Ten tips for online teaching during the coronavirus pandemic

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My first online class. Out of a crisis came an opportunity to experiment and innovate.

In late January, when most people around the world viewed the coronavirus as a remote medical crisis afflicting residents of China, I knew better. As a veteran journalist now teaching at China’s top university, I could see that the epidemic was likely, slowly but surely, to become a global pandemic. With no cure, rapid spread in new “hot zones,” and limited information available to the public, I realized that my professional and personal life was going to be changed significantly.

As co-director of Global Business Journalism, a master’s degree program created by the International Center for Journalists and Tsinghua University in Beijing, I knew that we would need to plan to conduct our spring semester “virtually” through an online platform rather than in the classroom in China. Like almost all of our international students, I was outside of China and unable to return to the locked-down campus.

For my program, this crisis became an opportunity, and Global Business Journalism began its spring semester on schedule and with all students in attendance via the Zoom online platform. Now that the coronavirus is understood to be a global threat, more than 100 American universities and hundreds of others around the world switched from in-person to online classes in the first two weeks of March alone.

This unanticipated disruption need not be a burden, if you are adaptable and innovative. “Online education is an opportunity to make coursework more customized and flexible,” writes journalist and educator Lisa Waananen Jones.

Here are 10 tips to make an online learning experience more rewarding:

  1. Pick the right learning platform

Your online learning site must be able to handle the number of people in your classes or meetings. You need to consider whether your budget can afford a “premium” plan or whether you are willing to accept the limitations of free sites (usually capping the number or participants or limiting the time of your sessions). Different sites offer various features, including images of each participant, chat capabilities (for the full group or individual members), and group meetings taking place at the same time inside of the class session. In addition to Zoom, other platforms recommended by techradar.com include Docebo, Udemy, Skillshare, WizIQ, Adobe Captivate Prime and SAP Litmos. Other choices with free options include Moodle, ezTalks Webinar, Fastmeeting and Articulate Storyline. Some platforms are offering discounts to schools and nonprofit organizations.

  1. Beta test your platform

As I was working with my Tsinghua School of Journalism and Communication colleagues to set up our virtual classrooms, the Iowa Democratic caucuses demonstrated to the world the risks of adopting new technologies without sufficient beta testing. The failure of the Iowa vote-counting app, which was not rigorously tested, was a massive embarrassment. I realized that failure was not an option for me. We moved quickly with small-scale beta testing of several platforms and chose Zoom. We followed up with a beta test of five staff members and then our first-year graduate students. Each was successful. We were ready for our official launch – all within a week.

  1. Focus on your community

If you don’t already have a social media chat group for your class, create one. (My Tsinghua class uses WeChat, but WhatsApp, Facebook and other platforms can work for you.) I interact with my students far more often than when we were on campus together, answering quick questions and offering tips and suggestions. As you focus on your community, it also is important to tailor your lecture content the new communication medium you are using. Don’t just transfer your lecture notes or PowerPoint presentations to an online format. You need to communicate differently than in class. There is no natural interaction of professors and students. Students online don’t raise their hands or give you a non-verbal clue that they’d like to participate in a discussion. You will need to invite people into the classroom give-and-take and make them feel welcome. You can build student feedback into your lectures through simultaneous social media chats or online surveys.

  1. Think visually

Yes, I advise journalists to “think visually” in my new Multimedia Reporting textbook (Springer, 2019). But it is important to think visually as an online professor, too. The most boring way to teach is to be a talking head. I started with my virtual classroom set. As the son of a scenic designer for Broadway and opera, I created a backdrop for my lectures. A pair of life-sized terra-cotta warriors that I shipped home from Xi’an frames the shot of me in my makeshift home studio. On a more substantive note, I try to vary the images on the screen at any one time, whether still shots or videos. I have scrolled through best-practices examples on my screen and even conducted live searches of online databases to illustrate points I am trying to make. Of course, there’s always a risk that one of your visual exercises could go awry, but that’s part of the excitement of live TV.

  1. Lower expectations

Inevitably, something will go wrong in real time: The streaming video, someone’s audio, someone’s internet connection, the live chats, the advanced functions on your platform. Patience is important. As long as your students understand that this virtual classroom might not be perfect, everyone will be a bit less anxious if they experience an “oops” moment.

  1. Get plenty of rest

Teaching online takes more energy than teaching in the classroom. It’s like being on live television. Try to get a good night’s sleep before each performance. (And always have a cup of water, tea or coffee nearby.)

  1. Be forgiving of your students’ complications

My remote-teaching experience is unusual. My students span 22 time zones. My class begins at 9 a.m. on the east coast of the United States. For my students, that means 10 p.m. in Japan and Korea, 9 p.m. in China, 5 p.m. in Oman, 3 p.m. in South Africa, 2 p.m. in Europe, and 6 a.m. in Vancouver and Los Angeles. Some students, cloistered in their parents’ homes, have to whisper so they don’t awaken slumbering relatives. I have allowed some students to present “oral” reports through the group chat function. Remember: It’s not the students’ fault that our spring semester has become so complicated.

