Privacy cynicism and diminishing utility of state surveillance: A natural experiment of mandatory location disclosure on China's Weibo

Yuner Zhu*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalJournal articlepeer-review

Abstract

This article examines the public response to mandatory location disclosure (MLD), a new surveillance technology implemented on China's Sina Weibo. Initially introduced to geo-tag posts related to the Ukraine War, the MLD eventually expanded to encompass all posts and comments on the platform. Drawing on a large-scale dataset comprising over 0.6 million posts and 24 million comments, this study uncovers political asymmetry observed during the initial implementation of MLD. Users with different political orientations were subjected to different levels of geo-tagging. Pro-Ukraine users were most frequently geo-tagged, followed by Pro-Russia and liberal-leaning users, while conservative-leaning users are least likely to be tagged. This selective surveillance approach, however, backfired among Pro-Ukraine and Pro-Russia users, pushing them to publish more war-related content, while its impact on liberal- and conservative-leaning users appeared to be minimal. When selective surveillance was replaced by universal surveillance, the backfire effects ceased to exist and people's interest in war-related topics declined. Furthermore, privacy cynicism prevails among commenters across opinion groups. Neither the introduction nor the expansion of MLD deterred audiences from engaging with the geo-tagged posts. These findings suggest that prolonged surveillance makes people less sensitive to privacy threats and more experienced in neutralizing surveillance's influence on themselves. Privacy cynicism, though widely considered toxic to democracy, can function as a source of resilience that shields people from the fear of coercion and undercuts the marginal utility of state surveillance in an authoritarian context.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-17
Number of pages17
JournalBig Data and Society
Volume11
Issue number2
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - Apr 2024

Scopus Subject Areas

  • Information Systems and Management
  • Information Systems
  • Communication
  • Library and Information Sciences
  • Computer Science Applications

User-Defined Keywords

  • Chinese social media
  • Privacy cynicism
  • authoritarian rule
  • civil resilience
  • geolocation
  • state surveillance

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