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).


What traits are peculiarly American? A U.S. expat reflects.

Shotgun Santa

Only in America: Even Santa totes a rifle.

It’s time for Christmas holidays with the family in America. After working and living in China for six and a half years, I now experience culture shock each time I return to Washington.

Empty sidewalks. Empty subways. Clean air. Polite people. Polite drivers. (Yes, by Beijing standards.)

I also appreciate those American characteristics that are so deeply ingrained that I can’t change, no matter how hard I try to adapt to my surroundings in Beijing.  Here is a list of some of those American traits that give me reverse culture shock – and some I can’t shake.

  1. American food portion sizes are obscene. The steaks are enormous. And so are the plates. No wonder people eat so much. No wonder we’ve become a super-sized society.
  2. Americans eat way too quickly. Maybe it’s the chopsticks that have slowed me down. But I seem to be the last person finished with my meal each time I return to the U.S. Eating slowly improves digestion and helps you lose weight. Another reason there are so many obese Americans with heartburn.
  3. Most of the world doesn’t share America’s obsession with junk food, fried food and gloppy, sweet sauces. I have to admit it: I love good French fries (especially in Belgium). But do we have to eat everything fried, or cooked in/with bacon.
  4. Americans are impatient. We want what we want when we want it. We don’t like to wait in lines. We like our customer service to be friendly. (But not too “have-a-nice-day” saccharine.) Basically, we want service. Most of the world isn’t like that. They wait in lines. In England, the queue up. They don’t complain. I’m American. I complain. I can’t help it.
  5. Guns. Rifles. Machine guns. The rest of the world will never understand the fascination of so many Americans with weapons of death and destruction. Try explaining to Chinese (or Europeans, or Africans) why the U.S. Supreme Court says Americans have the right to own and use assault weapons. You can talk about the Founding Fathers and the anger at British soldiers for billeting themselves in private homes. You can talk about militias and suspicion of too much government power. Almost nobody agrees.
  6. American football does not translate. While NBA basketball enjoys a rabid following in China, and the NHL has a modest cadre of ice hockey fans, the National Football League does not compute. Modern-day gladiators and physical freaks ripping each other’s heads off for the pleasure of the masses and the profits of the few. OK, every society has its peculiar attractions. We don’t eat duck paws or pig’s brains in America, after all.
  7. The Electoral College just cannot be explained. America is a democracy, right? We tell that to people around the world. But the presidential candidate with the most votes wins? No, she doesn’t. The only things harder to explain than the logic of the Electoral College are gerrymandering and the fact that California and Alaska have the same number of senators. Democracy. In theory: great. In practice, it’s complicated. But better than the alternative.
  8. What is a Kardashian? The peculiarly American trait of people being famous for being famous is a hard one to explain.
  9. Binge-watching is unheard of. Most people from most countries don’t sit in front of a screen for days on end and watch a TV series. They find the modern American habit a bit amusing, if baffling.
  10. More food differences: Americans expect ice in their drinks. Americans expect cold beer. Americans expect free refills on (most) drinks. After six-plus years, I’ve given up ice. But I prefer my beer chilled, not room temperature.
  11. Americans are caffeine addicts. The morning cup of coffee is American (and European). It’s definitely not Chinese, at least yet. Every visiting professor in my program asks where they can get a morning coffee fix. I now find this American addiction to be amusing. I prefer some nice Chinese tea.
  12. Americans tip. A lot. And they tip a lot of people. Chinese people don’t tip. Some students of mine, visiting Washington, asked if they had to tip the waiter at a bar-and-grill. After all, the bill already was $30 per person, including tax. Yes, I sternly replied. It’s not optional.
  13. Americans drive on small errands. In the U.S., people drive to the grocery store, drive to the pharmacy, drive to the library, drive to restaurants. It’s the default means of transportation. I still have to readjust each time I return. I’m so used to jumping on the subway or my bike.
  14. Americans are very old-fashioned when it comes to paying for products. Cash is almost obsolete in China. Electronic payments via AliPay or WeChat Pay are the norm. Americans use credit cards, many with big annual fees and high interest rates. A lot of Americans still carry cash. How 20th century.
  15. Americans stubbornly cling to their weights and measures. Almost every country in the world has gone metric. Not the US of A. Every American expat has to translate their heights, weights, volumes and temperatures. Since I’m mathematically inclined, it’s easy. Other Americans just give up. But when they say it’s 32 degrees, they mean it’s freezing. People in China are baffled because they seem to be saying that it’s 90 degrees (Fahrenheit) – 32 degrees Celsius. By the way, I am 168 cm tall.
  16. You can’t always get what you want. Some food favorites from the U.S. are not popular in China: Bagels, donuts, rye bread, corned beef, cheese, queso, hummus, cream of mushroom soup. We have to be patient and wait for the next trip home.
  17. Chinese have a different version of Christmas. Yes, there are Santa Clauses, Christmas trees and Christmas songs across China. ‘Tis the season for conspicuous consumption. What’s missing? In a sentence: The Chinese Christmas does not have Christ and does not have a mass. Merry Christmas, everyone!

