13 June 2022

ThinkChina Analysis: Leading with Hearts and Mind: Emotion Contagion in China's Online Activism

Who are the prominent actors leading the diffusion of emotional messages in China’s online activism? What roles do they play in this process in an emotion-discouraging context?

In this exploratory study, Nian Lu, Department of Advertising, School of Culture and Communication, Capital University of Economics and Business, Beijing and Jun Liu, Department of Communication, University of Copenhagen, examine networked patterns of anger diffusion within the Red-Yellow-Blue kindergarten child abuse scandal on the Chinese social media Weibo. Using supervised machine learning for emotion labeling and a social network analysis approach, we identify three types of actors and profiled their distinctive roles in the process of anger contagion. Broadcasters act as both an information source and a legitimate source to elicit other users’ emotion through emotion-free information.

Furthermore, emotion initiators like celebrities instigate and lead other users’ emotions, while emotion brokers like microcelebrities build bridges between different subgroups to form a massive-scale network of emotion contagion. These actors complement each other for emotion contagion in China. We conclude by discussing the implications of our findings on the understanding of emotion diffusion in online activism.

Key Takeaways

  • Three types of key actors exert divergent influence on emotion contagion on Chinese social media platforms: broadcaster, emotion initiator, and emotion broker.
  • Broadcasters are news organizations and news-aggregating platforms who facilitate emotion-free posts like news coverage.
  • Celebrities play the role of ‘emotion initiator’ in the process of anger contagion.
  • Micro-celebrities are ‘emotion brokers’ who are central in bridging different subgroups through emotional expressions in the contagion network.
  • The key actors entail distinctive yet essential roles and complement each other in the process of emotion contagion.


Keywords: China, online activism, emotion contagion.

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