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Q&A with Dale Rutstein: UNICEF and Social Media in China

  • Frances Alonzo

UNICEF in China focuses on keeping child rights at the top of the national agenda. What the organization has found out is that China could be an unlikely example of how social media can be used for child rights advocacy. Since 2011, UNICEF in China has diverted all of its communication resources to its website and social media. UNICEF's Dale Rutstein spoke to VOA's Frances Alonzo about his experiences with social media in China and how discussions on child rights ripple across the country's social media communities in a way that protects the country's most precious asset: its children.

RUTSTEIN: China is one of the most microblog-obsessed countries in the world. In 2012, there were about 1.3 billion people and about 3 billion microblogs in China. And they don’t have Twitter and Facebook, they have Tencent and SINA Weibo. And they have another really new interesting platform called WeiXin (WeChat), which is like WhatsApp but if you could post sort of newsfeed and posts and photos and so on to your WhatsApp friends. The trending topics very often are children because many families in China only have one child. An organization like UNICEF begins to become very valuable for people who are online talking about children’s issues.

ALONZO: You mention in your blog campaigns to reunite “abducted” children, and there were photos of street children that were posted. Tell me about that.

RUTSTEIN: Some well-meaning non-profit organizations and academic experts thought up a campaign to connect abducted or trafficked children with their parents. The idea was to encourage the general public to post pictures of children they thought were street children or children at risk. And a lot of people were getting excited about it. But some people were a bit worried and many people in the blogosphere were saying what does UNICEF say? What does the convention on the Rights of the Child say about doing this kind of thing?

We immediately realized that with good intentions a lot of children were being put at risk because those who are looking to exploit children are looking for children who are deprived of effective parental care. If you are putting up pictures of vulnerable children, you are in effect putting up a billboard for child abusers and child exploiters.

We started posting very actively to say that photographs of vulnerable children should not be posted publicly. This is both a violation of children’s privacy and it could also invite more harm than good. You are actually putting children at greater risk. Some of the people who were promoting this campaign were offended. But in the end, the blogosphere weighed in and rallied to the point of view that we were putting forth which is really informed by the Convention on the Rights of the Child; the whole idea that sharing the identity of vulnerable children and children who have been abused is [violating] a fundamental principal of protecting children. You don’t broadcast those things.

ALONZO: How many followers does UNICEF China have now?

RUTSTEIN: We are active in three social media platforms. The first is what’s called SINA Weibo, and we have about 250,000 followers there. And then there is another microblog which is called Tencent Weibo. And there we have close to three million followers. And then a new platform that I mentioned WeiXin or WeChat. There we have about three or four thousand followers.

ALONZO: Are these censored by the Chinese government?

RUTSTEIN: Of course there are a few things that really get censored or that don’t last very long. We now know the technology, even that’s used in America by the NSA, is very good at picking up certain key words. China also has that same technology. And certain things that the government doesn’t approve of do get picked up and they are censored. But they aren’t a very long list of things. They are really only one, two or three things that are censored.

The openness and the vitality and the critical bent of a lot of speech in China’s social media are surprisingly wide open. It goes really directly against the conventional wisdom about China. If you want to turn on the official television, or read the official newspaper, you’ll get the party line. But if you really want to get raw, unvarnished facts and information and different opinions and views, you immediately go to social media. And hundreds of millions of people in China are doing that. That’s really where they go first.

ALONZO: With that information now, is this changing the way you communicate and send out information to the public?

RUTSTEIN: Absolutely. TV, radio, print: these are huge big state organs in China and they’re also now run on a commercial basis and they are very expensive. And organizations like UNICEF don’t have the resources to buy media. The public with disposable income in China makes it a very lucrative media market. So everyone in the world is trying to advertise to that market.

We are now really putting most of our effort and thought into social media. With three million followers, it’s not hard at all to generate a discussion that reaches 100,000 or 200,000 people from day to day. And that is very exciting. And we know who we are reaching. And it’s not just a one way broadcast now, of course. The reason why social is so powerful is because you are involved in a discussion. It’s not a one-way channel.