Segmentation in the Communication of the GM Issue: Semantics and Social Network Analysis of Government Websites


Genetically modified (GM) technology has become widely controversial in recent years, raising risk concerns about food safety, public health, economic development and even national security. Due to the uncertainty of GM risk and the cognition difficulty of GM knowledge, governments’ communication plays a key role in shaping publics’ understanding of the technology and attitude towards GM-relevant issues.

In China, where the coordination between various levels of government and functional departments in policy formulation and implementation is usually difficult due to the conflicts of interest and information imbalance among them (Edler & Kuhlmann, 2008), governments’ efforts in improving communication and management of GM had little success (Gao, Xu, Huang, Guo, & Luo, 2017).

This study aims to unravel the question of GM communication in particular, and science communication in general: what makes the governments’ communication strategy so ineffective? Applying Dryzek (2005) and Bets (2010) environmental discourses, we used semantic analysis and social network analysis to analyze the GM communication through official websites at different levels (central and local) from January 1, 2001 through December 31, 2017. Specific research questions focused on government discourse patterns and structural networks of government actors formed around the GM communication.

It is found that the content issued by the central ministries and commissions is quite homogeneous yet segmented, dominantly emphasizing rationalism of GM economy and ecological modernization, but rarely mentioning about administrative rationalism and sustainable development. In contrast, local governments’ communication not only has a more balanced distribution in terms of discourse type, but also integrates multiple discourse types.

In addition, the results of social network analysis show that the status of central ministries and local governments in the network structure is significantly different. The central ministries and commissions were dominant in the social networks of the issue, demonstrating high in-degree and out-degree in relation to others; The ministries are closely linked internally, but the links with many local governments are relatively weak, showing the segmentation in the vertical governance.

Meanwhile, local governments are not evenly balanced regarding in-degree and out-degree, signifying imbalanced status in the network. In general, the provinces with a high in-degree tend to have high out-degree as well, signifying that the key participants are mostly active two-way communicators and stable participants in the construction of the issue network. In the meantime, some other local governments were fairly marginalized.

Based on the research findings, this study made suggestions on how to promote government communication by transcending homogeneous discourses and bridging segmentations. In terms of vertical communication, the central government needs to weaken the command and control authority, and incorporate the unique local interests through communication, rather than simply issuing government orders. In terms of horizontal communication, the central government should adopt more cross-departmental strategies to modify the isolated management, and encourage multiple stakeholders to join the communication network of the GM issue, to form scientific consensus and solve problems.