Unraveling China’s digital traces: evaluating communication scholarship through a sociotechnical lens

Kaiping Chen, Yingdan Lu*, Yiming Wang

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


In the growing trend of research using digital trace data to study human activities and opinions across different contexts, networked China has emerged as a prominent area of interest. However, research that critically examines the use, strengths, and weaknesses of existing digital trace methods, and the extent to which they can reveal the true landscape of digital China remains limited. To address these gaps, this study proposes a framework for examining and evaluating the knowledge production of digital trace research within a sociotechnical system comprising state actors, platform governance, digital civil society, and international forces. We then provide the first empirical examination of the knowledge claims and epistemic approaches used in digital trace communication scholarship that has studied China across different phases in the past 30 years. Grounded in the resulting empirical evidence, we discuss two common practices in existing digital trace research on China, how these approaches and perspectives could affect the validity and reliability of offering diverse viewpoints for studying and understanding digital China, and directions for improving these practices.

Original languageEnglish (US)
JournalChinese Journal of Communication
StateAccepted/In press - 2023


  • China
  • computational social science
  • Digital trace
  • evidence-driven approach
  • knowledge production
  • sociotechnical system

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Communication


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