The implementation of the National Security Law (NSL) in June 2020 redesigned the political landscape in Hong Kong and significantly increased the risks associated with political activity. Under the NSL, Hong Kong citizens are losing the ability to exercise their freedom of speech and freedom to assembly. Beijing reduced the Hong Kong government’s autonomy by removing pro-democracy voices and facilitating a major overhaul of the electoral system. As the world witnessed the disqualification of legislators, election postponement and arrests of pro-democracy figures, NDI aimed to examine public sentiment amid Hong Kong’s sweeping legal and electoral changes. Specifically, NDI sought to monitor pro-democracy and pro-Beijing social media networks to analyze the political narratives that shape public discourse on Hong Kong. NDI used Crowdtangle to carry out this initiative and further understand public opinion on Hong Kong’s evolving political climate.
How NDI Used Crowdtangle
Crowdtangle is a public insights tool, owned by Facebook, that makes it easy to follow, analyze and report on public content from social media platforms. From January to March 2021, NDI used Crowdtangle to identify political narratives in pro-Beijing and pro-democracy social media spaces. First, relevant Facebook pages were selected and divided into three categories: government and politicians, news outlets and activists and civil society organizations. Then, NDI created a project specific Live Display, a dashboard that designates Facebook pages under different categories such as “News/Media/Journalists” or “politicians/government.” For each category, there are two columns: posts and leaderboard. NDI used the “posts” column to view overperforming posts in the category, and the “leaderboard” column to see Facebook pages that generated the most content and the highest interaction rates.
NDI also used the Saved Searches function to simultaneously search for multiple topics across Facebook’s network of public groups and posts. For each category, custom saved search tabs such as “disinformation” or “national security law” filtered out posts that contained information on specific topics. There were seven saved searches: disinformation, foreign interference, the National Security Law, the District Council, the Legislative Council and COVID-19 through both pro-Beijing and pro-democracy lenses. Initially, NDI encountered a surplus of content since some keywords overlapped, however, NDI was able to effectively tailor data collection using the Saved Searches tool to easily add and remove queries.
By studying overperforming posts, high interaction posts, and controversial reactions (angry/sad), NDI was able to compare trends on pro-democracy and pro-establishment pages. Findings revealed that pro-Beijing pages (i.e., government agencies, pro-establishment politicians and political parties) have a much louder voice on social media. Some of these top voices include pro-Beijing politicians Regina Ip, Starry Lee and former Chief Executive of Hong Kong, CY Leung. Interestingly, despite the heavy volume of posts (20-60 posts per week), there were low interaction rates. The content also focused less on Hong Kong affairs and more on boosting the image of China’s government, nature in Mainland China, or heroic acts of the People's Liberation Army.
On the other hand, pro-democracy pages (i.e., pro-democracy political parties, activists and former politicians) posted less often (1-20 posts per week), but the content was generally longer and received more interactions. For example, the Hong Kong Police received 96,900 interactions in one week for 41 posts. In the same week, Nathan Law garnered 80,090 interactions for only 16 posts. Facebook posts by popular pro-democracy activists consistently overperformed and generated the highest interaction rates. Ted Hui, Agnes Chow, Joshua Wong and Nathan Law collectively made up 11 percent of all interaction for NGOs, fact checkers and activists within our sample.
Findings on Key Themes
NDI consolidated findings into themes and compared the sentiments of pro-democracy and pro-Beijing camps. The following are examples of how Crowdtangle was used to monitor and analyze opinions on different topics using the Live Display and Saved Searches features.
NDI analyzed pro-democracy and pro-Beijing Facebook pages and found that the two groups preferred different names for the coronavirus. Pro-Beijing pages tended to use “coronavirus” (新冠病毒), while pro-democracy pages referred to the virus as “Wuhan pneumonia” (武漢肺炎). Using the Live Display function, NDI determined that Hong Kong’s vaccine campaign was the most controversial topic surrounding the pandemic. Pro-Beijing searches yielded more positive and/or educational results on the coronavirus, whereas pro-democracy searches tended to be more pessimistic. For instance, pro-democracy posts focused on the safety and efficacy of China’s Sinovac vaccine and on privacy concerns surrounding the government’s COVID-19 mobile app.
The National Security Law
Crowdtangle made it easy to follow the way narratives shifted after the implementation of the NSL. In early January 2021, the most notable overperforming posts on Facebook were news stories about the Hong Kong police’s mass arrest of 55 pro-democracy figures. In the following months, more narratives on patriotism, lawfulness, and efficacy emerged on both pro-democracy and pro-Beijing pages. Saved Searches allowed us to track coverage of key phrases and themes such as “patriots governing Hong Kong,” reforming Hong Kong’s electoral system effectively and creating a new Legislative Council free of corruption.
Crowdtangle’s Live Display function enabled the identification of what posts garnered the most attention related to international advocacy surrounding Hong Kong. Overperforming posts were from exiled activists Ted Hui and Nathan Law, or about the U.K.’s immigration scheme for Hong Kongers. Pro-Beijing Facebook pages were also very active during the U.S.-China diplomatic talks in Alaska in mid-March where posts criticizing U.S. foreign policy and the U.S. government were met with positive reactions and comments.
The Crowdtangle platform and its ability to target and aggregate information proved useful for this project. Using the Live Display and Saved Searches tools, NDI was able to track social media activity and attitudes pertinent to Hong Kong’s political and electoral developments. Crowdtangle’s user-friendly dashboard and functions made it easy to analyze and assess the public’s sentiment as well as the disparities between pro-Beijing and pro-democracy groups. These findings and methods will be valuable in NDI’s work of supporting democracy worldwide