  1. Give your students individual attention

It’s important to build or maintain relationships with everyone in your class. That becomes particularly important when you cannot engage in the basic social interactions of a classroom setting. Instead of having my regular weekly office hours, I feature “virtual office hours” at times arranged with each student. Because some students are shy, I have reached out to schedule meetings in advance of major assignments. I leave a few minutes after every lecture for students who want to hang around in the virtual classroom and ask me any questions on their minds. I also respond to social media messages or email from my students within the day (or sooner, if practical). I believe it’s important to show students that you care about their learning experience and their progress.

  1. Remain physically active

Over the first few weeks of my online teaching experience, I found that I sometimes felt lonely or irritable. I was accustomed to the give-and-take with students, and the social camaraderie of my office. To overcome a sense of isolation, I make sure to exercise regularly. My colleagues and students in China have developed much more creative coping mechanisms during their weeks in quarantine. Those of us free to move around in our hometowns must act responsibly, but we don’t want to cloister ourselves and live in a world of irrational fear.

  1. Rely on your teaching assistant or office staff

Teaching remotely requires more work than teaching in the classroom. It requires more coordination, communication and logistical planning than normal courses. It is vital that you empower your teaching assistant or office staff to remind students of upcoming assignments, guest lectures and schedule changes. And remember to say “thank you” to the staff that helps you.

None of us is in this alone. Amherst College President Biddy Martin was speaking for me when she informed her students and staff on March 9 of a temporary shift to online education.

“It will be hard to give up, even temporarily, the close colloquy and individual attention that defines Amherst College,” she wrote, “but our faculty and staff will make this change rewarding in its own way, and we will have acted in one another’s best interests.”

This article was written for cross-posting on the International Journalists’ Network (IJNet).


The coronavirus can’t stop the Global Business Journalism program from its mission to train reporters worldwide

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Preparing for a “virtual class” in the new home office. (Photo by Svetlana Fenichel)

I was at home during Tsinghua University’s winter break when news of the coronavirus outbreak made its way into Chinese and international media in January.

As soon as I read about the deadly epidemic, I knew that my life, and my students’ lives, would be significantly disrupted. Little did I know that it also would turn into an opportunity for me and my Tsinghua School of Journalism and Communication colleagues to experiment with innovative distance-learning tools, offering our students the chance to continue their education in new and exciting ways.

Despite some initial optimism in Chinese media, it was clear that the epidemic that started in Wuhan was out of control. With 35 years of experience as a journalist in the United States, I had experience in separating facts from rumors, and calmly carrying on in times of upheaval and panic. As international co-director of the Global Business Journalism program, a prestigious English language masters program at Tsinghua University, I immediately focused on my students.

Half of our Global Business Journalism students are Chinese, and they were home with their families. Our international students live in more than 20 countries around the world. Our office found out where they were and how they were doing. (They were all healthy and surprisingly calm.) Most were home with their families overseas, though a few students remained in China during the winter break, either on campus or with relatives in China.

My next priority was to prevent panic while honestly sharing the facts available to GBJ’s leaders. I realized it was important for our program’s global website, GlobalBusinessJournalism.com, to provide reliable, timely, accurate information about the coronavirus and its impact on Tsinghua students.

Early optimism, fueled by upbeat coverage in some Chinese media, led some people in our GBJ community to believe that spring semester classes would resume on campus with minor delays. As someone who has coped with emergencies as a reporter and manager, I strongly believed that there was more than a 90 percent likelihood that we would not be able to return to Beijing any time soon.

Well, unfortunately, I was right. Chinese government officials instituted quarantines around the country, and intercity travel was severely restricted. Almost every other country canceled all flights to and from China. Our students, even if they wanted to, could not return to Beijing.

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First class of the semester (Photo by Chengzhang Li)

Out of necessity came opportunity. Through conversations on Skype and WeChat, my colleagues and I discussed ways to create virtual classes so we could resume classes as scheduled on Feb. 17 and give students a valuable educational experience. The university’s visionary leadership had the same idea, and aggressively pursued solutions.

Tsinghua tried to create a proprietary online learning platform, but the beta tests showed that it wasn’t ready for widespread use. We needed to find a stable, reliable platform for online classes.

We also had a logistical problem. Global Business Journalism students are spread out over 22 time zones. It was almost impossible to find a time that would work for everyone. For my advanced news writing class, we settled on 8 a.m. in Washington, which is 2 p.m. for my students in France and Spain, 3 p.m. in South Africa, 5 p.m. in Oman, 9 p.m. in China, and 10 p.m. in Japan and Korea. Thank goodness Global Business Journalism students are flexible and adventurous.

Then came the Iowa caucuses in the United States on Feb. 3. As odd as it sounds, the massive technology failure in Iowa played a key role in our Chinese academic experience. The Iowa Democratic Party didn’t properly beta test its new app, and the result was disaster. It was a PR disaster, but, more importantly, it was a failure that did not serve their customers: Iowa voters, the media and the American public.

