Last weekend, like a lot of other people, I watched from afar as the Hong Kong protests took over the city’s Central district. I spotted a tweet showing a photo of hundreds of people holding their hands in the air, and I immediately recalled the prior (and ongoing) protests in Ferguson, Missouri, where people had held their hands up as well.
Here’s what I put on Twitter:
I quickly got some Twitter replies from people who were enraged that I was — if I correctly understood their “logic” — taking the side of hoodlums against always-right law enforcement. I ignored them.
Then, however, I got some pushback from people who said I was completely wrong — in one person’s words, I was an “idiot” — in what I was suggesting.
Looking back, there was indeed a problem with what I posted: the word “emulating” in my original tweet. It was a careless word, and didn’t exactly reflect what I was thinking: a deep admiration for what the Hong Kong protesters were doing, and how the “hands up” gesture was the same as demonstrators in Ferguson (whom I also admire) had used. But even though I wasn’t certain it was a conscious channeling of the Ferguson protests, my tweet did connect the two situations, and it did strongly suggest the Hong Kong demonstrators had chosen to use common body language.
How could I possibly know that? A journalist at the Guardian asked, and I couldn’t disagree when he said I was creating an unproved connection.
I retweeted several news articles that asked this question and came up with inconclusive answers — and no compelling evidence that the Ferguson protests had been a major spark in Hong Kong.
So I considered removing the original tweet and replacing it with something much less declarative — something along the lines of “Amazing image, and wondering if there’s a connection to the Ferguson protests” or words to that effect — or posting a new tweet retroactively modifying the first one.
Too late. Hundreds of people had retweeted my tweet within hours.
Meanwhile, U.S. news organizations started using this notion as a mini-meme. Some of the coverage strongly suggested there was a connection; other coverage made it clear that this wasn’t known for sure.
I got in touch with a friend in Hong Kong and asked him. His reply:
I’d argue that the similarity in gesture with Ferguson is entirely coincidental.
Ferguson was simply not covered much here in Hong Kong, not in msm [mainstream media] and not in social media.
I don’t take it for granted that my Hong Kong friend was right. But I did trust his judgment. Which is the reason for this post: to express regret at my careless language — an unconscious reflection of my inevitably western view of the world — and hope the probably incorrect meme, which I helped push along, won’t be the one that survives.
I say this especially because of my admiration for the people of Hong Kong, where I’ve spent a great deal of time over the years. They are trying to save a (somewhat) democratic system of government, and preserve the relative freedom Hong Kong has enjoyed for many years. They know it is part of China now, but they also hoped the Beijing government would honor its “one country, two systems” pledge longer than it seems to be doing. What they are doing in the streets of their amazing city is profoundly important. It is history in the making, and they are making it for themselves.
I showed a draft of this post to my ASU Online digital media literacy students this week before putting it up here. I’ve spent a lot of time in the course telling them about the dangers of high-velocity information, and here I’d gone and done what I told them they should avoid. Their comments were useful, and I wanted to quote one in particular. In a media environment like the one we have now, the student advised us all, as media creators, to ask before we post:
Will someone who just glances at this understand my intent?
Not always, of course, no matter how hard we try. But I plan to keep this question in the back of my mind from now on.