Who’s to blame for the political divide in Hong Kong? It’s partly Facebook, study says

HKU research finds trend of ‘echo chambers’ on social media and widening gap in society’s views to be correlated

PUBLISHED : Monday, 28 August, 2017, 9:02am
UPDATED : Monday, 28 August, 2017, 9:02am

For the first time in a local study, Facebook has been shown to have played a role in the political polarisation of Hong Kong with researchers warning that overreliance on social media for information could further widen the gap and fuel tensions.

The report by a doctorate student from the University of Hong Kong looked into how the city was affected by the online phenomenon known as “cyberbalkanisation” – where people only seek out others who are like-minded, creating an “echo chamber” and isolating themselves from those who do not hold the same views.

The study, co-authored with HKU’s journalism and media studies centre associate professor Fu King-wah, was published in an international academic journal earlier this month.

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Chan Chung-hong analysed 1,644 pages on Facebook, splitting them into 10 groups, ranging from activists to autonomists and conservatives. He then compared the findings with polarised results in popularity polls for the chief executive.

His analysis showed cyberbalkanisation preceded the opinion divide captured in polls, showing that online results and views in the city were correlated.

There are five million active Hong Kong users monthly on the social media platform.

An index to measure the degree of cyberbalkanisation was computed from the sharing of posts within the pages of these communities, and between the different groups.

All publicly available posts on the pages between July 1, 2014 and June 30, 2015 were used as samples.

Chan said although the study strongly hinted that cyberbalkanisation contributed to the divide, “more study under different environments to further investigate this mechanism” was needed.

“As people tend to seek out only others who are like-minded, the ratio between intra-community and inter-community sharing is 7:3 on normal days,” Chan said.

But during the 2014 pro-democracy Occupy movement, particularly on days when the police fired tear gas to disperse protesters, he found a surge in intra-community sharing, resulting in a ratio of 9:1.

As the ratio gets higher, so does the cyberbalkanisation index, reflecting a greater extent of polarisation in the real world at a later stage.

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The time lag between a high index and HKU public opinion polls with polarised results during the study period was about 21 days. Poll respondents gave extreme ratings of below 2.5 and above 97.5 percentage points.

The index was particularly predictive among youth, as more young people are active Facebook users.

Chan said that the phenomenon was backed by social theories on selective exposure and social comparison.

He said people tended to favour information reinforcing their pre-existing views, while individuals opt to align their opinions with the popular strain of thought in a group, so as to be perceived well by fellow members.

“If a pro-activist page shares a post from a similar page scolding an official, the intent is not for the post to be read by the official. They are just performing for an audience with the same ideological views,” Chan said.

He called this kind of behaviour “echo-slamming”, which could lead to more extreme views being developed.

Chan added it was worrying that his study found the overall percentage of Facebook pages with a moderate stance had declined, while those with extreme views grew in the span of one year.

“Under a very polarised society, we will not have many mutual experiences or common beliefs – ‘core values’ in other words ... We argue but do not really interact.

“Social media is seen as a good thing for people to access information beyond their boundaries in real life. But it has also driven us further away from democracy in some sense,” he said.

He acknowledged that although it might be against human instinct to reach out to others who hold different views, people should stay open-minded and look for common ground.