I realized it was vitally important to carefully test platforms in advance so we could provide a positive experience for the students. Our international journalism staffer, Li Chengzhang, and my teaching assistant, Wan Zhixin, tried a few and concluded that a conference app called “Zoom” was our best prospect. The university and Zoom’s Chinese subsidiary reached an agreement to let students use the platform for free until June. We beta tested the app repeatedly: once with just four of us, then a “dry run” with the entire first-year Global Business Journalism class. Then we were ready for classes, or so we thought.

Of course, there were a few glitches caused mostly by the varying qualities of internet connections around the world. But our class was an educational triumph. Students could see me, hear me, see my PowerPoint presentations, and see articles that I had called up on my computer screen for analysis. All of the other Global Business Journalism program’s classes proceeded without incident, and the student reaction was overwhelmingly favorable.

“Even though the virus has resulted in the [journalism] school having to use a virtual classroom, it’s still brought so many good stories to the front page,” said Hai Lin (Helen) Wang, a GBJ master’s student from Canada who has been staying with her grandparents in Tianjin. “I hope we can all take advantage of this time.”

I conducted the first class from my dining room table in Arlington, Virginia. For the second class, I created a China-themed classroom in my basement, with two life-sized terracotta warriors from Xi’an in the background.

I feel heartened by the outpouring of support from around the world. A typical message came from said Ralph Martin, an emeritus professor of computer science at Cardiff University in Wales and a former guest professor at Tsinghua. “I hope your online courses go well and things will soon be back to normal,” he wrote in a note shared on university social media accounts.

I’m taking this one week at a time. We could have a technological meltdown any week. But I am cautiously optimistic. And I am looking for the silver linings in this dark cloud. For one thing, I can now ask prominent journalists, academics or policymakers in Washington, Europe or Africa to join our class in real time. 

I have great sympathy for everyone who has gotten sick, and mourn those who have died in the coronavirus epidemic. I feel a sense of empathy for the billion-plus people whose lives have been upended. While my academic routine has changed significantly, I can’t say that I have suffered, like so many of my friends and students in China. I think of them (and talk to them) every day.

In good times and in these challenging times, Tsinghua University has inspired me to become a better person and a better teacher. As a professor who loves teaching the brightest aspiring journalists from around the world, I owe it to my students to give them an educational experience that they will always remember … in a good way.

The world gave us lemons, and we are trying to make something sweet out of it. As one of my Texas friends said to me: “Lemonade, Rick. Lemonade.”

>>> Are you interested in applying to join Global Business Journalism or do you know a college senior or young journalist who would be interested in pursuing a master’s degree in the program? Here’s a link for admissions information.

 


Analysis: Mueller speaks. What does it mean?

Robert Mueller reads a statement to reporters at the U.S. Justice Department building on May 30, 2019

After two years of carefully scripted public silence, Robert Mueller spoke on May 30. In eight minutes of words, as carefully scripted as his previous silence, Mueller delivered a message radically different in tone and substance than the Trumpian tweets about a “Russia hoax” and the president’s insistence that there was “no collusion.” Two months after Mueller delivered a 448-page report to Attorney General William Barr, he closed up shop and left his job as Special Counsel. Here is a Q&A based on my interview on China Radio International.

Q: What’s your takeaway from Robert Mueller’s eight-minute statement?

A: Robert Mueller made clear that he believed Trump’s attorney general, William Barr, misstated the findings of the report when Barr claimed that Trump had been cleared of wrongdoing. Mueller was precise and diplomatic in his wording. But the words were very damaging to Barr’s credibility among open-minded Americans, although in a deeply divided country, I’m not sure how many people are open to changing their minds about anything relating to Trump. The two points Mueller made abundantly clear: There was, and is, ongoing Russian interference in the U.S. electoral process, and he cannot and will not clear Donald Trump of attempting to obstruct justice.

Q: In Mueller’s speech, he detailed 10 instances where Trump had possibly attempted to impede the investigation, but said the Constitution requires a process other than the criminal justice system to formally accuse a sitting president of wrongdoing.” Is he indicating an impeachment process?

A: Not exactly. He said the Justice Department policy is clear and that he abided by that policy. The question of whether a sitting president may be charged criminally during his or her presidency may be decided by a court at some point. Mueller did strongly suggest that it is up to Congress at this present time to formally accuse a sitting president, because the Trump Justice Department will not.

Q: Three more democrats are calling for impeachment, and one Republican has been calling for Trump’s impeachment, do you think the momentum will grow after Mueller’s speech?

A: The momentum is building slowly. The reason is that Republicans remain scared to death of Trump and his supporters. Some are afraid of being defeated in primaries. Some want to use their power in Washington to pursue their policy goals. And other simply agree with Trump’s ends and his tactics. Democratic congressional leaders want to focus the party’s efforts on defeating Trump at the ballot box in 2020 rather than impeaching him, which they could do, but there is no chance of convicting him in a Republican Senate. The same thing happened with Bill Clinton in 1999.

Q: What do you make of the division within the Democratic Party on this issue?

