Four pro-establishment candidates in Hong Kong’s “all patriots” election on Sunday have seen a single surge in their Facebook followers within a short time during the campaign period, with increases ranging between 1,000 and 11,000, according to data analysed by HKFP.

From left to right: Ashley Tse, Connie Lam, Louis Chen, Tony Yau. Photo: Candidates’ Facebook.

Meanwhile, an overwhelming number of user interactions on posts from one candidate were from accounts with Turkish names. Experts on social media say these are typical signs of inauthentic behaviour on the social media network.

Data from Facebook’s analytics tool Crowdtangle showed that the pages for Legislative Council candidates Louis Chen Xiaofeng, Connie Lam So-wai, Ashley Tse Hiu-hung all saw a surge within a single day, sometime between November and December, while candidate and Tony Yau Wai-kwong saw a surge within two consecutive days.

Connie Lam, a candidate in the New Territories South West district, created a fan page in July 2019. It consistently had about 90 followers for over 18 months, with no new followers for most of 2021. But the number began growing in early November during the nomination period for candidates. On December 1, Lam’s page added 11,300 followers within the day.

The page then lost dozens of followers in successive days until the drop gradually slowed down to single digits as of Friday.

Reviewing the Crowdtangle data for HKFP, University of Hong Kong associate professor Masato Kajimoto, who specialises in misinformation ecosystems on social media in Asia, said the single surge appeared “very suspicious” and “definitely not natural.”

Chances that these additions were genuine would be “quite low,” said a digital marketing consultant, another expert who spoke to HKFP. He spoke under condition of anonymity for fear of retribution.

He explained that it was usually impossible to prove whether a page had purchased followers or “likes” from click farms, but companies wishing to place sponsored content on Facebook pages typically analyse pages for tell-tale signs of inauthentic behaviour.

None of the four candidates returned HKFP’s repeated requests for comment via email, telephone and Whatsapp.

Cliff hangers

The growth in followers for Lam, Tse and Chen demonstrated the same characteristics of a single surge.

Tse’s page created in late November had seven followers for more than two weeks, until December 9 when it gained 1,500. Chen’s page added 1,400 followers on November 15, while Yau’s page added a combined 1,061 new followers on two days, December 13 and 14.

With relatively small numbers of followers to begin with, a surge of even a thousand – which could be considered normal for larger Facebook pages with hundreds of thousands of followers – represented a huge increase.

Line graphs demonstrating the number of followers on the four candidates’ pages each show a vertical climb that flattens out, forming the shape of a cliff.

“This is definitely not natural and my guess would be that these followers are not organic,” Kajimoto said. “The growth should be much slower.. and more gradual” for fan pages which grow their followers naturally.

“There might be a few spikes as well, not just one spike in one day and then it dies down.”

The consultant who spoke with HKFP echoed Kajimoto’s views. While candidates may rally supporters to follow their pages during a particular event or on other platforms outside of Facebook, it would be unlikely for these to cause a surge within a single day, they said. “Their growth patterns are identical… While there are always slim possibilities that something unlikely would happen, that several unlikely instances to occur the same way, I would say it is quite strange.”

Even though offline events could instantly boost online followers, such as when a celebrity on stage asks thousands in the audience to follow them on Facebook, Kajimoto said, “they don’t do it at the same time. Maybe they are busy. They will do it the following day, two days later.”

Connie Lam’s Facebook ads. Photo: Facebook.

Facebook users may purchase ads from the platform itself with the specific goal of boosting followers, a type of advertising known as “Page Like Ads.” Users may, in theory, run the ad for only one day – leading to a single-day increase in followers – but the experts believe this scenario is unlikely. Most advertisers want their ads displayed over several days.

Purchasing followers entails a network of fake accounts being instructed to follow a page or “like” content. Whilst placing ads encourages or solicits interaction from genuine users.

Following revelations in the US that the election campaign for former president Donald Trump used Facebook ads to manipulate voter behaviour, the social media giant now displays active ads in their respective “ad libraries.” The ad libraries will also display inactive ads that expired but only if they were posted as political or election ads by the user, a requirement that has not been made mandatory for Hong Kong users.

Of the four candidates, only Lam was running official ads at the time of writing.

One website that offers the service of inflating Facebook page followers. “Followers” from Hong Kong, Macau or Taiwan cost six times as much as those from unspecified locations. Photo: Screenshot.

Meanwhile, most Facebook posts on Tse’s page attracted zero interactions from users despite the recent exponential growth to her page. A handful of posts had a single “like” response.

Tse is a candidate in the functional constituency representing delegates to Chinese government bodies.

Kajimoto explained that the discrepancy – a huge increase in purported followers but almost no responses to posts – was a common symptom of pages that garnered followers using “unnatural” tactics.

File photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

Facebook pages that wish quickly to increase follower numbers may purchase the numbers from “click farms” – companies that control masses of fake user accounts to follow specific pages. Increasing the number of followers and increasing the amount of interactions per post, however, are usually separate services for which a customer would have to pay twice.

