February 2021

Message from Keith

Like many people who had grown tired of Donald Trump’s daily firehouse of lies and disinformation, I cheered last month when Twitter finally announced it was permanently banning the then-president from its platform.

For me, the move was long overdue—coming two days after he incited a violent mob to rampage at the U.S. Congress, and less than two weeks before the blessed end of his tumultuous term. But better late than never.

But then friends, media colleagues and some smart students caused me to have a rethink.

Was banning Trump from Twitter a violation of his right to free speech under the first amendment to the U.S. Constitution? Is it hypocritical for me to applaud Twitter banning Trump while at the same time condemning Myanmar’s generals or China’s Communist Party leaders for blocking critical social media sites or taking down critical posts? And how can the North Korean news service, the Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson and Iran’s Ayatollah Khamenei be allowed to spout their propaganda on Twitter while the former American president has been dumped?

And perhaps the most vexing question of all is; are we giving too much power to Big Tech companies to decide what speech is allowed and what should be proscribed? Some say, understandably, that they are deeply uncomfortable with Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg or Twitter boss Jack Dorsey being the ultimate arbiters of acceptable speech.

These are not easy questions, I admit. But here’s where I come down.

First, Trump still has multiple platforms available to spew his nonsense. He can call a press conference tomorrow, and will likely draw hundreds if not thousands of journalists who will report his every word. He can give an interview to his favourite TV network or newspaper. He has an email list of millions of his fans and he can communicate with them directly. So the idea that Trump’s free speech has been restricted is laughable.

To me, this is not primarily a free speech issue because America’s first amendment prohibits government from passing any law “abridging the freedom of speech or of the press”. These social media platforms are private companies, and any private company is free to set its own standards for user behaviour and the kind of content that can be shared or disallowed.

You have no more free speech “right” to a Twitter account or a Facebook page than I have to write my own column in The New York Times or have my own talk show on CNN. Or to view it another way, if I want to start my own digital magazine or social media platform that refuses to run any articles or comments by climate change deniers, anti-vaxxers or QAnon conspiracy theorists, that should be my right to decide.

The check on these Big Tech firms abusing their power rests with the market. If they go too far in proscribing certain types of speech, people—meaning the users and consumers—will go elsewhere. It’s the way the free marketplace of ideas should work.

I don’t object to certain types of online speech being regulated and in extreme cases banned. It is done all the time, and in different cultural contexts. Pornography is routinely blocked. In Germany and France, support for Nazism and Holocaust denial is largely proscribed. In Thailand, online speech insulting the monarchy can bring harsh prison sentences.

To me, the more important question is who is doing the regulating, and why? I generally distrust governments making decisions on what type of speech is allowable, particularly unelected, unaccountable and autocratic governments whose agenda is more about silencing critics than regulating dangerous or extreme views. As much as I distrust Big Tech with these decisions, I trust governments less.

Ultimately, I believe, it is up to all of us, as users, to become more news literate with online material, and learn to become more skeptical and discerning consumers. Fake news, rumour and disinformation thrive when people are gullible. Just because something appears online does not make it true or credible. And because someone forwards you something sensational on WhatsApp or Facebook or Signal does not mean you should forward it on to your social network without verifying the accuracy.

It’s why we teach news literacy here at HKU Journalism. It’s a core skill that everyone needs, at every age. Without it, fake news, rumour and disinformation will continue to spread unchecked. If we don’t start policing our own online behaviour, expect governments to step in and do it for us. And not all governments have the public interest in mind. Government regulating speech is what I fear most and what we should all guard against.

Happy Year of the Ox, everyone. Let’s hope this new year brings better tidings—and a vaccine to end this pandemic and get us on the road back to something resembling normalcy.

Alumni & Student News

Congratulations to Yuner Zhu on completing her doctorate and passing the oral defense with high distinction! Yuner's research, under the supervision of Dr. King-wa Fu, is focused on applying computational methods to understand public opinion formation, political polarization and information operations on social media in Greater China. In her PhD thesis, devised a computational model to automatically detect Chinese netizens' ideological positions. Yuner is now at City University of Hong Kong with Dr. Edmund Wai Cheng's team working on a project about the 2019 Hong Kong protests to understand the coevolution of police actions and protest violence. Her work has appeared in academic journals such as Journal of Communication and New Media & Society.

