Social Media Ignites Environmental Activism in China

28 Feb


During the Chinese Holiday season this year environmental activist Deng Fei posted a message to his 4 million followers on Sina Weibo (China’s version of Twitter) asking them to post a photo of the river in their home town while they were home for the holidays. The response was phenomenal; thousands posted back pictures of heavily polluted rivers and streams from across the country (Custer, 2013).  While this may not have come as a particular surprise, what is significant is that using the platform of social media it has been possible to turn a local issue into a national one, almost overnight. The outpouring of images prompted local and national news agencies to write stories on the issue which eventually led to the shaming of local governments and reportedly clean-up efforts in some areas (Hook, 2013).

Social media enables for the first time a form of two way communication on environmental issues, instead of the top down one way information from the government which did not reveal the scale or severity of environmental pollution. A good example of this is the smog which chokes many of China’s cities. Until recently in Beijing the only source of public information about harmful toxins in the air came from the readings posted regularly by the Unites States Embassy (Hook, 2013). Following immense public pressure, exerted through social media, the government started posting its own readings; although these are significantly lower than the US embassy readings.

The more open forum provided by social media sites such as Weibo has encouraged other social campaigns and projects which also make use of the technology. In some cases new platforms have been developed to address the issue of environmental degradation. One such example is the “Take a picture to locate a polluter” campaign launched by the non-profit Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs (IPEA). The IPEA takes user uploaded pictures and data from Weibo and uses it to construct an interactive map showing the names and locations of sources of pollution nationwide (Stout, 2013).

Custer, C. 2013 – Tech in Asia: Deng Fei Launches Weibo Campaign to Share Images of Water Pollution

Hook, L. 2013 – The Financial Times: China’s environmental activists

Stout, K. 2013 CNN: Can social media clear air over China?


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