Recreating Chinatown under the online migration wave | Leung Kai-chi

Published (HKT): 2020.12.02 09:15

Back in the early 1980s, the future of Hong Kong was uncertain. “The Story of Woo Viet” is a film precisely about fleeing, depicting the fear of Hong Kong people at that time. At the end of the movie, the protagonist Chow Yun-fat decides to leave Manila for the U.S., but his partner is reluctant to leave because she does not want to “go from one Chinatown to another.” Recently, Hong Kong has been experiencing an “online migration wave” with netizens switching from Facebook to other social media platforms. I have never been interested in this for the same reason as this line of dialogue.

To be clear, I have a lot of dissatisfaction with the Facebook platform. As a publicly-traded company, Facebook makes money by selling personal information through targeted advertisements. Since the founding of Facebook, there have been endless controversies ranging from unauthorized to illegal use of user data. At the same time, Facebook’s manipulation of users through the dissemination of information has made platform-based online media at a loss, disrupting the relationship between the media and readers. These, I think, are fair questions.

The main reason for the recent “migration wave” is that Facebook is accused of “speech censorship” for deliberately suppressing or even censoring the spread of certain opinions, which violates the freedom of expression. While I agree that content management on social media is a big issue, I am not sure that those who are calling for a switch to other platforms are quite sure what they are pursuing, or that these new platforms will not have the same problem.

First of all, it is impossible to not have any content management on social platforms. If a hacker steals your personal information, you would probably want to ask the platform to prohibit the disclosure. In the past, Hong Kong netizens have repeatedly called for reporting of different Facebook pages, which shows that the public is not adamant in opposing all content management, but rather questions how it should be implemented. In this regard, there are three points worth thinking about: who defines the boundaries, who enforces them, and whether they are fair.

Take the most controversial U.S. election by netizens as an example. On the one hand, Facebook suppressed the dissemination of contents that it assesses as false information, and at the same time tagged all election-related people and pages with election information. In Hong Kong, in the face of various media suppression from mainland China, it is easy for Hong Kong people to understand these practices in the framework of “speech censorship.” The opposite is true in the U.S. After the FBI and Congressional investigations revealed that Russia used social media to systematically interfere with U.S. public opinion during the 2016 general election, there have been many calls for the government to regulate social media. Facebook and other social media platforms have come up with various content management to avoid government intervention by showing that they know how to regulate themselves. They worry that if content management becomes defined and enforced by the government instead of the platforms themselves, the protection of free speech will only decrease rather than increase. Between the options of no regulation at all, government regulation, and platform self-regulation, the current approach is probably the least harmful of the many evils.

Of course, this does not mean that Facebook is immune from attack. Anyone who makes rules has to face the challenge of credibility. Particularly, if you give the impression of double standards when you implement the rules as if you are trying to sway public opinion in the name of content management, which can greatly weaken your credibility.

With that said, to clarify whether there is a double standard, we need to consider the gap in the expectations of the general public on what constitutes false information. The media should be faithful in reporting the truth, even if the truth is not what the public expects. However, in a post-truth society, many people simply do not believe in the existence of objective facts, so any news that is not to their liking is considered “fake news.”

For example, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court earlier dismissed a lawsuit from Trump’s campaign, severely criticizing the lack of merit in the campaign’s allegations. The story was widely covered by many media in Hong Kong but a large number of netizens have criticized it as “fake news” and questioned the media’s reporting of the matter. From a professional journalistic point of view, this piece of news is very important to the understanding of the election result, and it is certainly worth reporting. The judge’s ruling can also be easily found on U.S. websites, with no room for fraud. Of course, everyone has the right to dislike the judge’s verdict, but the Hong Kong media did not make any mistake in this matter. However, they were under siege simply because readers did not like the conclusion drawn from these reports.

If we judge whether a message is “true” or “false” purely on the basis of whether the conclusion is to our own liking, first of all, it means that we have become no different from Chan Pak Cheung. It also indicates that the “online migration wave” may not really be related to the “speech censorship,” but just to find a place to gather around for comfort.

Gathering together is not necessarily a problem in itself as it is human nature to hang out with like-minded people. However, humans are also social animals and cannot only be with people who are like themselves, especially when they want something from others. Nowadays, Hong Kong’s protest movement emphasizes international connectivity, but its understanding of international affairs is so rampant with conspiracy theories that even objective news reporting cannot be tolerated. How far such an unrealistic international connection can go is worrying.

To oppose “speech censorship” is essentially to allow the truth to be seen. However, if the principle of judging the truth itself has gone wrong, and the netizens themselves are also sending misinformation every day, then the “online migration wave” may not really bring us closer to the truth, it will just be “moving from one Chinatown to another.”

(Leung Kai-chi, current affairs commentator)

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