A: The party is divided between pragmatists, who want the House of Representatives to focus on policy issues and want Democrats to focus on electoral success, and idealists and ideologues who believe that Trump is a liar, a crook, a scoundrel, a mad king, a Russian dupe, an unfit charlatan, or some combination of those things.

Q: Mueller said he did “not believe it is appropriate” for him to testify before Congress, as House Democrats have asked. How do you look at this, and how is the Congress going to react to this that he doesn’t want to testify?

A: Mueller is a rare public figure in America who wants his words to speak for him. He wants to investigation and the report to be his legacy. He does not want to get into a personal political war with Donald Trump. Those battles have ended with damaged reputations for anyone who has gotten into a personal conflict with Trump for the past 35 years. Mueller, at his press availability, made it very, very clear that we should focus on the carefully crafted, very strong language in the report. Trump said the report cleared him. It obviously does not. Mueller wants every American to read every word of the report. He doesn’t want them to be forced to choose between political “sound bites.”

Q: Mueller has announced the formal closure of the special counsel office and his resignation from the justice department. If we look back at this investigation that went on for more than two years and costed over 25 million US dollars of tax payer’s money. Do you think it was worth it?

A: Absolutely. It was a fact-finding mission and a criminal investigation. It succeeded on both levels. The people of the world know much more about the Russian government’s aggressive and persistent efforts to elect Donald Trump and sow chaos in the American political system. Dozens of people have been convicted of criminal charges, including some of Donald Trump’s closest advisers. The Mueller investigation has spawned several ongoing criminal probes. But most of all, Mueller wrote a dispassionate, detailed report of the facts as he knew them, despite, as he strongly suggested, an aggressive attempt to obstruct his investigation.


The role of social media in the spread of hate speech

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Remembering the victims in New Zealand. (Wikipedia photo by “Natecull”)

Following the murder of 50 people in Christchurch, New Zealand, by a white supremacist from Australis, China Radio International devoted its weekly news round-up on March 22 to issues raised by the massacre of Muslims during services at two mosques. The discussion focused on the role of social media in the spread of hate speech and the power of the internet to radicalize the disaffected around the world.

Here are my answers to a series of questions posed by the hosts:

Q: Lots of tough questions are being asked about the role of social media in the wake of the horrific shooting at two New Zealand mosques. First of all, do you think this is an attack made by and for the internet?

A: Yes, this is a modern terrorist attack using the true definition of terror. It is designed to create fear and anxiety in the global public by making people think such mass murder and mayhem can happen anywhere. If it happened in New Zealand, is my own city safe?

The gunman was introduced to white supremacy hate material on the internet and was radicalized via the internet and social media. He chose New Zealand because it was a soft target and because he thought an attack there would have maximum impact.

Q: As the gunman decided he was going to use his camera as he began this terrible massacre, was there anything in social media to stop him?

A: Facebook live and other live-streaming sites cannot be blocked in advance. The only way it could have been stopped in advance is if his account had been suspended. After the attack was underway, police called Facebook and the live-streaming was stopped. But millions of video clips of the massacre had been shared. Such reactive measures don’t solve the problem.

Q: We know that underneath it all is white nationalism or white supremacy, a kind of racism that has always existed. What’s so special about the social media’s role in this?

A: Social media makes it easy for haters or all political ideologies to meet like-minded people and to reinforce their worst tendencies. Radicalization, whether it is Islamic extremism, Hindu extremism or white Christian supremacists, is easier on the internet. While government around the world, from the U.S. to Russia to China, have focused on potential Islamic terrorist threats, there has been little attention from governments on white supremacists in the U.S., Europe and the European colonial diaspora.

Q: What role is social media playing in the spread of extremism in today’s world?

A: Social media makes it easier to target fellow haters and share material with them. The problem is exacerbated by the algorithms of such platforms as Facebook and YouTube that suggest posts similar to the ones you are reading. Facebook and YouTube make money from the advertising, so they have little incentive to act as responsible corporate citizens. As a result, white supremacists can view one hate-inspiring video on YouTube, and YouTube abets their radicalization by suggesting other videos. I did research on anti-Jewish videos on YouTube and discovered how the YouTube algorithm opens door after door with Russian anti-Semitic videos and Middle Eastern and North African anti-Jewish diatribes.

Q: Association of New Zealand Advertisers and Commercial Communications Council said in a statement, quote “The event in Christchurch raise the question, if the site owners can target consumers with advertising in microseconds, why can’t the same technology be applied to prevent this kind of content being streamed live?” How do social media platforms like Facebook take down videos? Is it that they could not stop this or did not stop it?

A: This sharing of hate can be combatted. It requires two things. Social media platforms must spend more money and hire more humans to monitor hate speech and take down posts and videos that foment radicalization. And the platforms must be more aggressive at fighting white supremacists. Thus far, they are not nearly as committed to fight Christian extremists as they are Muslim extremists. Both are deadly and anti-social.

Q: Critics of the companies say that Facebook and YouTube have not done enough to address the white supremacist groups on their platforms. There was a time when ISIS videos and ISIS content and propaganda were proliferating on all of these platforms. They have been quite successful at tamping down on that content and making it far less a problem. Critics cite this as proof that the problem is well within the power of the companies. It’s just that they haven’t prioritized the problem of white supremacist content. Do you think that’s really the case? And why is that?

