Hong Kong Baptist University (HKBU) Research Cluster on Data Analytics and Artificial Intelligence in X

The Making and Unmaking of the Public Sphere: Outcomes of Political Disagreement, Expression Avoidance, and a Filtered Information Repertoire
Principal Investigatgor: Dr. Xinzhi Zhang ( Department of Journalism )

This project examines the extent to which social media use contributes to an informed, tolerant, and active citizenship in a media-saturated but politically polarized and fragmenting society. While the "logic of connective action" (Bennett & Segerberg 2012, p. 739) states the political implications of social media, several disconnective actions have emerged when people experience political disagreement, such as cutting off political discussion, masking their political viewpoints, or even terminating relationships (Wells et al., 2017). While digital media technologies enable people to select an information repertoire, i.e., online sources or connections from which they communicate political information (Wolfsfeld, Yarchi, & Samuel-Azran, 2016), they also create echo chambers, where like-minded people are clustering and non-like-minded people are detached. It jeopardizes a cornerstone of societal well-being and the civic culture (Almond & Verba, 1963), undermining the ability of people to communicate with people holding different viewpoints and to be aware of the rationales and arguments of others (Habermas, 1989).

This project will explain how people respond to political disagreement, such as by remaining silent, or by filtering their connections on social media, and how these online behaviors facilitate or undermine political engagement. The project starts from reviewing literature on reactions to political disagreement (Barnidge, 2017; Mutz, 2002). Then it elaborates two types of politically motivated online behaviors, namely, 1) opinion expression avoidance strategies (Hayes, 2007) and 2) information repertoire filtration (John & Dvir-Gvirsman, 2015). The project will investigate the outcomes of these processes through indicators of an informed, tolerant, and active citizenship: 1) political knowledge, 2) political polarization, and 3) political participation.

Focusing on Hong Kong, this project plans to conduct focus group interviews to understand why and how disagreement-evoked expression avoidance strategies and information repertoire manipulation are taking place. A two-wave panel survey based on representative samples will be implemented. The project aims to understand how digital media nurture a diverse public sphere, with a more open, egalitarian, reasoned, and rational discourse of deliberation (Habermas, 1989). It aims to make conceptual generalizations to other media- saturated and politically polarizing and fragmenting societies.


  • To examine the interplay between political disagreement on social media and different dimensions of political engagement in a politically-divided city-state;
  • To elaborate and explain people’s disagreement-evoked communication practices on social media, i.e., adopting opinion expression avoidance strategies and filtering information repertoires;
  • To illuminate whether these disagreement-evoked communication practices influence political knowledge, political polarization, and political participation;
  • To advance knowledge on the framework of the spiral of silence, political homophily, and to validate and clarify the contradictory findings of the political implications of digital media technologies;
  • To offer a better understanding of the extent to which using social media may or may not contribute to an informed, tolerant, and active citizenship in the context of Hong Kong, and make conceptual generalizations to other societies in the world, which are media- saturated but politically polarized and fragmenting.

Grant Support:

This project is supported by the Research Grants Council (RGC), Hong Kong SAR, China (Project 12609319).

For further information on this research topic, please contact Dr. Xinzhi Zhang.