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Is fake news altogether fake? Prof Donna Chu’s pitch for universal media education

“There’s a certain degree of authenticity in fake news, that’s how it’s made convincing. I was this close to falling for one the other day.” We met up with Prof Donna Chu at the Humanities Building where the School of Journalism and Communication is located – not a single soul in sight that day. Comfortably dressed in jeans and a jumper, she describes the recent developments of her social enterprise Mars Media, touches upon the talk of the town – misinformation, and recounts a few of her personal stories.

We had scheduled the interview on 2 April early on; it so happened that the resumption of home office arrangements was announced the week before. Just as we were dreading a potential impersonal video conference, Donna’s WhatsApp reply came through, accompanying positive vibes: “I’d like to head out too, the boredom is getting out of hand. ??”

An incumbent Associate Professor of CUHK’s School of Journalism and Communication, Donna is well versed in new media and popular culture research (thus the latest craze among youngsters). CUHK is indeed where she took root – she earned her bachelor’s degree here too.

Humanities Building atop CUHK. (Photo: SoCUBE)

A kaleidoscope of possibilities

Whereas many opted for the journalism programme to become a journalist (naturally), Donna was won over by a seminar at her secondary school, given by Lawrence Cheng (鄭丹瑞). “He unfurled his extravagant list of titles – DJ, screenwriter, producer of dramas and movies… Though I wasn’t entirely sure what he’s up to, I thought to myself, wouldn’t that be a great job to have?” She beams through her mask, her eyes lighting up.

Donna gravitated towards the job nature of “doing a bit of everything”, “someone suggested me to study journalism should I crave a better picture (of it), so it goes without saying – that was where I went.”

“‘Undefinable’ is itself a possibility.”

That marked the first turning point in her life, though Donna stresses that the point wasn’t how Lawrence had made an impact on her. Rather, it was her callow self – who expressed no interest towards typical professional careers – being shown that one kind of possibility. “You cross paths with a person, and that person presents you with a prospect. I consider this of the essence.” A diverse society, she believes, should show each of us different possibilities.

“If the young only ever find a finite selection of jobs, their imagination is narrowed.” She furthers that “undefinable” is a possibility in itself. “Many of my schoolmates were likely wondering what on earth Lawrence Cheng was doing, then stopped right there. I, on the other hand, would like to dig deeper.”

Donna graduated from CUHK’s School of Journalism and Communication and is teaching there today. (Photo: SoCUBE)

Nice to meet you, director

She embarked on her university journey with a heart brimming with curiosity. “Soon enough I knew the life of a journalist is not for me.” She describes the world as multifaceted, “truths and facts are important for sure, but I wanted to work on something else – something fun. I wanted to tell stories, work on fictions. I wanted to inject more possibilities into the world.”

Within her, a desire to create kept swelling. Donna interned at the Programmes Unit of Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK) in her third year, when she arrived at her second watershed. “I worked as a production assistant (PA) under an academically oriented director. On my first day, he handed me a heap of books to read back home. I was like, PAs had to study too?” The self-claimed good student obediently devoured the stack. Little did she expect, the read on cultural studies “opened up another realm” of her universe.

“The people and circumstances you come across, and the ‘nutrients’ you thus acquire.”

She had learned American communication theories, whereas the books discussed those originated from Europe and the UK, “I never imagined one could view media and culture this way.” The director also valued background research and posed thorough questions. This fired her with enthusiasm to study up. “Felt I’ve never been studying throughout my university years,” she laughed.

Having uncovered the fun of studying towards the end of her bachelor studies, Donna didn’t halt her steps. She landed a scholarship for a master’s degree in cultural studies in the UK; her thesis was on fan culture. “There you go, my two critical moments in life, marked by a seminar and a director. In retrospect, that’s exactly what Steve Jobs meant by connecting the dots – the dots being the people and circumstances you encounter, and the ‘nutrients’ they bestow you.”

On top of meaningful messages, Mars Media prizes design. As Donna stresses time and again, imagination and possibilities are the building blocks of a heterogeneous society. (Photo: Mars Media Facebook page)

Can you plan your life?

She wants to send a message to the younger generation in particular. “Many throws doubt on what they should do – what if I couldn’t find my inner calling? Am I pathetic to not have a dream? What if I have one but can’t seem to achieve it? There are a multitude of questions to ask, but looking back at my own journey, I couldn’t have planned it out.”

How then to cope when feeling lost and anxious? Donna, who started delving into Buddhist scriptures lately, shares her “Buddhist” take on life.

“Search your heart each time something happens. You’d feel differently meeting different people and occurrences, like how I still recall the layout of the school hall where Lawrence Cheng’s seminar happened. It is as if a bulb in your head lights up out of the blue. I may not be able to name that awesome thing, but the thing that can’t be named is itself a possibility. Why cast yourself in a particular mould?”

