Annenberg, SAS Professor Examines Effects of Digital Media on Social Movements in China

Guobin Yang has an unquenchable interest in the effect of digital media on society and social movements.  China, Yang’s homeland, has been quick to pull the censorship trigger on media of all sorts that report events the government construes as unfavorable.

What better marriage of research and subject matter could there be?  

Yang, who holds appointments in the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication and Penn’s Sociology Department, eagerly looks forward to focusing his work on this intersection of new media, social activism and governments’ reaction, such as in China.

“Social media are an extremely important channel for citizens there to participate in the political process,” he explains.  “Paradoxically, the Internet is both empowering for the citizens and controlled by the government.  Looking forward, I want to   continue to focus on this area of research.

“Annenberg is at the cutting edge of research on communication and culture, political communication and other important areas,” he says.  “My own research in recent years comes closer and closer to the central concerns of communication.”

Yang’s connection to Penn began, though, long before he interviewed for the job. It started in 2007.

While Yang was doing research in Beijing, Monroe Price, director of Annenberg’s Center for Global Communication Studies, invited him to lecture to some Penn undergraduates who were also in Beijing. The students were researching Chinese media as part of an Annenberg summer program.  Afterwards, Price continued to involve Yang in events at Penn that were related to China and Chinese media.

“At some point, Monroe listed me as an affiliate of the center,” Yang says.  “I got to know the work of the faculty and a little bit about the students.”

In the fall of 2010, he spent a semester at Annenberg as a visiting scholar in the Scholars Program in Culture and Communication, run by Barbie Zelizer.   

“That semester I offered a graduate seminar in digital media and social transformation,” Yang explains. 

“I got to know some of the students and the faculty. It was an exciting time.  A year later, I came back for a formal job interview. My work has always been interdisciplinary,” he said, “but Penn is my first position in communications.”

Yang holds a doctorate in English literature from Beijing Foreign Studies University and another doctorate in sociology from New York University.  During the past decade, however, his work has spanned the boundaries between sociology and communication, with a growing focus on digital media activism. 

 Currently, his research on online activism takes two “slightly different directions.”  In one, he is writing a paper on governments’ perception of online activism.  “I’m looking at how government authorities and law enforcement see this phenomenon and why they think it is so threatening that they have to exercise such control over it.”

In the second, he’s studying the dynamics of online collective action that happens on China’s dominant microblogging platform known as Weibo.

“Specifically, I’m analyzing the power of narrative form in driving online activism.”

Yang has also published widely on environmental activism, civil-society developments and the Chinese Cultural Revolution.   His books include the prize-winning The Power of the Internet in China: Citizen Activism Online and the co-edited Re-Envisioning the Chinese Revolution: The Politics and Poetics of Collective Memories in Reform China.  

 Most recently he authored a chapter in a book edited by fellow Annenberg School professor Marwan M. Kraidy.  

“We share an interest in global communication research, comparative research of media in China and the Arab world,” Yang says of Kraidy.  

“The most exciting thing about my move to Penn is that it’s the perfect combination of research, teaching and intellectual trajectory,” he said.  “The intersection of digital media and social movements is one of the most important social developments in today’s world. I’ve found an ideal academic home to study it.”

* * * * *

 On YouTube, Guobin Yang talks about his book The Power of the Internet in China: Citizen Activism Online.