Face­book and the age of dig­i­tal democ­racy

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - HKCOMMENT - JONY LAM The author is a cur­rent af­fairs com­men­ta­tor.

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.

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