The generation leading Hong Kong protests doesn’t use Facebook - and that matters
The Hong Kongers participating in the ongoing anti-extradition law demonstrations are young, in general, with many of them born after 2000. A little noticed characteristic of them, I think, might help explain the “efficacy” and “unpredictability” of actions we saw in last two weeks.
Some context first.
On the morning of July 1, many anti-government HKers were expecting another large turn out in the march in downtown Causeway Bay, maybe a short term occupation in Admiralty. Some of the young people, nonetheless, determined to escalate the protest.
They tried to force their way into Legislative Council building that morning, and, finally, stormed into and occupied the de facto parliament of the city for several hours in the evening.
This is an unprecedented and unforeseen action.
One has to know that “taking over” the Legco was an option long discussed, and tried, during the occupation period back in 2014. Protestors back then never quite had the determination, and they never get the level of support among fellow protesters like the current generation does.
My wild guess is that while the 2014 generation were led by people "addicted" to Facebook, the current younger generation don’t use FB; they thinks FB is "too old" for them.
FB is the most popular social media in HK. It was most popular five years ago, it still is today. The only different is that it is no longer popular among the teens now. The young ones prefer Instagram or Snapchat.
Five years ago, FB was the venue for online discussion about the so-called "Occupy Central" action plan. Political figures, online influencers and netizens actively participated in the discussion. How to improve the plan, why I disagree with plan, what to do next after the occupation… Discussion like flooded our FB feeds.
Many say the problem of FB is that it is an echo chamber. It amplifies the voices similar to your existing beliefs and you will not aware of other opinion.
This is the long term effect, though.
During a major social event like Umbrella Revolution, what also happened is that FB grouped people who are anti-government in the same space, then argument about how to implement the protests started to appear, and appear a lot.
Remember, occupation and civil disobedience were new ideas for most HKers, people simply have zero experience. So, different "school of thoughts" arise and FB put together all these different thinking in the same space. Then people argued.
Remember, FB algorithm encourages "engagement". Posts feed on comments and comments feed on replies. What kind of posts draw most comments and replies? Ideas that one half of the people disagree with the other half.
During the 2014 movement, FB acted as an amplifier of the disagreement between different "school of thoughts" on the protest. Whenever a new idea comes out, say storming the Legco, you can easily find disagreement on the FB news feeds.
"It’s a trap set by the police!"
"These acts will ruin the whole protest!"
"The ones who suggest this are traitors!"
Disagreement divided support for most new ideas and discouraged protestors from "experimenting" new tactics. The whole protest soon evolved into "philosophical discussions."
Now, fast forward to 2019. FB still full of disagreement about how the protest should move forward. However it doesn’t have much effect on how the protests actually proceed.
Simply, those who "act" might not even have a FB account, and they wasted no time on engaging the arguments.
They are the Instagram generation. Picture, video and live streams are their way of social media-ing. Discussion with words and sentences? That’s just time-wasting.
Also, Instagram is not good venue for political discussion; Or, any meaningful discussion.
Now, enter the extradition law.
The law, once passed, will enable HK government to send criminal wanted by the Chinese government to the mainland, a tool which many HKers worries will be used to silence political dissident in HK.
The young generation are against this law as it might spell the end of individual freedom in HK, but their usual social media tool is not good venue for politic discussion.
Where should they go? LIHKG forum is one of the destinations.
Established since 2016, LIHKG soon became one of the most popular forum in HK.
Think of it as a Reddit full of young HKers sympathetic to anti-government movements. In normal times, people goes there for all sort of information and discussion on entertainment, sports, travel and politics. In critical times like the last few months, young people goes to LIHKG to discuss their action plans for the protests.
Just like any online forum, registered users can publish a post and wait for upvotes and comments. And there is a subtle but important difference between forum and FB .
On FB, the most supported plan might not get the most reach. The algorithm rewards the most "controversial" ideas instead. In fact, the posts that generated negative comments usually thrives.
On LIHKG, however, the "voting" system is more linear and direct. Users will upvote and leave comments like "PUSH" （推）to help further the popularity of the posts.
Negative comments will not be emphasized, as many are buried in the sea of "push". If the ideas are bad, it will be ignored and goes to the bottom of the feeds.
Also, users on LIHKG are anonymous.
People usually refrain from giving radical ideas on FB, as the social media platform requires "real identities" when you register. Even you can still register with anonymized identity by giving fake names, other users are not and they will think twice before dissimilating radical, sometimes illegal, ideas.
LIHKG, on the other hand, thrives on anonymous people shouting out radical, sometimes ridiculous, ideas. It is in the forum’s DNA.
The younger generation used LIHKG as the venue for their political discussion platform, the kind of "philosophical discussion" back in 2014 just doesn’t have the soil to thrive again. The result is that less time are used on arguing, more on planning and execution.
Disagreement no longer at the front seats of the movement. This time, consensus building are easier and "efficiency" enhanced.
A good example is the crowdfunding campaign to publish an open letter on major international newspapers seeking help from G20 leaders. Close to HKD 5.5 million raise in one day, and the open letter was posted on NYT, FT, WSJ, FAZ and many others. The idea started on LIHKG and generated enormous backing there.
Does FB still has a role in this protest, you ask?
As it is still the most popular social media in HK, it is still the best amplifier of the anti-government sentiment and tool for updates of the latest actions.
The difference is this time influencers on FB don’t have obsevable influence on the frontline action takers, who may not have a habit of checking FB.
Now, protesters build consensus on LIGHK and used Telegram groups, channels for action planning, their action are more efficient but also more impulsive. General public without much inside knowledge, however, will be surprised by how they act and think.
And, those small groups of frontline "fighters" don’t have leaders that talk in front of camera and explan; they plan and act anonymously, and behind the scene.
FB influencers and political figures can follow the lead of the unnamed action takers, and argue about the action after the fact.
The way the movement operates just turned form top-to-bottom, that is, well known public figure plans and lead the movement, to bottom-to-top, where nobody knows what will happen going forward, and we have to decide whether to join the action after it started.
This is just an hypothesis I formulated basing on piecemeal person observations. I don’t claim that the above hypothesis can explain all the differences between the movement now and the one in 2014. Protesters gained a lot of valuable "anti-police" experiences during the past five years is a factor I have omitted here, for example. The role of Telegram as a communication tool in the current movement is another omitted, yet important factor.
Nonetheless, I hope the above hypothesis of how the younger generation’s online habit may have changed the way protest movements in HK evolves can provide a frameowork to better understand the young protesters.
People with more knowledge on the matters, I invite you to further study this topic. If you disagree with the theory, please also let me know, as my understanding of the movement is far from perfect, and I’d love to learn more about it.