Facebook and the age of digital democracy

Updated: 2013-08-24 08:09

By Jony Lam(HK Edition)

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The latest Facebook statistics for Hong Kong show that more than 2.9 million active users visited Facebook daily in the second quarter of 2013. Of these users, more than 2.4 million (82.7 percent) used their mobile devices to visit the social network each day. For users who logged onto Facebook at least once a month, the figure is a staggering 4.3 million, with more than 3.5 million visiting via their mobile devices.

These figures mean that 40 percent of Hong Kong's citizens use Facebook daily and 67 percent of them use it monthly. Most of them use it on mobile devices. That explains all the people staring at their smartphone screens in the MTR.

Discounting the population's infants and elderly, as well as the inactive accounts, it seems that practically all economically and socially active members of our society have a Facebook account. The majority use the social network site at least once a month, if not daily.

In the past we believe we can only know what the public thinks about an issue if we survey a random sample of adults. The entire polling industry is built on this view, and we hold elections from time to time so as to ascertain openly, fairly and officially, who is going to be office holder of the various public positions. Recently, new research in computer science, sociology and political science shows that data extracted from social media platforms yield accurate measurements of public opinion. A study conducted in the US by Joseph DiGrazia, Karissa McKelvey, Johan Bollen and Fabio Rojas finds that what people say on Twitter or Facebook is a very good indicator of how they will vote.

Considering that our last LegCo election had a turnout of only 1.8 million voters (and that's the highest in years, if not in the city's history), the views expressed regularly by 4.3 million Hong Kong residents on Facebook is arguably more representative. Expression on Facebook is not limited to ticks, and therefore can more accurately reflect our society's diversified opinions. Some call this an emerging form of public decision-making enabled by the new "digital democracy".

An analysis of the unstructured data expressed in the social network site will find that, contrary to what is portrayed in media, most of us are talking about things like cute cats, not politics. An ongoing monitoring mechanism will be able to ring a bell if someday people indeed stop talking about cats and turn to politics.

The US study also finds that it doesn't depend on exactly what people say or who says it. Total discussion count alone, regardless of content, can accurately estimate each candidate's share of votes. This suggests if people must talk about a candidate, even in negative ways, it is a signal that he or she is on the verge of victory. The attention given to winners creates a situation in which all publicity is good publicity. Given this insight, Alpais Lam Wai-sze may actually have a high chance winning an election if it is held in the near future.

This brings us back to the fact that, as this column has previously discussed, social media also has a darker side. Lurking behind users' ability to generate and disseminate content at a low cost is the subtle influence of other forces. While we would like to associate the "social" with empowerment and a paradise free of business and other interests, it is not.

Consider how certain videos go viral. The majority of them are not accidents, instead it is down to corporations or influential groups and individuals pushing it out and making it popular. Corporations made the trend reach a certain level of popularity and then individuals just followed what was popular without figuring out who or what drove the trend in the first place. The more popular something is, the more likely we are going to get involved, either by creating our own version, sharing it or interacting with it.

We don't pay Facebook for our accounts; others are supplying the funds so paychecks to its employees can be made. How these sponsors are going to influence our public decision-making process via the social network site remains to be seen.

The author is a current affairs commentator.

(HK Edition 08/24/2013 page1)