The pandemic has limited academic life in many ways, but our students did not let that keep them from one of the key experiences of their programme. All but a handful of our Master of Journalism students took on internships during the winter break. They were placed at 22 organizations, and a few worked remotely for TechNode in Beijing, Tencent in Shenzhen, GoKunming in Kunming and Nepali Times in Kathmandu. We held a sharing session on 26 January, with some students joining over video.
Rhea Mogul interned at CNN where she wrote daily spot news stories, with a heavy focus on India. Her reporting ranged from covering trending stories like Banksy's new artwork to the rise of Hindu nationalism in Modi's India. One of the highlights is her feature story about a murder case that took 28 years to solve, involving a priest, a nun and the Catholic Church. The bottom photo shows Minchen Hu (SCMP City desk), Caroline Tam (SCMP Style), Thomas Shum (SCMP City desk), and on the screen is Yuelin Liu, who dialled in from Mainland. Yuelin interned at The Initium, where she co-wrote an investigative piece about the growing trend of university students hiring ghost-writers, which has been accelerating in part because of online learning.
Faculty & Staff News

Adjunct lecturer Marianne Bray interviewed higher education experts across the world for a paper she co-wrote for the Economist Intelligence Unit. "Bridging the digital divide to engage students in higher education"  explores how COVID-19 hit the “fast-forward” button on the remote education revolution, with video apps and other social platforms throwing a lifeline when campuses shut down. ​She is now working on a playbook for educators in order to help them harness the vast array of tech tools and teaching methods available for this new generation of learners.

Assistant lecturer Nicole Baute recently published "I Feel Better When You're Here," a short story about the magical thinking of grief, in the Canadian literary journal The New Quarterly. Nicole also has a story in the latest issue of the Southern Humanities Review, a journal based at Auburn University. Written before the pandemic, "Only Human" is the tale of a couple struggling with the loss of their daughter to a mosquito-borne illness and turning to science for help.

HKU Journalism in the news
(28 December) South China Morning Post: China’s podcasters wary of censors as popularity grows, by William Langley (MJ 2021)

(30 December) South China Morning Post: Ten Hong Kong fugitives captured at sea jailed up to three years by Shenzhen court, two other underage suspects handed to city’s police, co-written by Thomas Shum (MJ 2021)
(31 December) Reuters: Hong Kong's top court puts media tycoon Jimmy Lai back in custody, by Katherine Cheng (MJ 2021)
(12 January) Poynter: Researchers say Facebook should allow fact-checkers to fact-check politicians (Masato Kajimoto)
(18 January) The Strategist: Trump talked the talk, but Biden may prove tougher on China, by Keith B. Richburg
(19 January) Taiwan Fackcheck Center: 【美國國會山莊事件之後】能查or不能查 社群平台的「政治人物豁免令」受挑戰 (In Chinese, Masato Kajimoto)
(24 January) CNN: She was murdered for catching an Indian priest and nun in a sex act. Three decades later, justice is served, by Rhea Mogul (MJ 2022)
(25 January) The Initium: 謠言、假消息、陰謀論,香港如何跌入後真相旋渦? (In Chinese, Masato Kajimoto)

(28 January) The Initium: 「完美」生意:我替別人上網課 (In Chinese), co-written by Yuelin Liu (MJ 2021)
(28 January) Thomson Reuters Foundation: Hong Kong cooks up lab-grown fish as appetite for 'clean meat' rises, by Marianne Bray
Coming up

We're excited to partner with organizers of the Hong Kong edition of the World Press Photo Exhibition 2020 to host a panel discussion about the ethics of photojournalism and challenges that visual storytellers face as animosity towards press continue to grow around the world, particularly in context of covering of civil unrest. We will announce details about the event in the coming weeks. The exhibition will be held from 1 to 21 March 2021 at the Koo Ming Kown Gallery at Hong Kong Baptist University. More info here.

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