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Student Research Finds International Variations in Use of Social Media


Social media has significantly changed the way the world communicates allowing people from other cultures to share and exchange ideas like never before. But two students who presented at the 2013 Undergraduate Research Symposium at Loyola Marymount University revealed challenges that have arisen from communicating on social media and offered solutions to resolve them.

Aili Watanabe, a junior communication studies major, looked at the global reaction on social media to the Great North East Japan earthquake in 2011. She noticed that the Japanese earthquake victims received an underwhelming amount of donations compared to those affected by Hurricane Katrina or the earthquake in Haiti. Watanabe attributed this to unique cultural traits in Japan, such as Gaman, a Zen Buddhist concept that means to endure suffering with patience and dignity, which may have confused potential donors into thinking no one in Japan really needed help.

“Social media gives us an opportunity for intercultural dialogue and to share and appreciate other cultures,” Watanabe said. “But that experience doesn’t always translate. There is a lot of miscommunication in social media.”   

Watanabe said social media users need to be more aware of cultural differences when communicating with other people online. As an international student from Japan, she compared using social media to traveling abroad.

“You’re forced to adapt to the culture when you’re physically in a different country, but people don’t think like that when they’re online,” Watanabe said. “We need to think about the cultural aspects of social media so we can more effectively communicate with one another.”   Mario Caballero, a junior communication studies major, focused on the media coverage of the drug wars in Juarez, Mexico. He found that the traditional media wasn’t providing an accurate depiction of the situation and that that it was bending to political pressures. At the same time, he discovered that the Mexican citizens who used social media to report on the cartels offered a much more realistic portrayal. However, these people were hunted down and murdered because of it.

“Not only are the freedoms of the traditional press being suppressed and silenced, but now the counter-news agencies that exist online are under attack as well, leaving many Mexican citizens with a sense of hopelessness in getting their perspective voices heard,” Caballero said.

Caballero’s solution is for the newly-elected President of Mexico Enrique Peña Nieto to include a social media initiative in his plan to crack down on the drug cartel violence. Caballero also advocates incorporating information from citizen-based social media into traditional media to provide more holistic coverage of the issue.

“Social media has given a voice to the people who would never be covered by the traditional media,” Cabellero said. “It also has made it easier for people to be well-informed and to be able to protect themselves from the many dangers that come with crossing the cartel’s paths.”