Social Media and Risk Communication: The Role of Social Networking Sites in Food-safety Communication

Date of Completion

January 2012


Health Sciences, Public Health|Mass Communications




The emergence of new media, especially social media, has altered the way people access risk information in such a way that they typically do not need to solely rely on the government or traditional media as their primary information source during a national crisis. More importantly, the technical features of user-generated content allow average people to have a say in public affairs. This new open-access information environment, which coexists with traditional media and other new media channels, poses new questions about how risk communication is conducted in the social media era. The present study aims to examine the new risk communication pattern empowered by the emerging social media, in particular, social networking sites, in the context of food safety issues in China. Specifically, this study adopts two methodologies, a web survey and a content analysis, to address the hypotheses and research questions. Study results provide support for a model that establishes positive relationships between microblogging use, risk perception and risk-information sharing. These findings thus underscore the potential power of social media as an efficient tool of risk communication between average Chinese citizens in a media system, one that remains tightly controlled by the central government. The emergence of different subscales of social capital and social support identified by the present study suggests that these two concepts may be interpreted differently across different cultures. Implications of these findings—for citizen-bloggers, government authorities and for social change generally—are fully explored. At the current stage, microblogging sites have mainly been used as venues to vent negative attitudes and emotions regarding food safety crises. Moreover, the risk information that has been shared and spread through microblogs often may not be accurate nor come from credible sources. The study concludes that additional research is needed to help us gain a better understanding of the social capital and social support concepts across different cultural contexts. ^