Political PR: More Hong Kong election candidates mobilising voters through Facebook

Facebook charts growing role of social media in Hong Kong's political sphere.

Leung Kwok Hung, well-known as
Leung Kwok Hung, well-known as "long hair", is most popular with 206,849 FB likes

HONG KONG - Many candidates running in this year’s LegCo elections are noticeably more active sharing campaign schedules and views on Facebook—a nod to social media's role in Hong Kong’s political sphere.

The 2016 Legislative Council (LegCo) Elections are significant in several ways. Firstly, this year will include the most number of candidates and party lists in LegCo history. A total of 213 candidates belonging to 84 lists are competing for the geographic constituency seats and 21 candidates belonging to nine lists contesting the functional constituency seats.

Secondly, many senior LegCo members are not running for re-election this year; younger members of their parties are. So social media potentially plays a more prominent role in their political-PR efforts.

Thirdly, the election occurs just two years after the politically-divisive Umbrella Revolution, which was at that time targeted at and started by, again, younger citizens.

Earlier this month, Facebook released engagement insights, mostly quantitative, for the upcoming electoral candidates, which were based solely on publicly available information on their official Facebook pages.

More than 90 percent of those in the 'geographical constituency and district council' category have already set up an official Facebook page, versus 44 percent for the 'functional constituency' category.

The social-networking giant published hierarchies of candidates on their popularity ('likes'), user interaction and daily political-PR activity (see below).

In an interview with Campaign Asia-Pacific, Facebook’s head of public policy for Hong Kong and Taiwan, George Chen, explained the motivation of the ranking. “There has been a platform shift for political discourse in Hong Kong," he said. "While it is too early to speculate that digital would take over traditional means of political discussion and candidate-voter interaction, social networking sites have certainly emerged as a widely-used stage for authentic conversations about politics.”

Chen further emphasised the ubiquity of social-media usage in Hong Kong, pointing out that five million people in Hong Kong use Facebook every month, making the study of political PR on social media insightful.

It is worth pointing out that 'likes' and 'user interaction' (which includes reactions, views, shares and comments, according to Facebook) of a candidate may not always accurately reflect voter sentiment. 

Clara Shek, managing director at Ogilvy Public Relations Hong Kong, used Hau Chi Keung from New Territories East as an example. The rural leader has strong support from indigenous villagers, and may not utilise social media to help secure his votes, as his target electorate is not active there.

Shek also pointed out that DAB candidate Christopher Chung’s Facebook page saw a great increase in 'likes' following his (since retracted) announcement to step down from DAB (the shorthand name for the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong). This possibly shows social media is not an appropriate means of engagement for politicians if they are, in general, deemed unpopular offline.

Campaign tried to obtain more extensive data to determine whether there is a correlation between the candidates' daily Facebook activity and how engaged they are with the voting public. Due to privacy and practicality concerns, Facebook could not provide this information.

Quality of content is essential

Facebook’s study revealed that concision and authenticity of content are important for political PR practitioners. 

The abundance of information on social networks coupled with Hong Kongers’ hectic lifestyles means voters tend to spend little time studying Facebook posts in detail, making to-the-point posts most effective. A content calendar also ensures candidates are engaging in relevant conversations at the right times, said Chen. 

Authenticity also appeals, with social media users bored by the usual rehearsed displays from politicians, and instead favouring more natural and genuine interactions.

Chen recommended short videos using the Live function as well as posts depicting a mixture of politicians’ personal lives, behind-the-scenes work and formal political discussions.

Is there fair play for all?

Chen also admitted the Facebook algorithm that decides what posts users see may create “echo chambers”, where they see posts coming from the same sources more and more often, reflecting a narrowing spectrum of political opinion. These chambers may be hard for candidates to reach another audience that does not already support them. 

However, Chen maintained that good content should be able to combat this barrier.

Ogilvy's Shek added that candidates can “penetrate the chambers” by having a clear stance on what they are championing. "Find ways to drive the news agenda, and have a point of view on emerging issues that no one else has talked about yet but could potentially address many [voter] concerns,” she said.

"The algorithms are not an issue. Think about it, even without Facebook, voter behaviour would be the same offline. No matter how many times you bump into a politican campaigning on the streets, you will still walk away if you don't prefer him or her," said Chen.

This is more about "throwing a challenge" to electoral candidates (and their PR agencies) to make their content more interesting via the tips given above. The onus is on each candidate, not on Facebook algorithms, he emphasised.

What's in it for Facebook?
Fair or not, the debated algorithms may work to all candidates' advantage come this Sunday 4 September, when Facebook will be reminding its users that it is the polling day for LegCo. Users aged 18 and above will see a reminder message on their news feed to cast their vote.

This is part of Facebook's ‘Megaphone’ initiative that has been rolled out at key election seasons across nearly 50 countries and territories, including Taiwan, Korea, Japan, Philippines and Australia, to date.

By contrast with other platforms, very few candidates are actively using Twitter, Line or Instagram. The usage of social media by Hong Kong politicians is largely restricted to one medium, Facebook.

When asked about monetisation via sponsored content during election seasons benefitting Facebook, Chen stated that that is not necessarily the main goal. "We want to fulfil our mission statement: to give people equal opportunities to access the politicians".
Although a generous amount of Facebook 'likes' could equate to voter support, take note that this may only make a difference when older voters and young voters favour different candidates.

Electoral candidates with most ‘Likes’

In the 'geographical constituency and district council' category:

1) Leung Kwok Hung
2) Roy Kwong
3) Alvin Yeung
4) Ricky Wong Wai Kay
5) Regina Ip
In the 'functional constituency' category:
1) Charles Mok
2) Dennis Kwok
3) Adrian Chow
4) Ip Kin Yuen
5) Ken Tsang
Electoral candidates with most user interactions
In the 'geographical constituency and district council' category:
1) Roy Kwong
2) Lau Siu Lai
3) Alvin Yeung
4) Claudia Mo
5) Tanya Chan
In the 'functional constituency' category:
1) Adrian Chow
2) Edward Yiu
3) Charles Mok
4) Dennis Kwok
5) Shiu Ka Chun
Electoral candidates who are the most active (high average number of daily posts)
In the 'geographical constituency and district council' category:
1) Alvin Cheng Kam Mun
2) Cheng Chung Tai
3) Claudia Mo
4) Starry Lee
5) Lau Siu Lai
In the 'functional constituency' category:
1) Charles Mok
2) Shiu Ka Chun 
3) Ip Kin Yuen
4) Eric Yeung
5) Edward Yiu


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