Alhambra Source partners with local police to develop first Weibo (Chinese Twitter) to engage immigrant residents

By Greg Asciutto
Student Writer

USC Annenberg’s hyperlocal, trilingual news site Alhambra Source launched a groundbreaking social media partnership with the Alhambra Police Department earlier this month.

Using Weibo, a Chinese-language micro-blogging site often compared to Twitter, the agency created a digital platform through which the San Gabriel Valley community’s large Chinese immigrant population can interact with city officials.

“The long-term goal is to help the Alhambra Police Department establish something to help more Chinese immigrants, especially the newer ones, become more assimilated and engaged in the civil process,” said Walter Ma, an Alhambra Source community contributor.

A July article from Ma titled “Five ways to engage Chinese immigrants in the San Gabriel Valley” inspired the department to sign up for Weibo, which has more than 500 million unique users.

The Alhambra Police Department’s account attracted nearly 2,000 followers in two days. (The department’s Facebook page, which launched nearly a year ago, has 1,630 likes.)  

Alhambra residents have posted comments and questions on topics that range from citywide parking restrictions to pothole maintenance to suggesting officers learn greeting in Chinese. Even China-based police officers are visiting the page to ask about American policing practices.

“The community at large is very interested to be engaged with the police department and to know about the issues that affect their lives,” said Ma, who now manages the account as volunteer engagement coordinator.

It is the first time a stateside law enforcement agency has used Weibo to connect with Chinese residents in a local community setting, said Alhambra Source Editor Daniela Gerson.

 “It’s a bridge between community members who might feel marginalized and the leadership of the city,” she said.

Alhambra Source, which appears online in English, Spanish and Chinese, launched in 2010.

The site was a response to research -- spearheaded by Communication Professor Sandra Ball-Rokeach –that identified the San Gabriel Valley community as lacking in local media coverage contributing to lower levels of civic participation.

Of the city’s 85,000 residents, 53 percent identify as Asian; most of those are ethnically Chinese. Ball-Rokeach’s Metamorphosis team produced research in 2010 that determined that this population scored significantly lower than its Latino and Anglo counterparts in terms of civic engagement.

The idea for the news site itself came from School of Journalism Director Michael Parks. After concluding that traditional, metropolitan news outlets like the Los Angeles Times could do more to enrich civic participation, Parks wanted to explore how local news coverage could better serve communities.

The Weibo collaboration is Alhambra Source’s latest step to challenge the cultural and linguistic barriers between residents and city officials.

“This is one of the more exciting developments we’ve had,” said Gerson.

At Monday’s press event announcing the partnership, 17 members of the Chinese media were in attendance, along with a reporter from regional outlet Pasadena Star-News.