As the sole contender in Sunday’s small-circle chief executive election, John Lee is destined to lead Hong Kong for the next five years. Lee formally announced his run on April 9 – less than a month before polling day, and just a day after his Facebook page was launched – albeit without a profile picture or description in the “about” section.

The page was updated the next day. Over the next few weeks, Lee’s campaign team shared content on Facebook and Instagram at a frequency that far surpassed the top two candidates in the 2017 leadership race. Back then Carrie Lam, John Tsang and Woo Kwok-hing ran, garnering 66.8 per cent, 31.4 per cent and less than 2 per cent of the votes, respectively.

An illustration on John Lee’s Facebook page, posted Thursday, reads “Improve medical care systems in hospitals, promote Chinese medicine.” Photo: Screenshot, via John Lee/Facebook.

Responses to Lee’s posts, however, remain much lower than those for Lam and Tsang, although the number rose considerably when the government confirmed on April 18 that he was the sole contender.

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In marked contrast to 2017, the publication of Lee’s manifesto attracted expressions of fulsome support from members of the Legislative Council, which is now dominated by pro-Beijing elites following a political overhaul decreed by the central government last year.

The Hong Kong public has never been able to elect its own leader. But the overhaul introduced a newly-expanded Election Committee of almost 1,500 establishment elites. And, without democratic representation, it put forth a multilayer vetting mechanism to ensure their allegiance to Hong Kong.

See also: Explainer: 7 ways Beijing reduced democratic representation in Hong Kong’s elections

As the only candidate, Lee was all but guaranteed to become the city’s next leader.

HKFP compares John Lee’s social media pages with 2017 candidates Carrie Lam and John Tsang’s. Photos: Facebook.

HKFP has examined engagement, followers and content to compare Lee’s approach to social media with the strategies of Lam and Tsang in 2017.

Lowest engagement

Lee’s social media engagement fell far short of Lam’s and Tsang’s, according to an analysis of the number of reactions to Facebook posts during the first three weeks after they announced their runs. He had an average of around 5,885 reactions to his top three posts, compared with about 29,340 and 33,940 received by Lam and Tsang, respectively.

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Even Lee’s most popular Facebook post – a response to Google’s termination of his YouTube channel in accordance with US sanctions – garnered only around 7,000 reactions, nearly half of which were “haha.”

Like Tsang, reactions to Lee were overwhelmingly positive. Around 88 per cent were “likes,” while seven per cent were “love” or “care” reactions. For simplicity’s sake, HKFP has combined both types of reactions as Facebook had not introduced “care” at the time of the 2017 race. Lam on the other hand received mostly “angry” reactions.

HKFP also used a third-party tool to obtain three social engagement metrics from Lee’s and Tsang’s Facebook posts: likes per post, shares per post and comments per post. With further calculations involving the number of their respective followers, Lee’s engagement rate was found to be 6.5 per cent in the first month of his campaign, while Tsang’s was 141 per cent in the first two weeks of his campaign.

Methodology – click to view

The average engagement rate per post by followers was calculated by taking the total number of engagements (reactions, comments and shares) and dividing it by the number of posts that the candidate published in a specific timeframe. The result was then divided by the number of followers, and multiplied by 100.

Since it was difficult to obtain the follower count of the current and former chief executive hopefuls on a specific date, HKFP used the first 15 days of Tsang’s campaign and 26 days of Lee’s as the timeframes. Tsang posted about his number of Facebook followers on day 15 of his campaign, and HKFP recorded Lee’s number of followers on Facebook on the 26th day of his campaign.

As calculating an engagement rate requires the number of followers on a specific day, and this data was not available for Lam, only the engagement rates for Tsang and Lee were calculated.

Suspicious Instagram followers

Signs of inauthentic Instagram followers include those with no profile picture and no posts, and which follow one or very few accounts.

An analysis by HKFP of Lee’s account on Thursday morning found that 12.5 per cent of his followers on Instagram – or around 700 – had no profile picture. In comparison, 5.6 per cent of Tsang’s followers had no profile picture, but they generally appeared to be more authentic as they had higher following and follower counts.

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A considerable number of Lee’s followers were only following him and two or three other accounts, and did not have any posts.

Flood of lawmaker comments

With the electoral overhaul imposed by Beijing in March 2021, pan-democrats have been shut out of the city’s “patriots-only” legislature. Lawmakers, all of whom were Election Committee members who will vote in the upcoming race, have flooded Lee’s posts with positive comments in recent weeks.

Junius Ho, Elizabeth Quat, Dominic Lee, Alice Mak and Chan Hoi-yan were among the lawmakers who left enthusiastic comments on John Lee’s posts. HFKP Remix: John Lee, via Facebook.

A Facebook post launching and linking to Lee’s manifesto last Friday, prompted the most number of lawmakers from the 90-seat Legislative Council to leave messages of support. At least 24 legislators cheered on “brother Ka-chiu,” using his first name in Chinese, while others left comments like “Mr. Lee add oil!” and “I totally agree with you.”

In contrast, political figures did not swamp Lam and Tsang’s social media pages with flattering comments.

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“Mr. Lee’s election manifesto captures the internal conflicts of Hong Kong and prescribes the right remedy… this… result orientation is exactly what Hong Kong needs,” wrote Stanley Ng, a lawmaker from the pro-Beijing Hong Kong Federation of Trade Unions.

Lawmaker Junius Ho wrote: “I absolutely agree that as long as the SAR government can enhance its overall efficiency, it will definitely succeed in its work.”

Comments disabled on Instagram

Lee’s social media team has turned off comments on all of his Instagram posts, meaning that users cannot reply. Tsang, on the other hand, allowed comments on his Instagram content, a majority of which were messages of support from fans. Lam only used Facebook and did not have an Instagram page.

No personal photos

Lee’s social media content is limited to posts showing his team engaged in campaign work, illustrations of him accompanied with slogans or quotes, and photos of public figures who have endorsed him.

Pictures on John Lee’s Facebook page. Photo: Screenshot, via John Lee/Facebook.

In contrast, Lam and Tsang shared pictures of their personal life. Lam posted a Facebook album with a photo of her in Washington D.C. in 1988 while completing an internship, and a selfie of her with her family in Cambridge, in the UK, in 2016.

Tsang uploaded a photo of his wife bringing dinner for him at his office and pictures of him teaching fencing at his former secondary school.

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Support press freedom & help us surpass 1,000 monthly Patrons: 100% independent, governed by an ethics code & not-for-profit, Hong Kong Free Press is #PressingOn with impartial, award-winning, frontline coverage.