Recently, a documentary film called Under the Dome made by the former celebrity investigative journalist Chai Jing caused a sensation in China and in global media. A film in the style of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, Under the Dome is an impassioned exposé of the causes and consequences of air pollution. It is an urgent and bold call to action.
As Table 1 shows, within 24 hours after it was posted on video sites in China, it had been viewed over 100 million times. Spreading like wild fire, it stirred up heated debates on Chinese social media. Although the film was soon censored and deleted from Chinese web sites, it had generated broad public discussion. One might say that it had created digital publics of an unprecedented scale.
In her new book Affective Publics: Sentiment, Technology, and Politics, Zizi Papacharissi develops the interesting and rich concept “affective publics.” She defines affective publics as “networked public formations that are mobilized and connected or disconnected through expressions of sentiment.”[i] One of the five defining features of “affective publics” she analyzes is that “Affective publics are powered by affective statements of opinion, fact, or a blend of both, which in turn produce ambient, always-on feeds that further connect and pluralize expression in regimes democratic and otherwise.”[ii]
The digital publics of Under the Dome are networked affective formations of the kind analyzed by Papacharissi. They happened on Chinese social media platforms, on Weibo, WeChat, and so forth. They were powered by affective statements of opinion, fact, — indeed a thick blend of both and more. Emotions and opinions ran so high on social media in response to the film and the film maker that they quickly polarized into two large camps. One camp was highly critical of the film, pointing to its “poor science,” while the other was just as unreservedly supportive. Conspiracy theories multiplied.
Thus, multiple publics came into being. Digitally networked and affective, they pluralized, organized, and disrupted conversations (again to borrow Papacharissi’s language). Digital publics may be episodic in nature. Yet one might argue, following Michael Warner,[iii] that all publics have an episodic quality, because they are constituted through attention.
[i] Papacharissi, Zizi (2014-10-21). Affective Publics: Sentiment, Technology, and Politics (Oxford Studies in Digital Politics) (Kindle Locations 2486-2487). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.
[ii] Papacharissi, Zizi (2014-10-21). Affective Publics: Sentiment, Technology, and Politics (Oxford Studies in Digital Politics) (Kindle Locations 2562-2563). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.
[iii] Michael Warner, “Publics and Counterpublics.” Public Culture 14(1), 2002: 60.
Guobin Yang, Associate Professor of Communication and Sociology, University of Pennsylvania