In other words, the fake accounts instructed to follow a page will not interact with its posts, unless there have been two payments.

Lam’s page demonstrates the same disconnect between the amounts of followers and interactions, the consultant noted, where the number of interactions to every post remained at similar levels below 100, despite adding 11,300 new followers.

For Chen, however, a candidate in the legal functional constituency, several posts on his page – with its 1,600 followers in total after a 1,400 increase – garnered between 500 to 1,000 interactions each. The vast majority were from users with Turkish names. Other posts from the candidate – known for his election promise of “no change” – showed interactions in single digits.

A large number of foreign users interacting with a page may be the unwanted result of ads with poorly targeted geographical locations, the expert suggested. Chen’s page was not running ads at the time of the review, although expired ads would only show up in the ad library if they were placed as political promotions.

Users interacting with Louis Chen’s Facebook posts appear to be mostly foreign. Photo: Louis Chen’s Facebook.

Six of Chen’s slick election videos also accumulated between 500 to 1,000 “likes” each even as the view counts remained at about 30 to 60, meaning only dozens viewed the videos beyond three seconds, while hundreds hit the “like” button without watching. One anomaly was Chen’s first video, with only six “likes”.

“I would tend to think this is caused by machines, because this is so disproportionate,” the consultant said.

Chen’s first post also had over 730 interactions the day the page was created, on November 8, even though the page had no followers until two days later.

Most of Louis Chen’s videos accumulated between 500 to 1,000 “likes” but just 30 to 60 views each. Photo: Louis Chen’s Facebook.

Facebook page administrators who acquire inauthentic followers will achieve the opposite result than what is intended, the consultant said. “Your numbers will actually become worse,” he said. “Facebook will think you have a lot of followers, but [your content] still performs poorly. The algorithm will then make it even worse” by displaying the page content to fewer users through its automated process.

“It’s quite silly,” he said.

Impressive optics

Both analytics experts said acquiring followers or interactions through inauthentic methods would not help candidates win an election, as a page will not reach more genuine users or potential voters.

It won’t sway an election, “but the optics look good,” Kajimoto said. “So your Facebook page has 20,000 followers, that looks more impressive now.”

The consultant, meanwhile, said only candidates joining the race at a late stage with no prior track record in public life might consider inflating their following. “If they were someone who has been working in the community… you would have exposure and people will remember your name,” he said.

“If there is one year to groom them,” the problem wouldn’t exist, he said. “But it isn’t the case now. Options become very limited.” For someone who needs to boost their perceived popularity within a short time, buying followers with money is one way.

Ballots. File Photo: GovHK.

An additional hurdle for candidates to grow followers during this year’s campaign period leading up to the revamped “all patriots” election, the consultant said, was that none presented platforms unique enough to bolster popularity.

“There hasn’t been any hot issues [in this election] apart from [calling for] an MTR station in Sai Wan Ho,” he said, referring to pro-establishment candidate who did not appear to know a station had been open since 1985. “It’s like a brand page trying to sell products from last year.”

Could a candidate use the size of their Facebook following to convince voters such as figures in special interest sectors or the powerful 1,448 election committee members, that they have public support and is worthy of their ballot?

“Election committee members wouldn’t vote for you based on your follower numbers,” the consultant said. “Your followers are in Iraq.”


New Territories South East

  • Districts included: Sai Kung District, and the eastern part of Sha Tin
  • Projected population as at June 2021: 746,400
  • Number of registered voters: 472,203

Candidates:

  1. Daryl Choi Ming-hei: Choi was once a Civic Party member and now describes himself as Democrat from Grassroots.
  2. Stanley Li Sai-wing: Li is a candidate of the pro-Beijing DAB.
  3. Lam So-wai: Lam is a pro-establishment candidate, representing Professional Power Limited.

More about Beijing’s election overhaul – click to view

In March, 2021, Beijing passed legislation to ensure “patriots” govern Hong Kong. The move reduced democratic representation in the legislature, tightened control of elections and introduced a pro-Beijing vetting panel to select candidates. The Hong Kong government said the overhaul would ensure the city’s stability and prosperity. But the changes also prompted international condemnation, as it makes it near-impossible for pro-democracy candidates to stand.

Where are Hong Kong’s opposition figures? – click to view

Major pan-democracy groups have not put forward any candidates following the Beijing-led overhaul. Most of the city’s opposition figures remain behind bars, are abroad in self-exile, have quit politics or are barred from running.


Functional constituency candidates in the legal sector include Ambrose Lam and Louis Chen. Those in the Commercial (Third) sector include Yim Kong and Tony Yau, and those in the sector for Deputies to the National People’s Congress and the national committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference and representatives of relevant national organisations include Ashley Tse and Chan Yung.

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Selina Cheng

Selina Cheng is a Hong Kong journalist who previously worked with HK01, Quartz and AFP Beijing. She also covered the Umbrella Movement for AP and reported for a newspaper in France. Selina has studied investigative reporting at the Columbia Journalism School.