Do you have any more cultural differences to add to the lift? Post a comment.


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.


GBJ Commencement Address: It’s time to end sexism in journalism. Now.

GBJ co-directors Hang Min and Rick Dunham on graduation day, 2018.

Here is the complete text of my commencement address to the Global Business Journalism graduation ceremony at Tsinghua University on July 5, 2018.

大家好。Добрый день. Welcome.

I am honored, on behalf of the International Center for Journalists and the international faculty of the Global Business Journalism Program, to congratulate all of you on your successful completion of your studies.

This special group includes some of the best young journalists in China, along with a diverse mixture of nations: Japan, Russia, Australia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Korea, Pakistan, Burundi, Azerbaijan, New Zealand, and the United States. Some of you already have made a mark on the world of business journalism during your Tsinghua years. I have great confidence that even more of you will have an impact in the years to come.

Since 2007, the Global Business Journalism program has improved the quality of journalism – and public understanding of business and economic issues – in China and around the world. You have benefited from cross-cultural learning, practical journalism training, and a varied curriculum featuring both Chinese and international professors at one of the world’s great universities.

In the GBJ program, about three-fourths of our students are women, and with rare exceptions, women are the top performers in our program. Yet many of these high achievers may face obstacles in the job market. Women suffer discrimination, overt and hidden, in hiring, promotion and pay. In many countries, it is acceptable to deny jobs or promotions to women because the employer fears they will become wives and mothers, and will not be as committed to their day jobs as men.

Subtle forms of discrimination continue to subvert women’s empowerment even in so-called progressive countries. A recent study of Twitter use by American political reporters found that of the 25 reporters who received the most social media replies from male political reporters in the United States, zero were women. And whose posts did male reporters share? Only three of the 25 most frequently shared reporters were women. It’s no surprise that the vast majority of “experts” quoted by male reporters tend to be male. It’s time for change.

Joyce Barnathan, president of the International Center for Journalists, was one of 10 prominent media leaders who last month proposed 14 steps to combat industry sexism. “It’s time to stop talking about the need for equality and start actively reforming the industry,” Joyce and the other leaders wrote.

We must overcome these insidious forms of male discrimination. In the words of the American civil rights anthem of the 1960s, “we shall overcome, some day.”

Barrows Dunham

My grandfather, Barrows Dunham, a philosopher, author and professor, wrote a book in 1947 entitled “Man Against Myth.” It analyzed social myths that powerful forces employ to maintain their power.

But a feminist author, Betty Millard, was unimpressed by the title, “Man Against Myth,” and produced her own tract in response: “Woman Against Myth.” She decried the cultural and religious customs cited to subjugate women around the world.

As Millard noted, Confucius wrote many centuries ago: “It is a law of nature that women should be kept under the control of men and not allowed any will of their own.” Confucius, without doubt, was a great man. But he was not always right.

Sadly, Millard’s analysis is still relevant today. A GBJ student, in his thesis this year, argued that Islamic feminists believe that “women’s struggle for equality with men is doomed to fail, as women are placed in ‘unnatural settings’ where they are denigrated and burdened with paid work on top of domestic labor.”

I believe in academic freedom, but I do not agree with the sentiments expressed in this quotation.

Fortunately, the Tsinghua School of Journalism and Communication is leading the way in empowering women. Our executive dean, Dr. Chen Changfeng, is a brilliant scholar and inspirational leader. Our associate dean for international affairs, my friend and GBJ co-director Dr. Hang Min, has earned a global reputation for media management and cross-cultural partnerships. Doctors Fan Hong and Dai Jia are popular GBJ professors, and Li Laoshi, Rose Li, is our indispensable international administrator. And more than half of the keynote speakers at our annual Tsinghua Business Journalism Forums have been women.

You see, women can achieve, if given the opportunity and freed of institutional and societal constraints. I hope that all of you in the graduating class of 2018 take inspiration from the accomplishments of your professors and your peers. It is sometimes harder for women to succeed in journalism. That’s the reality. Men still run most news organizations, and men make most of the hiring decisions. But through persistence and sheer excellence, women are gaining ground. I hope to live long enough to see some of you lead the journalistic, economic and even political worlds of the 21st century.

I close by quoting my favorite philosopher, my grandfather, Barrows Dunham. During a lecture in Massachusetts, he expressed optimism about the battle for social progress. “Even now,” he said, “we ourselves are determining the future, not by knowing what it will be, but by conceiving of what it can be.”