A: White nationalists in the U.S. have launched a public relations campaign, aided and abetted by Donald Trump, accusing Facebook, Twitter and YouTube of being liberal, anti-conservative and anti-Christian. One far-right American congressman recently sued Twitter for $250 million and accused it of anti-Republican and anti-conservative bias. The platforms must ignore these critics and their misdirection attempts and be as aggressive in combatting white supremacists as they are Islamic radicals. White nationalists have been responsible for far more deaths in the U.S. — of Jews, Muslims, Sikhs and Christians, both white and black — than Islamic terrorists are. As you noted, it can be done. They are just not doing it effectively so far.

Q: These companies are American companies, and Islamophobia is somehow widespread in the US right now. Should we buy the argument that the business model will inevitably lead to this type of content no matter what?

A: I disagree that Islamophobia is widespread. It is contained within a narrow group. But it is encouraged by the hate tweets of Donald Trump and the irresponsible television propaganda of most Fox News shows.

Q: Do you think media, especially social media, has demonized the image of Muslims since 911?

A: No. Not most media. Remember that then-President George W. Bush went to a Mosque in Washington shortly after the September 11th attacks and called for brotherhood and understanding. There’s no doubt that anti-Muslim sentiment in the U.S. increased after 9/11, directed mostly at Saddam Hussein, who was not responsible for the attacks, and Saudi Arabia, which was home to most of the attackers and finances a radical brand of Islam. And, yes, there were sporadic attacks against Southwestern and South Asians, including a number of Hindus and Sikhs from India. It’s always bad to think of individuals as members of a group, whether they are Palestinians from Gaza or Uighurs from Xinjiang. That thinking, demonizing groups because of the misbehavior of a few, creates a risk of overreaction.

Q: Do these social media platforms see their responsibility as stopping this kind of material from being spread? Do they have an incentive to let extremist content remain on their platform as long as it’s profitable for them? (There’s a growing concern that the algorithms that determine what people are likely to see have become tilted toward promoting extremist content.)

A: Social media platforms must remember that they are corporate citizens and citizens of their nations and the world. Yes, they want to make money, and they have a human right to make money. But they also have a responsibility to the society at large. At this time, the scales are unbalanced and favor profits over social responsibility. That must change through persuasion and, if necessary, government regulation. That’s a dangerous road to go down, but it can’t be ruled out if self-regulation doesn’t work.

Q: New Zealand’s prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, had some strong words for the social media companies that enabled the shooter to broadcast his massacre. She said: “They are the publisher, not just the postman.” That’s a challenge to the American view on social media. The Communication Decency Act originally passed in 1996 designates internet forums as carriers like a telephone company or postal worker rather than a publisher. What do you see as the role of social media platforms like Facebook or Twitter? Should they be held responsible for the speech that occurs on their platforms?

A: American laws are outdated. I covered that 1996 debate for Business Week, and the 1996 law was outdated almost as soon as it was signed into law by then-President Bill Clinton. Telecommunications companies wanted, and received, protection against lawsuits. As the proliferation of internet and social media hate speech has shown, Google and Facebook and Twitter and Weibo and WeChat are publishers and not just mail deliverers. Facebook has replaced local newspapers, taking their readers, and even more, their advertisers. At a minimum, people who suffer damage as a result of their posts should be allowed to recover damages. The economic threat of damages might prompt the companies to enact reforms that they have not yet adopted because they face little economic risk for allowing hateful content to thrive on their platforms.

Q: There’s similar debate in the US. Republican Devin Nunes is suing Twitter and three users of the platform for defamation, claiming the users smeared him and the platform allowed it to happen because of its political agenda. He’s challenging the Communications Decency Act which protects internet service providers from defamation claims. How do you look at this lawsuit?

A: The suit is absurd on its face. It is not illegal to make fun of politicians and to criticize them sarcastically. This meets the definition of a frivolous lawsuit. That doesn’t mean that the Communications Decency Act of 1996 shouldn’t be changed to remove the protections written into it by a previous generation of internet giants, when there were no Facebooks, Twitters, YouTubes or even Googles.

Q: Some see the responsibility of social media companies as providing a platform for free speech. Do they have an obligation to remove the extremism content? Should there be a balance between the protecting the right to freedom of speech and preventing harm it can cause?

A: They have a moral responsibility to remove extremist hate speech. Most of the world, including the United States, protects freedom of speech. But the freedom of speech is not unlimited. You can’t threaten the life of a president or conspire to violate laws. What’s harder is to find these haters in the dark recesses of the internet and snuff out their dark conspiracies.

Q: Will it be a problem if social media platforms are given too much power over speech and thought online?

A: Yes, too much power in private hands is dangerous, as is too much power in government hands. But there’s a difference between controversial speech, like advocated Communism in the U.S. or feminism in China, and hate speech. There can be near-universal agreement that plotting violence, sharing information on building bombs or creating guns with 3D printers, or advocating violence against non-whites or non-Muslims, crosses the line into impermissible speech. Social media platforms have a moral duty to self-regulate when it comes to hate speech and violence.

