How Propaganda Moderates the Influence of Opinion Leaders on Social Media in China
Social media provide a free space for opinion leaders (OPLs) to influence public opinion in contemporary China, where OPLs need to compete with the powerful propaganda machine. So how much influence can OPLs exert on the public under the shadow of authoritarianism? A survey experiment of 1,326 Internet users in Beijing found that OPLs guide respondents’ policy opinions and encourage information sharing when the OPLs are not perceived to be a part of the propaganda campaign. However, when audiences believe that OPLs are the agents of propaganda, such effects disappear. The results reveal that the OPLs’ effects are conditioned by the authoritarian institutional context in which the public discussion takes place. We conclude that such effects have ambiguous consequences in cultivating critical citizens.