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Social media likes or shares may make local regulators 40 per cent more likely to respond and 65 per cent more likely to conduct an on-site investigation, recently published study indicates. Photo: EPA-EFE

Chinese social media offers powerful tool against pollution, US-led study finds

  • Popular posts highlighting environmental transgressions can help cut such violations by more than 60 per cent, eight-month research indicates
  • Social media is the new ‘public street’ for civic action, according to co-author of study led by University of Chicago
China may have significantly tightened internet controls over the past decade, but social media is still a powerful tool to publicise environmental concerns and hold regulators to account, a new US-led study shows.
The study, led by researchers at the University of Chicago, found social media posts reporting environmental pollution and seeking regulatory enforcement in China helped cut such violations by as much as 62 per cent.

The impact was much less significant in the case of private appeals, such as calling a government hotline, or contacting government officials or the polluting entities.

Environmental violations in such cases fell by only 24 per cent, even when the complaints had the same content as the public appeals, the researchers found.


Chinese activist who spent decades protecting Dianchi Lake finally sees polluters named and shamed

Chinese activist who spent decades protecting Dianchi Lake finally sees polluters named and shamed

The study, which has yet to be peer reviewed, was published on the website of the US non-profit National Bureau of Economic Research earlier this month. It was co-funded by the National Science Foundation of China and the University of Chicago’s Energy Policy Institute.

“We found that social media is the new ‘public street’, galvanising momentum for change in much the same way as a protest or march, and the more popular the social posts are, the more effective they are in generating action from the government,” University of Chicago professor and study co-author Michael Greenstone said.

“More specifically, [the study] demonstrates that providing the public with information about individual polluters’ emissions can lead to pollution reduction.”

The Chinese internet is one of the most tightly monitored in the world, where censors may delete posts, suspend accounts or even block search terms in the interests of social order. However, a lighter touch was evident on issues related to the environment or climate change.

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The study by Greenstone and his team involved an eight-month China-wide field experiment that aimed to evaluate the impact of public and private citizens’ appeals against polluters.

The team followed data on the Continuous Emissions Monitoring System (CEMS), launched by the central government’s environmental authority in 2004, and filed appeals against firms that violated emissions standards.

The CEMS monitors both water and air pollutants but the data was only shared internally with the government and the monitored firms until 2013. As of that year, each provincial and prefectural environment bureau has been required to set up its own CEMS and release hourly data to the public on every monitored plant.

The CEMS network handles hourly emissions data for about 25,000 major polluting plants across China, responsible for more than 75 per cent of the country’s total industrial emissions, according to the study.


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Beijing hit by thick smog as it struggles to improve air quality for ‘green’ Winter Olympics

However, despite the increased transparency, environmental compliance remains low, with more than 33 per cent of the CEMS firms guilty of pollution violations in 2019.

The study sought to determine if public participation could improve environmental governance.

The researchers randomly assigned CEMS firms to either a control group or one of several “experiment” groups, and recruited citizen volunteers to file public or private appeals against pollution standard violators.

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Although both kinds of appeals were able to reduce instances of violation, the outcome of public appeals on social media was markedly better, the study found.

It further showed that increasing the visibility of social media appeals, such as “liking” or “sharing” posts on Weibo, a Chinese microblogging site akin to Twitter, prompted local regulators to be 40 per cent more likely to respond and 65 per cent more likely to conduct an on-site investigation.

The study also found official action following public appeals helped sulphur dioxide emissions to decline by 12 per cent and water pollution indicators to drop by nearly 4 per cent, compared to firms assigned to the control group – which made no appeal at all.

The paper highlights how citizens can use social media to hold governments accountable in terms of policy enforcement, the researchers said, calling it the first experimental study of its kind.

“Our study provides the first experimental evidence that this type of citizen engagement can be very effective in a context like China, showing the government does feel a great sense of accountability to its people,” said He Guojun, another co-author and associate professor at the University of Hong Kong.