Sowing Division: The Unintended Consequences of Geographic Tagging on Social Media

Image Created by MidJourney with the following prompt: “There is a king wearing a crown standing on the sky, and he tears the earth apart with his hands. There are two groups of people standing on either side of this crack. Those people on both sides of the crack are arguing with each other but with their mouth sealed. The king is looking at the two groups of people with an evil smile.”


In this paper, I explore the unexpected consequences of Weibo’s geographic tagging policy in China, a case study that offers broader insights into information control in authoritarian regimes. Intended to “Build a National Wall” against overseas influence, this policy inadvertently created “Provincial Walls” within the country. Using unique high-frequency panel data from 200 influential Weibo accounts and a data leakage incident, coupled with a rigorous methodological approach, I demonstrate that the policy effectively reduces public discourse and regime-threatening information. However, it does so not by suppressing overseas users but by deterring domestic users from engaging in out-of-province discussions. This policy also has unintended effects, such as strengthening local identities, which can intensify geo-group division at the expense of national cohesion, and heighten cross-provincial conflict, potentially exacerbating social tensions. These findings reveal the complex impacts of user tagging policies in authoritarian regimes. While they may offer short-term benefits in controlling information, they can also create long-term challenges by aggravating the dictator’s informational dilemma and fostering conditions conducive to collective action.

Working Paper