Ideological Conflict and Internet Regulation on Online Platforms

Han, Xintong | $16,272

Quebec Concordia University 2021 SSHRC

Online social media platforms provide a battleground for propaganda and allow supporters of different political ideologies to increase the impact of their ideas and their fights with each other. Despite the growing theoretical and empirical literature on online conflict and ideological polarization, we know little about the impact of economic policies on online ideological clashes. In a recent study, Han and Hu (2020) used unique data from Facebook’s Hong Kong media to study the online conflict between Chinese and Western ideologies. In this proposal, we hope to explore the following two questions with updated data: 1) Quantifying the chilling effect associated with tighter government controls. 2) Evaluating the impact of Covid-19 on online ideological clashes.

Our data includes news reports and comments from mainstream media in Hong Kong on Facebook during 2019~2020. Several features of our setting enable our studies. First, as the protests calling for Hong Kong’s democratic autonomy grew since 2019, which makes the ideological conflict among Hong Kong citizens more and more serious. Second, during our data period, two important events occurred: 1) the Covid-19 became a global outbreak in March 2020, and the Hong Kong government has adopted a strict lockdown policy. 2) the Standing Committee of China’s National People’s Congress approved the Hong Kong National Security Law, which allows police to conduct censorship and secret digital surveillance. These events provide a natural way to experiment on the online platform to evaluate policy and regulation’s influence on the online ideological clashes.

Our study will be original and unique. It will contribute to the literature of network governance in economics, law, and politics. The results will put forward important policy suggestions on ideological conflicts and Internet legislation. I will briefly introduce the two issues involved in our project.

First, the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020 led many people to spend more time online. On March 24, 2020 Facebook announced that in many of the countries most affected by the virus, total messaging had increased by more than 50%. It is of great practical significance to study the impact of the epidemic on the online ideological clashes. On the one hand, the aggravation of the epidemic would increase people’s anxiety and lead to more negative comments, making ideological clashes more intensified. On the other hand, the epidemic would also divert people’s attention from the political aspect to the health and weaken the ideological clashes between pro-Beijing and pro-democracy netizens. Our study will help to understand which effect plays a dominant role and further explore the specific impact of the government’s epidemic prevention policies on the ideological clashes.

Second, as the New York Times reported on July 7, 2020, “As the city (Hong Kong) grapples with new restrictions on online speech, American tech giants are on the front line of a clash between China and the United States over the internet’s future.” The National Security Law passed on June 30, 2020, allows the government to regulate the Internet more severely, and Hong Kong netizens may even be convicted of speaking out. Potential protestors may be less vocal about opposing the government and expressing their demand for democratic autonomy because of the regulation. In contrast, pro-Beijing netizens may be more active in expressing their opinions online. Will the law intimidate online speech and affect ideological expression? Our study will provide valuable empirical support for the growing literature on network governance and the digital economy.

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