Content Without Substance: Twitter and Chen Guangcheng

I just dropped off 205 pages of my doctoral thesis and want to sit on my intellectual high horse for a moment. I’ve long been an advocate of bridging the huge gap between social media and academic analysis. I think academics are losing the knowledge ‘war’ because we’re too slow, we don’t distribute our findings (and in fact lock them behind pointlessly stupid paywalls), and intentionally write in an inaccessible language. I think sledgehammers need to be taken to all three of those issues if academics want to have a seat at the table, so to speak.

The example I often use is that I did a case study of the politics and “institutional space” of NGOs working in the aftermath of the 2008 Sichuan Earthquake. It was 2012 when it finally got published. I’m not sure how useful my analysis is today. We need faster peer review and perhaps slightly lower standards to get “newsy” academic analysis out the door faster. Otherwise, we’ll always lose out to talking heads and interest groups. I don’t blame social media and the media in general for using those voices. I blame academics for not reaching out.

But I fell a little bit out of love with social media over the past two weeks, particularly Twitter. I first came to Twitter because it was hands-down the best place to get China news. And it’s interesting how the role evolved as time went on. When I started using Twitter the China-coverage boom was just kicking off as the Olympics started and there were a lot of newsworthy events occuring during the lead up (international protests, the Sichuan Earthquake, Tibet and Xinjiang riots, etc). Slowly, the coverage became overwhelming and Twitter become a filter. I read stories other people I trusted recommend. If I see two or three people repost a story I become very inclined to read it. Those who I follow on Twitter have become editors of a sort of very personal wire service. If their signal-to-noise ratio increases too high, I unfollow them.

I feel a little bit “out of love” because of the Chen Guangcheng case. Though versions differ, my version is this: Chen escaped, everyone rightly assumed he was in US embassy. US embassy says nothing. Chen says at the beginning he doesn’t want asylum, he wants a safe passage out of his situation. A lot of backroom negotiations occur at a very high level with some of the most talented diplomats in China and the US. Chen walks out of the embassy with a deal. Chen is happy with the deal. Chen, for various reasons, he gets extremely uneasy after a few hours outside the embassy and decides what he really needs is asylum. At about this time, media and social media have come to form an opinion of what happened: the US was naïve to trust the Chinese and essentially dumped Chen out in the cold. Later that same day very clear details of the deal are explained in an embassy presser and is (almost) completely ignored. The meme holds that US botched the diplomacy.

One of my friends today posted on Facebook a “brilliant analysis” of these negotiations. My response was this:

The entire analysis seems based around third-hand social media accounts the day of (to which I’m guilty). I don’t disagree with any of his points (or yours about the sudden shifts from 没问题 to 有问题 – which is why I decided after six moths to never work management in China ever again). I disagree about them being points all relevant to this case. His first point about deliverables doesn’t have a word about the actual contents of the deal. The deliverables being that Chen had a range of seven cities and law schools to relocate to with free tuition and family housing. So it’s an analysis of negotiations without a word about the specific outcomes of the negotiations, which is telling and should cause red flags to go up.

I’d read through Tom Lasseter’s transcript of the Gary Locke press conference if you haven’t. It was very explicit about details of the deal and the chronology of events ( It’s difficult for me to read and find places where I would have done things very differently. He makes clear it was Chen’s intention from day one to leave the embassy with a deal for his and his families safety. To which the embassy acquired it with what looks like great skill.

He also incorporates some now debunked rumors, like that Chen left because of threats to his family. We know now Chen left the embassy because the Chinese government moved his family out of Linyi as part of their first deliverable. The American embassy made the Chinese government make the first move. There are recordings of his phone call when he left the embassy that I heard played on NPR. Chen was excited. Six hours later he was in full panic mode.

There’s a snippet in there about “these are the same people who swore to you that he was never mistreated in the first place.” I don’t have the source readily available, but I did read that this agreement was reached with three different government bureaus (foreign ministry and two security/police) because of the local “logic” on the ground. Namely that the foreign ministry doesn’t have a lot of power and different factions can act out through different organs.

For me, my analysis of this essay sums of what I think the real lesson learned from this case was: that Twitter has killed even the 24 hour news cycle in some bad ways. We assume any details that weren’t released immediately don’t exist. We’re holding onto and writing in guesstimates instead of waiting for facts.

The guy who wrote this didn’t even bother to do some background reading because it was assumed that everything worth reading was written in those first 24 hours. And probably 90% of what *was* written was written then. Put that in context to the disagreement we had earlier was about the relative importance of initial statements. I think a few years ago they would be largely ignored. Now they’re becoming the only official statements on record when those initial articles are written. And there’s very little follow-up.

This is a great potential essay but this isn’t it. I’d love to read an informed analysis of different negotiation tactics, successes, and failures. We’re far enough away from the event that you could probably get both Chinese and American sources to speak off record candidly about what happened. But no one wants to do that story. The story today in the newspapers is only about what happens next. Is Chen going to America now or not. No one cares about what happened because we already knew what happened the day it happened, no matter how wrong we were.

Because the press and Twitterati wasn’t handed a carbon copy of the agreement memorandum the moment Chen was released, people still write more than a week later that “this beautiful bumpkin [was pushed] out into the cold” and assume that the most important diplomatic mission of the most powerful country on the planet had never “heard of risk management or decision trees.” It’s silly, really.

What I’d add is that this “brilliant analysis” couldn’t have been written had he done significant background reading. He would have been faced with the complexities and realities of what really happened – facts that don’t fit his theory. There would be no straw man meme of a “naïve embassy” to bounce off of and write those thirteen hundred words to contrast his own brilliance to. But that also, without this shallow analysis nobody would be reading him.

The more that I think about the kind of analysis I think those negotiations need, the more that I think it looks like an academic journal article. I would expect some game theory scenarios. I would expect some deep contextual background of what the possibilities are for the Chinese side to act are without them losing face and why. I would expect some historical and contemporary context and examples. In other words, something that might take a month or two to write.

And that’s something Twitter and Facebook wouldn’t take too kindly to. Twitter and Facebook are pushing a trend of minds being made in the first few hours of an event. Once made, they don’t change easily. We’ve invested in them. I was accused of “having it both ways” when I started questioning the conventional Twitterati assumptions that I bought in-to the day before. We’re getting all the wrong psychological feedbacks that promote either contrarianism on one side or groupthink on the other.

And I think back on my research in Sichuan after the earthquake. I remember how long it took me to come up with an explanatory framework that worked. I remember having to come up with a dozen different approaches just to dismiss them all. I remember the hundreds of conversations I had with people involved and people on the outside. Meeting for coffee with other people researching the same thing and bouncing ideas around.

And I think… you can’t do that in 140 characters. Framing a debate in three hundred words (writing an abstract) is often a Herculean task. And I wonder, how can something with most of the edges taken off (a proper, nuanced social science study) compete with somebody who has all the answers? Someone who “knows” before the facts have even shown themselves? Someone who ignores everything that was written after he formed his opinions? But that’s precisely the kind of content that becomes popular, praised, and re-tweeted a thousand times before the window of interest closes a few days later.


    • Trey said:

      Thanks for the kind comments.

      May 8, 2012
  1. Anthony D said:

    I hope those people who rushed out their self-congratulatory tweets read your article

    May 8, 2012

Leave a Reply