploded on the Internet. In authoritarian regimes like China, the media can serve both as a tool for repressing disapproval of the government as well as an opportunity to express one’s feelings. 

Haohan Chen, Postdoctoral Fellow at the Center for Study of Contemporary China at the University of Pennsylvania, analyzes netizen political behavior through what he calls “reputational sanctioning.” Essentially, under dictatorship, Chen argues that citizens are more likely to conceal their preferences from friends and express them more truthfully to strangers; those who do not know us are less likely to affect our reputation or our lives in adverse ways. To examine the likelihood of this phenomenon, he collected a dataset from Zhihu, a Chinese Q&A social media network that is third-largest in traffic. The site allows users to construct profiles and post questions and answers, but they can also answer threads as anonymous users.

Chen predicts that anonymity breeds more specific and more negative critique of the Chinese political system. That is, when one’s identity is not revealed, they are contributing to the site as if they were a stranger. This would lower the probability of reputational sanctioning that could arise from expressing one’s political preferences. Chen found significant evidence for both hypotheses, lending credence to his idea about preference falsification. Anonymous users were both more likely to mention corruption as well as specific people and places, and communicated more frequently in negative tones. The implications of this analysis demonstrate the danger of communicating one’s true preferences in a dictatorial state, showing the embedded fear in everyday exchange.

Chen’s talk today came from his job market paper. To learn more about his research, click here.

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