“Cruising between discipline and freedom”

Aspiring to break the mould, upon her return to Hong Kong, Donna commenced eight years of freelancing, or in popular terms, became a “slashie”. “I was involved with RTHK projects for a long time, as a screenwriter, director, researcher…I shot clips for corporates, conducted interviews for the Hong Kong Film Archive, taught part-time at university…” All the while investigating local media education for her PhD studies at HKU.

She treasures the unfettered lifestyle in this period, a lot. When “business” was bleak, she explored the art of cooking, taking things as they come. “I learned so much. First, discipline – complete what I’ve committed to finishing. Second, freedom. I was constantly sailing between the two.”

Of course, life of a slashie is not for everyone. “I always joke that (freelancers) don’t need new clothes; they are always seeing different people anyway! The downside is that accumulating experience is hard, and there’s no promotion nor a career path. But I don’t deem these important.”

Media is crucial, not regulation though

Freedom and fun are part and parcel of Donna’s value system; what of the society in general? She believes the media is indispensable – she even did her PhD thesis on media education, a concept she came to know in the UK. It should be noted that media education is “educating ABOUT media”, that is, knowing about media itself, not “through media”.

“Looking into critical theories from the UK, I realised media takes up a vital part of our lives. Back in my school days, pointed remarks were made in droves about the media, that it’s a bad influence on the adolescents hyping sex and violence, and called for regulation. Regardless, I still don’t believe in regulation to this day. I don’t support extensive regulation.” Precisely because the media hold much sway, “we all should develop an ability to work out what it is.”

In the age of citizen journalism, fake news and inaccurate information spread like wildfire, as societies are increasingly polarised. Getting down to the nature of media is more pressing than ever. Take Finland; not only does the country ranks consistently among the top for quality of education and level of happiness, but its citizens also boast leading resilience against misinformation. In the Media Literacy Index 2019, Finland topped the chart among 35 European countries, partly thanks to media education at school.

The Guardian reported that the Finnish government was at the mercy of a wave of fake news from Russia in 2014, opening their eyes to the necessity of nationwide awareness-raising. Since 2016, schools introduced “information literacy” elements across subjects to reinforce critical thinking. In a maths class, students would learn how data can be orchestrated to deceive; in arts, they explore how images are forged; in history, they analyse how political propaganda brainwashes.

Having practised “entrepreneurship-on-campus” for almost a decade, Donna is grateful for the help from multiple alumni, including two key members of Mars Media – Dorothy Wong (left; Programme Director) and Jeffery Loa (right; Content Manager). (Photo: SoCUBE)

A business of seeing through the media

“Media education is indispensable. During my eight years of freelancing, I often wonder what could be done in Hong Kong.” An opportunity to put this into practice came knocking on her door 10 years ago. CUHK pioneered an initiative that supports its faculty members to transfer their research outputs to the community, with funding. Donna brainstormed with Prof Eric Ma, giving birth to the Mars Media programme. They organise summer camps each year for a few dozens of secondary school students, who reflect on the influence and limitations of media through games. “This year’s would have been our ninth camp, if not for Covid-19.”

Nicknaming herself a “Senior Martian”, Donna keeps featuring the word “fun” as she explains the fun concept behind Mars Media. “It’s firstly a pun for mass media. Secondly, it means bringing you out of the earth and looking back on how you spend your days on it.”

“Think out of the earth”

The 3D2N summer camp is designed with different story settings each year. Students roleplay and learn to be an Earthling with the help of the media. “Last year was about social media and beauty. Students acted as KOLs, discovering ways to become pretty, as well as the costs to pay in the process.” The Mars Media team even built a fashion corner, enlisting alumni who are photography and fashion pros to give the students makeovers!

Squeezing time from her eventful teaching and research schedule for these “extra-curricular activities” sound reasonably tedious, yet Donna never grew tired of it. “It’s my hobby to take note of what’s in vogue in a given time, and what that tells us. Each year I meet a new group of secondary students with varying mental demeanours. The first batch all used Facebook. This year or two? Not even Instagram, for all one knows.”

The fun goes on, as Mars Elder and her Martian team of alumni grows. In 2017, Donna was backed by the CUHK Sustainable Knowledge Transfer Project Fund (S-KPF) to set up Mars Media Academy, furthering her mission of “thinking out of the earth” to the public.

The Martian headquarters has two main lines of businesses – public education and multimedia production. As false news gets thrusted into the limelight recently, Donna was inundated by invitations to host workshops on the topic. Though the majority got suspended due to the epidemic, her eyes shine with excitement as she affectionately introduces us to her workshops, with intriguing titles as “Truths Can’t Be Falsified” (「真的假不了」) and “Earth Live” (「瞬間看地球」).

