RAPID: Misinformation and Political Unrest: An Investigation of Rumor Diffusion Online and Offline during the Ongoing 2019 Hong Kong Protests

Project: Research project

Project Details


RAPID: Misinformation and Political Unrest: An Investigation of Rumor Diffusion Online and Offline during the Ongoing 2019 Hong Kong Protests RAPID: Misinformation and Political Unrest: An Investigation of Rumor Diffusion Online and Offline during the Ongoing 2019 Hong Kong Protests Overview: This project will examine the ways in which misinformation is diffused online and offline during the ongoing 2019 Hong Kong protest, and how the spread of misinformation influences citizens attitudes and perceptions of the protest. While the protest started as a peaceful demonstration to pressure the Chinese government to withdraw the new extradition law from Hong Kong, confrontations have evolved into violent unrest. Moreover, the recent outbreak of COVID-19 has been worsening the already acidic relationship between Hong Kong protesters and Mainland China, complicating the protest situation even more. The virus-related rumors have been profuse in the collective protest narratives, reaffirming the momentous role of misinformation in catalyzing outrage, mobilization, and affective polarization. The digital environment creates a highly complex misinformation landscape that intermixes bottom-up rumors, propaganda, and fake news, as well as attempts to correct falsehoods, and exacerbates the extremity of rumors and their diffusion. This project will address the following questions: (1) How does misinformation circulating in digital space of Hong Kong differ from that of Mainland China? (2) How are the rumors about the COVID-19 outbreak, an apparently discrete crisis, interpolated into the protest narratives, and how are they differ between Hong Kong and Mainland China? (3) How do the online diffusion patterns of rumors differ from the patterns of rumor-dispelling messages? (4) How are Hong Kongers beliefs in misinformation (both about the protest and about the COVID-19) associated with their perceptions of and participations in the protests? (5) What are the differences, and similarities, between online rumors and offline rumors circulating among Hong Kongers and Mainlanders in terms of rumor message characteristics and citizens beliefs and sharing activities? Intellectual Merit: This project advances theories of social movement by adding insights into the impact of misinformation on large-scale protests. It advances theories of collective behaviors and rumor psychology in a multiplexed communication context by examining how misinformation both on- and offline co-evolves in the process of mobilization and demobilization of collective behaviors. The current Hong Kong situation offers an interesting opportunity for scholars to empirically explore how falsehoods feed, and are fed by, collective behaviors. The mixed method approach of this research will help expand knowledge by accomplishing the following: (1) Computationally analyzing digital traces, including web crawling, text matching, and topic modeling of Chinese social media posts that convey misinformation about the protest; (2) Surveying Hong Kong and Mainland citizens to understand the relationships among their belief in (and sharing of) rumors, institutional trust, and support for the protest; and (3) Comparing the nature of misinformation spread in Hong Kong and in Mainland China to understand how differently, and similarly, residents in different parts of China interpret the movement. Broader Impact: (1) Impact on democracy: Social movement is an important element of todays participatory democracy. While a digital network has been a catalyst for mobilization, it also transmits falsehoods that can distort the ideas and goals of protests. Understanding the role of misinformation during a protest contributes to identifying challenges for consensus building in contemporary communication ecology. (2) Misinformation in a global context: This study adds value in knowing how foreign governments go about using misinformation. While this project examines the 2019 Hong Kong protest, misinformation impacting collective behaviors has been witnessed globally. (3) A part of this project includes the COVID-19-related rumor propagation in China and Hong Kong to examine how the health crisis has become politicized in the context of Hong Kong protest. This aspect of the project aligns with the recent NSFs DLC (NSF 20-052) that promotes research on COVID-19. (4) Journalism training: The PI is affiliated with a journalism school, and this research will have immediate impact on training of future journalists in terms of how to deal with news about political unrests. (4) Dissemination of outcomes: As an active member of academic and journalism communities, the PI is committed to disseminate the outcomes to these communities, as well as to the public.
Effective start/end date4/1/209/30/22


  • National Science Foundation (NSF): $74,000.00


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