Q: What do you make of the phenomenon of online radicalization? Should social media bear all the blame, or do you feel there are some deeper social problems behind this that’s perhaps too large for tech companies to fix on their own?

A: There are deep social problems. Radicals, include white supremacists in the U.S., have been emboldened by the statements of politicians like Donald Trump and Congressman Steve King. The tech companies can’t fix the problem on their own. Congress must act. But that doesn’t mean that social media platforms shouldn’t do their part and shouldn’t be leaders in encouraging a new era of civility.

Q: People used to conceive of “online radicalization” as distinct from the extremism that took form in the physical world. But do you feels that nowadays more extremists are getting radicalized online? If we look at how ISIS used social media to spread their propaganda, and how the “Yellow Vest” movement in France flourished on the social network.

A: As I tell my multimedia journalism students, digital platforms are merely a means to deliver your message. The root of hate speech is the same, whether it is shared in terrorist training camps in Pakistan or Somalia, in troll factories in Russia, or in basements and garages in rural America.

Q: Have Extremist groups in recent years been using social media as a recruitment tool? Who are their targets?

A: Their targets are alienated people, many of them young, who feel that they’ve been left behind by society, and they blamed others. Most of these people are less educated and many are struggling financially. Social media is an easy way to find a community of like-minded thinkers who make you feel better about yourself and point you toward groups to blame for your problems.

Q: An Op-Ed on Wall Street Journal by Peggy Noonan said: “Social media is full of swarming political and ideological mobs. In an interesting departure from democratic tradition, they don’t try to win the other side over. They only condemn and attempt to silence.” Do you think that’s a fair judgement of the online environment today?

A: Yes, Peggy Noonan makes a good point. These haters are not trying to convert people, they are trying to convince converts to act on their worst impulses.

Q: Do you agree with government intervention in preventing online extremism or hate speech on social media?

A: It’s always dangerous for governments to become involved in free speech, but hate speech is not protected anywhere, so a combination of government action and self-regulation by tech companies is needed.

Q: What do you make of the role of social media in today’s politics? Take Donald Trump, the twitter president, for example, some say he has weaponized the social media, using it not just to reach the masses but to control the news agenda through bluster and distraction. What’s your thought?

A: Trump has weaponized social media. I strongly believe that there is not more prejudice in America today than when Trump became president, but the haters and provocateurs who were there before have been emboldened and empowered by Trump’s words and actions. When he defends Nazis in Charlottesville, Virginia, by saying there are good and bad people on both sides of the white supremacy debate, that sends a message not only to neo-Nazis but to far-right Christians. When he called for a ban on all Muslims entering the United States, something the American courts would not allow because it is an illegal religious test, he is sending a message to white supremacists. When he calls Mexicans rapists and drug-dealers, he is sending a message. Some of this is bluster. Some of it is an attempt to dominate each day’s news cycle. But the overall message is that white supremacists have a safe space to operate in corners of Trump’s America.

Q: President Trump claimed on Tuesday that social media companies are biased against Republicans. Is that really the case? Why is he saying that?

A: Every time a far-right media personality is sanctioned by social media authorities, Trump repeats this claim. It’s specious. But he has his right to free speech. Lying is not against the law, unless you do it to the Congress or the FBI or other law enforcement agencies.

Q: How do you see the social media’s impact on how politicians raise money and communicate with voters?

A: One of the good things about social media is that it helps you build communities of like-minded people. It has been a very effective tool for a few politicians, led by Donald Trump. On the Democratic side, social media has allowed Beto O’Rourke, the former Texas congressman now running for president, to raise more campaign money in one day than all of the better-known candidates such as Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. It has made freshman Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to become the most-followed member of the U.S. Congress and to give voice to her brand of Democratic socialism. And it has allowed a humorous parody site called Devin Nunes’ Cow to have more followers than the California congressman it is skewering with its humor.

Q: There are of course positive aspects of social media, say, transparency, respect for individual rights and rejection of power imbalances. If we look at the bigger picture, how is social media transforming the use and misuse of power?

A: Like all forms of media, social media has good and bad. Think of the power of previous media such as radio and television. Radio brought entertainment to the masses in their own homes, and it allowed American president Franklin Roosevelt to reassure Americans at the depth of the Great Depression of the 1930s. But it also helped bring Hitler to power and to maintain his power. Television was hailed for its potential as an educational tool, but later become known as “the idiot box” for stupid programming. And the internet made research and communication easier than they had ever been, but it also monetized pornography and enabled terrorist groups to organize and thrive. Social media builds communities, but it also tears at society’s social fabric. All forms of media are a reflection of human beings, in their glory and their capacity for evil.


Election Analysis: Trump sacrifices House Republicans to strengthen GOP Senate majority

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A busy week of explaining the U.S. election to Chinese audiences.

China Radio International asked me to analyze the November 6 U.S. midterm elections. Instead of staying up all night watching the results in Washington, as I used to do during my 35 years of covering politics, I spent a day of my midterm (exam) week at Tsinghua University monitoring the returns, taking advantage of the 13-hour time difference to avoid sleep deprivation.