“Digital Detoxification Camp” – one of Mars Media’s flagship events. Donna and her partner screen students’ media diet for “information indigestion”. (Photo: Mars Media)
Donna considers coming face-to-face with students and getting to know their unique traits as one of the greatest rewards for founding the company. (Photo: Mars Media)

Is the fake definitely not real?

The term “fake news” often pops up during our interview, though Donna is inclined to using “misinformation” in public settings, to the point of declaring there’s no such thing as “real news”. “When you say ‘fake news’, are you assuming there’s ‘real news’? But all news involves a selection process, fashioned from assorted news angles and values. The best we can do is to approach the facts as much as possible. Knowing how news is produced – now that’s important.”

She also points out that the so-called fake news is not utterly unfounded, “it’s usually a mixture, 100% fake is likely just for fun.” She raises two recent examples that found enormous traction with significant swathes of the public.

The first case is “Bill Gates’ letter”, widely peddled via WhatsApp this March. Gates allegedly wrote that the epidemic constitutes a “spiritual” lesson and called for self-reflection on the value of life. The letter, overflowing with positivity, was even published on The Sun, until realising it was spurious and retracted the report.

“So, the matter was made up – does that render the teaching false?”

“Bill Gates may not have said such things, but it didn’t change the fact that the content was insightful. The matter itself was made up – does that falsify the teaching behind?” It is her wish that through these instances, students would recognise there’s no distinct boundary between real and fake.

“I almost got misled myself a while ago.” The fact-check expert refers to that viral video of a dolphin frolicking in a “Venetian canal”, along with other creatures that made a comeback with plummeted visitor numbers. She believed it at first, but as National Geographic later delineated, the video was real all right. Only, it hadn’t been filmed in Venice (bummer).

▼ Some netizens misreported the dolphin clip as being taken in Venice and countless were too eager to believe the uplifting news.

Truth be told, much like good and evil, it’s hard to draw a line between truth and falsehood. A new study from the University of Oxford revealed that 59% of the time, misinformation was interwoven with partial truths to masquerade as authentic knowledge, while 38% was entirely fabricated. Now, “deep fake” techniques keep reaching new heights, and people share mechanically even knowing what they’re passing on is dubious. How do we swim against the tide?

Donna, who has a habit of daily meditation, advised holding the use of social media in check. “There’s hardly a need to read that much news, nor to be updated every single minute. Keep a distance, keep an eye on your emotions. When you feel extra agitated, ask yourself – is what you’ve read actually real?” She allots the surplus time for reading novels and getting creative.

Take it slow with Mars Slowly

In this “post-truth” era, the media is engaged in a race for eyeballs, fuelling a hotchpotch of news and noise. Some started espousing philosophies as “less is more” and “slow is the new fast”, urging to reset our pace of life. In similar regard, Donna and her team plan to roll out house publication Mars Slowly, promoting the concepts of slow journalism and news curation. Only one key event would be discussed per month.

“We would check out how different media outlets reported this same incident when it caught attention, and why so. Which angles have been blown out of proportion, and which equally important ones have been brushed aside?”

“We are selling a transformation of thoughts.”

Slow journalism has gained momentum in the Western market; what about in Hong Kong, with its prevalent culture of instant gratification? Would Mars Slowly arrive at a sustainable business model?

“We are selling an experience, a thought transformation.” While Donna confesses to having no idea how many “slow” readers they’d attract, the publication would be consistent with her usual style – “meaningful, doable, fun. The same principles on which I decide to go ahead with a project or not. Let’s see if anyone would generously support (Mars Slowly) when this article airs, haha! ??”

Do email us your thoughts on Mars Slowly!

Mars Media at a glimpse

(Figure: Mars Media)

Founding year: 2017
Founder: Prof Donna Chu
Members: Alumni of CUHK School of Journalism and Communication, seasoned media professionals
Mission: With Hong Kong as a starting point, to promote Media and Information Literacy (MIL) through innovative education programmes, activities and products, wielding professional experience in media, creativity and fun to weather the ever-changing IT and media environment
Services: MIL education programmes, events, talks, workshops and consultancy
Product: Multimedia production
Facebook: marsmediaacademy

Media Education|Scholarly keyword

(Figure: Mars Media)

Countering misinformation is a topical issue worldwide. While some countries (such as Singapore and France) reinforced relevant legislation, Donna objected to “substantial” regulations and instead, advocates capacity building in combatting misinformation. Besides public education, she suggests introducing components into our primary and secondary school curriculum – not necessarily as an individual subject; workshops and group activities would be helpful additions.

The Guardian described how Finland, jeopardised by fake news from Russia in 2014, started a series of measures to raise public awareness, including the injection of cross-disciplinary elements on information literacy into schools. The country topped the Media Literacy Index last year.

By Kary Wong@ORKTS
English translation by Cathy Wong@ORKTS

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