I look forward to you determining the future and changing our world. I will cherish your future achievements, unfettered by ancient superstitions and prejudices. Please stay in touch.

谢谢, 大家。Большое спасибо. Thank you.


A Fourth of July analysis of Donald Trump’s first six months in power

RickTrumpJuly4

What is America’s place in the world on the first July 4 of the Trump administration?

As a regular analyst of American politics, policy and economics, I am often asked to explain Donald Trump to global audiences. Here is my Fourth of July segment on World Insight with Tian Wei:


Truth matters: A commencement address to Global Business Journalism Program graduates

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Here is the text of my address to the 2017 graduating class of the Global Business Journalism Program at Tsinghua University on June 28, 2017.

大家好。Добрый день. Benvenuti. Welcome.

I am honored, on behalf of the International Center for Journalists and the international faculty of the Global Business Journalism Program, to congratulate all of you on your successful completion of your graduate studies.

You are a special group – the best young business journalism minds in China, along with a unique mixture of nations: Iran, Israel, Italy, Vietnam, Thailand, Uganda, Zimbabwe, Slovakia, Turkey, Russia, Canada, and the United States. Some of you already have made a mark on the world of business journalism during your Tsinghua years. I have great confidence that many more of you will have an impact in the years to come, in journalism systems as disparate as Iran, the United States and China.

All of us in this room have our differences – cultural, geographical, even political – but one thing that unites us is the search for truth. As Jim Asher, a 2017 Pulitzer Prize winner for his role in the Panama Papers investigation, said recently: “A world without facts can’t function.”

We live in an unsettling era when the concept of “truth” can be a matter of dispute. Kellyanne Conway, a counselor to Donald Trump, has declared that the White House is entitled to its own “alternative facts.” Whatever that means.

To the graduating class of 2017 and your proud professors, that’s just plain nonsense. We owe it to the public, whether we operate in the United States, China, or anywhere around the world, to share the truth, as best as we can tell it, and to explain what the truth means to our audience. As the 2017 National Press Club president, Jeffrey Ballou, said to fellow American journalists in Akron, Ohio: “Truth is not a game at all.”

The esteemed Russian author Fyodor Dostoevsky, in Братья Карамазовы, The Brothers Karamazov, summed up the predicament of the perpetual prevaricator. “The man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie,” he wrote, “comes to a point that he cannot distinguish the truth within him, or around him, and so loses all respect for himself and for others.”

We must respect knowledge, respect truth, and respect ourselves. We owe it to the global public to use the knowledge we have gained about China and about global economics to provide our audiences with intelligent, insightful and factual reports. With your newfound expertise on the Chinese economy, globalization, corporate strategies and much more, you can communicate clearly and comprehensively, on any multimedia platform, about issues ranging from the Paris climate change accords to the Belt and Road Initiative.

One of my favorite philosophers, Nelson Mandela, said that “a good head and good heart are always a formidable combination. But when you add to that a literate tongue or pen, then you have something very special.”

You have something very special – tools that you can use to make the world a more informed and a more just place. Because, as our dean, Liu Binjie, said in his speech welcoming many of you to the Tsinghua School of Journalism and Communication in September 2016, “Justice is the soul of the news.”

Barbara Cochran, my successor as president of the National Press Club Journalism Institute in Washington, reminds us that truth is an imperfect pursuit, and journalists are imperfect people. “All news organizations make mistakes from time to time,” she said recently, “but they are trying to tell the truth and generally do it well.”

Truth and justice. The Global Business Journalism program has been trying to live up to the highest international standards for the past 10 years. Since 2007, the GBJ program has combined rigorous academics with practical journalism training in a cross-cultural setting at one of the world’s great universities.

Thanks to the vision of brilliant minds such as Professor Li Xiguang, ICFJ president Joyce Barnathan, and ICFJ vice president Vjollca Shtylla, the GBJ program was created. Thanks to the financial and journalistic support of Bloomberg News, ICFJ, the Knight Foundation and Bank of America, it has grown and prospered. Thanks to the commitment of Tsinghua leaders like Dr. Hang Min, Dean Shi, Dean Chen, Dean Hu, Professor Lee Miller, Professor Dai Jia, and many more, it has a bright future. Thanks to dedicated and high-achieving alumni from some 60 countries, GBJ is improving the quality of journalism – and public understanding of economic issues — in China and around the world.

I close by quoting my favorite philosopher, my grandfather, Barrows Dunham. In his 1947 book Man Against Myth, he concluded that understanding the truth was necessary to overcome society’s myths. “With words, as with knowledge generally,” my grandfather wrote, “there can be no substitute for constant analysis of fact.”

Truth. Justice. Words. Knowledge. Tsinghua. That pretty much sums it up. Congratulations on your achievements in the Global Business Journalism Program. I look forward to your truth-telling in the years to come.

谢谢。Thank you.