Here is a lightly edited transcript of my CRI Q&A:

Q: What’s your reaction to the election result?

A: It was exactly the result I expected. Donald Trump’s decision to divide the country along class and racial lines helped Republicans make gains in the Senate but it doomed them in the House. And I think Trump made a rational political decision: sacrifice the House to keep the Senate, where his nominees for executive office and the courts must be confirmed. This split verdict of the voters strengthens Trump as far as nominations are concerned, but it will make it hard for him to pass any legislation unless it is truly bipartisan. It also will subject him to aggressive oversight by the new Democratic committee chairmen in the newly Democratic House.

Q: To what extent do you think this is going to reshape the political landscape of America?

A: It confirms that 2016 was not a fluke and that Trump has realigned American politics. On the one hand, some suburban voters are switching to the Democratic Party, and women and younger voters are becoming more and more Democratic. But Trump has consolidated the realignment of white working-class voters and has managed to maintain the support of many educated white men in the suburbs. I think it means at least two more years of deeply divided politics and a focus by both parties on a few states that will determine the 2020 election: Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Arizona and probably Florida.

Q: Donald Trump said two days before the elections that he planned to focus on the Senate. He declared the election results a “tremendous success” for Republicans. In what ways could this be a victory for Donald Trump?

A: Well, it’s a victory because he kept control of the Senate, and even strengthened the Republican majority. He is directly responsible for that with his highly charged rhetoric and his aggressive campaigning. Five new senators owe Trump their jobs. It means that Trump will have virtual carte blanche on nominations for administration positions and federal judgeships for the next two years.

Q: Do you think Donald Trump should be given the credit for Republicans keeping the Senate red?

A: Yes, he deserves credit. And so does Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Trump figured out a way to motivate his base. Democrats were enthusiastic about going to the polls to vote against Republicans. They figured out a way, with the Supreme Court nomination fight over Brett Kavanaugh, to charge up Republican base voters. Trump understands the Trump voters better than the American media does.

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The Magic of MAGA? Trump charges up his troops … again.

Q: With divided leadership in Congress and a president who has taken an expansive view of executive power, is Washington going to see even deeper political polarization and legislative gridlock?

A: Because the Democrats control the House, there will either be bipartisanship or gridlock. Judging by Trump’s track record, I would bet on gridlock. Unless Trump completely changes his persona and suddenly becomes a statesman, Washington will devolve into gridlock and recriminations. The House will investigate Trump. The Senate will support Trump. The most likely compromises will come when Congress debates spending bills, because they have to figure out a way to agree to pay for government operations.

Q: The 2018 midterms are viewed by many as a national referendum on President Trump. Why is that? Is that what usually happens in the U.S.?

A: Midterms are rarely a referendum on the president. The 2010 midterms were a referendum on Obamacare and government spending to counteract the Great Recession. The 2006 midterms were not a referendum on George W. Bush but a rejection of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. There is a saying in Washington that in Congress, all politics is local. In Donald Trump’s Washington, all politics is all Trump, all the time.

It was a referendum on Trump because he made it a referendum on himself. He could have made it a referendum on a strong economy, but he decided that dividing voters over issues such as immigration and judges would help Republicans keep the Senate. He was right about that, although Democratic Senate candidates got millions more votes than Republican candidates, and House Democratic candidates received a bigger majority of the two-party vote than either party has received since 2008. So the public spoke: Trump and Republicans are unpopular, but the American system, which gives each state two senators, benefits the smaller, more conservative states where Trump is popular.

Q: A survey released on the eve of the election shows that a quarter of Americans have lost friends over political disagreements and are less likely to attend social functions because of politics. What does it tell about the political environment in today’s American society?

A: It is toxic. I stayed off Twitter for much of the past week because there were too many angry people spending their time insulting each other. Social discourse in America is making people angry, depressed and divided. I hope that changes, but I’m not sure where the change will start.

Q: Why are we seeing more far-right activists using violence to express their political views, from the pipe bombs sent to prominent Democratic figures to the shooting at a Jewish synagogue in Pittsburgh that killed 11 people?

A: Far-right activists feel empowered and emboldened by Trump’s rhetoric and his successes. Trump is not responsible for crazed people who commit violent acts, but he does bear some responsibility for the lack of civility in public discourse and a failure to repudiate racial and religious hatred.

Q: Will the election result in any way influence the Trump administration’s trade policies?

A: I am an eternal optimist, and I think there’s a chance that Trump will try to cool down the rhetoric and try to find a negotiated settlement to the trade dispute with China. Election Day polling of voters found that only 25 percent of them believe that Trump’s trade policies are good for the American economy.

But it is also possible that, having declared victory, he will feel emboldened to continue to challenge traditional allies such as the EU and NATO, and get tough with China and even Russia, as we saw recently when he pulled out of the nuclear arms treaty.


