My Take

Social media amplifies hate and despair

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 11 June, 2015, 1:34am
UPDATED : Thursday, 11 June, 2015, 1:34am

Like many grass-roots social movements around the world, Hong Kong's Occupy-inspired campaign for democracy among young people has been driven by social media.

Without Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter, it's hard to imagine how pro-democracy activists could have mobilised themselves and spread their messages so quickly and on such a massive scale.

But there are at least two negative consequences of social media that have been detrimental to this young political movement represented by the likes of Scholarism and the Federation of Students.

First, they are masters at mobilising for rallies, but weak and deficient in organising themselves into effective political parties. A student leader once told me he only needed to send a few tweets to get a few hundred people to show up for a rally, any rally. That's power. But the enormous political capital that was initially built up with Occupy was simply squandered in the end as enthusiasm petered out. Tweeting and rallying are no substitute for organising a party and articulating an effective platform and political agenda.

Second, social media tend to be echo chambers in which only views that are shared by the same groups of activists are shared and propagated. I suspect that's why those student leaders endlessly repeat the same points to the point of numbness, even to themselves.

The flip side of being an echo chamber is "trolling". Just as you prefer to hear only views that you approve of, you troll views that you disapprove of on the internet.

In 2014, a fascinating study was published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences, titled "Trolls Just Want to Have Fun". Three Canadian psychologists found a strong correlation between habitual internet commenting and personality disorders such as sadism, psychopathy and Machiavellianism. The extreme intolerance of other views is amply demonstrated by Civic Passion and other so-called "nativist" groups, and by the trolling of pro-China columnist Wat Wing-yin.

As the electoral reform package is about to go belly up, there is no question our activists will become more radical and confrontational. And as we enter a summer of hate and despair, the celebrated social media will amplify those messages.