Given its ubiquity, social media, in particular Facebook, has turned out to be a game changer in today’s politics and has increasingly become the main battleground for political candidates during elections.
Unlike elections before the rise of social media, in which the popularity of candidates was almost solely measured by their approval ratings in opinion polls, nowadays the popularity of candidates is often measured by how many “thumbs-up-sign” emojis or “likes” they receive on their Facebook pages.
In the meantime, today’s candidates no longer have to rely solely on the mainstream media to get their message across.
Instead, they can reach out to the average voter directly and in real time through social media, which is now regarded by many politicians as a very powerful tool to rally public support or even influence public opinion.
It is against this background that all four chief executive candidates have jumped on the social media bandwagon as an indispensable part of their campaigns, including former chief secretary Carrie Lam, who everybody knows has never been a Facebook fan.
However, since users can pay Facebook in order to boost the circulation of the content, that raises some fundamental questions.
For example, should these acts also be regarded as campaign advertising, just like running conventional campaign ads in newspapers?
On the other hand, if the answer is affirmative, then should the incurred costs of these online ads be considered election expenses that need to be declared under the existing law?
When asked about these questions by journalists at a public event over the weekend, Secretary for Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Raymond Tam said that generally speaking, the existing election laws apply to all campaign advertising, whether on-line or off-line.
As such, he added, all incurred costs for online campaign advertising should be regarded as election expenses and be declared.
However, he didn’t go into detail as to how exactly his bureau would follow up on the campaign ads that are now being run by the four CE candidates on their Facebook pages, nor did he say explicitly whether candidates would be subject to legal liability if they fail to declare the costs of their online ads.
In the meantime, Secretary Tam also warned supporters of these candidates that they “might” face prosecution for violating the Elections (Corrupt and Illegal Conduct) Ordinance if they set up any Facebook page, or so-called “fan pages”, in the absence of an official authorization.
Yet, he declined to comment on whether pressing criminal charges against netizens who have set up their own Facebook pages to root for a particular candidate would constitute a violation of free speech.
In other words, as social media has opened a Pandora’s box when it comes to political elections, it appears the authorities are wrestling with online campaign ads and trying to figure out how to deal with them.
Perhaps the only thing they are certain of right now is that candidates who are running campaign ads on their own Facebook pages are doing so at their own risk.
Since there are so many gray areas in the existing law regarding online campaign advertising, we strongly urge the Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Bureau to clarify in no uncertain terms what is legal about social media pages for campaign purposes and what is not, so as to prevent candidates or netizens from inadvertently stepping into any legal traps.
After all, the last thing we want is to see unsuspecting citizens face criminal charges for supporting their candidates on Facebook.
This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Feb. 6
Translation by Alan Lee
[Chinese version 中文版]
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