Trump’s NAFTA gamble: A quick cost-benefit analysis

Here’s my quick take on Donald Trump’s hard-line negotiating style with Canada and Mexico over the future of the North America Free Trade Agreement. Trump thinks that he can wring concessions out of America’s two neighbors that would bring manufacturing jobs back to the United States. It’s a very big gamble: The automakers might just build the cars elsewhere.

Here’s the video clip from CGTN’s World Insight with Tian Wei. Just click on the embedded link:

 


Q&A: The causes and consequences of Michael Flynn’s NSC exit

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Happier times: Michael Flynn is all smiles as Vladimir Putin and Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein applaud at the 10th anniversary gala for Russia’s international propaganda outlet, RT.

I discussed the sudden resignation of U.S. National Security Adviser Michael Flynn with China Radio International this morning. The interview came hours after White House press secretary Sean Spicer said Flynn had breached his trust with Donald Trump by lying to Vice President Mike Pence about the contents of conversations with Russian Ambassador to the U.S. Sergey Kislyak. Flynn’s call to Kislyak was intercepted by U.S. intelligence sources and a transcript was reviewed by the U.S. Department of Justice.

Here is a Q&A of my conversation, lightly edited for content and clarity:

Q: We know that Flynn resigned because of the scandal involving his talk with Russian ambassador to the U.S. before Trump was in office. But what law did he exactly violate?

A: He did not violate any law simply by talking to the ambassador. If he was promising a future Trump administration action in return for a certain Russian response to the Obama sanctions against Russia that had just been announced, he might have violated the Logan Act. That law, enacted in the year 1799, makes it a crime for unauthorized American citizens to negotiate with foreign governments involved in disputes with the United States, such as promising future U.S. government action.

The bigger issue is whether Flynn lied to the FBI, which is conducting a criminal investigation into Trump campaign ties to the Russian government, about this conversation. That would be a felony crime. Apparently, the acting attorney general informed Trump that Flynn may have lied to the FBI. Trump apparently kept that information from his vice president, Mike Pence, who lied to the press as a result. Trump and Flynn also lied to the press about this call — but it’s not a crime to lie to the press.

Q: Did Flynn have any other choices besides resignation?

A: Not really. According to the White House spokesman, Trump demanded his resignation. If that statement from Sean Spicer is true, then his only choice was to either resign or be fired. By resigning, Trump allowed Flynn to issue a statement explaining his point of view in the matter.

With this scandal, Flynn sets some sort of record for being forced to leave two consecutive White House administrations, first Obama and now Trump.

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Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak speaks at the University of Nebraska at Omaha (UNO photo)

Q: White House spokesman Sean Spicer later said President Donald Trump knew weeks ago — at the end of January — there were problems with Michael Flynn’s Russia phone calls. Then what’s the long pause between Trump knowing the fact and Flynn’s resignation about? Why the wait?

A: This is the question that reporters — and many Republicans in Washington — want answered. The simple answer is that Trump knew Flynn lied, but the public did not know. We don’t know the backstory yet, but Trump may have thought he could get away with keeping Flynn on the job as long as the lies did not become public knowledge. Once the Washington Post published a report that Trump was told Flynn had lied (and did not tell Mike Pence or others in the administration), Flynn was gone in a day.

Q: Will there be an investigation of the phone call and everyone involved in the White House?

A: Yes, and no. Congressional Republicans say they will investigate Flynn and his ties to Russia. The Senate Intelligence Committee says it will conduct an investigation. The House Intelligence Committee chairman said today he will not investigate Trump’s conversations with Flynn, citing a concept called “executive privilege,” which shields a president’s discussions with aides from public disclosure.

Q: What political implications does this have on the presidency?

A: It elevates the importance of criminal investigations by the FBI and Justice Department into Russian attempts to influence the election, it removes Russia’s most vocal supporter from Trump’s inner circle and empowers Russia’s top critic in the Trump inner circle, Vice President Pence. In the U.S., it’s further evidence of chaos within the White House and reinforces the concept that White House officials regularly deceive each other and lie to the public. Whether that is true or not, the perception is becoming more widely accepted.

Q: Following Mr Flynn’s resignation, the White House announced that Keith Kellogg, who was serving as chief of staff of the National Security Council, would take over as interim national security advisor while the White House would scout for a candidate for the position. What do we know about Kellogg and how does his national security plan for the U.S. look like?

A: He is 72 years old. He is a decorated veteran of the Vietnam War. He was a top civilian official in post-war in Iraq. He was generally respected by people in both parties. He was the first retired general to endorse Trump’s campaign for the presidency when few in U.S. politics took it seriously. He has Trump’s confidence, but some mainstream Republicans believe he is not strong enough by to stand up to Trump’s most hawkish advisers, Steve Bannon and Steve Miller. They would rather have remain as a specialist in policy rather than the top administrator.

If Vice Admiral Robert Harward, a protege of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, is chosen, that is a sign of Mattis’ influence in the administration. If former CIA director David Petraeus is chosen, it is a good sign for the U.S. intelligence community. If Kellogg is chosen, it may be a sign that Trump values loyalty over everything else. The selection may tell us who’s up and who’s down inside the Trump White House.