One day in mid-October, Antony Leung received a message from Facebook telling him that his group, Cat Is Cat, had been indefinitely suspended. Leung, who runs a pet supply shop in Hong Kong, founded the group in 2013, and since then, it has become a platform for the city’s cat lovers to meet, exchange ideas, and report sightings of stray cats. At the time of its suspension, it had more than 230,000 members.

It was days before he got an explanation, but after he complained to local media and lawmakers, Facebook told him that the suspension occurred because someone had reported that Cat Is Cat violated its policies on the animal trade. “Absolutely ridiculous,” he says. “It has always been our goal to advocate cat adoption, and we have never allowed anyone to sell cats in our group.”

Since massive pro-democracy protests broke out in Hong Kong in 2019, seemingly arbitrary suspensions of Facebook pages have become commonplace, and the company’s policies have become more “ambiguous,” Leung said. Cat Is Cat is apolitical, but its members have often posted images in support of the movement, including an image of a cat wearing a coat emblazoned with “Liberate Hong Kong,” and criticism of the police’s liberal use of tear gas.

“Some people may see us as a political group because many of our members like to publish content that criticises the government, and I cannot prevent them from doing so,” he said, adding that he has always followed Facebook’s guidelines barring discrimination, personal attacks, and insults. “Similarly, I did not stop pro-China users from using cats to condemn rioters, because I believe in freedom of speech, and everyone should be entitled to their opinion.”

While Facebook said the suspension was not for political reasons, Leung was annoyed at the company’s lack of transparency and decided to look for a plan B. “Facebook’s monopoly has become very serious, and we wanted to look for a second choice,” he said. “At that time, people started to talk about MeWe, so we decided to open a group there.”

Since November, tens of thousands of Hong Kong social media users have set up accounts on MeWe, a U.S.-based social media platform that bills itself as a privacy-first alternative to the established platforms, with the tagline “No BS. No Ads. No Spyware.” Many of the digital migrants are pro-democracy supporters, abandoning Facebook and its messenger service, WhatsApp. In January, WhatsApp announced that its privacy policies would change to allow it to share data with its parent company.

But just as pro-democracy supporters are moving away from the mainstream platforms, so too are their counterparts in the pro-Beijing movement, who perceive a bias on Western social media against users sympathetic to China. A growing number of them have embraced the mainland’s most popular platforms, WeChat and Weibo, where they believe they will be treated more fairly.

While it remains to be seen whether the migration will be permanent, it shows the deep divides that have opened up between the pro-Beijing and pro-democracy camps in Hong Kong. 

“If more people decide to follow the trend in the long run,” said Fu King-Wa, a journalism professor at the University of Hong Kong, “Hong Kong’s social media landscape could become even more segregated.”

Tiffany Hagler-Geard/Bloomberg/Getty Images

The mass migration from Facebook in Hong Kong first began during the U.S. presidential election in 2020, according to Wong Ho Wa, a data scientist and a pro-democracy candidate in last year’s legislative elections in Hong Kong. The social media company had labeled and removed content — including that produced by then-president Trump — that it deemed to be damaging to the democratic process. “Many people became concerned [over] whether Facebook has started to undermine freedom of speech,” Wong said, adding that around a quarter of his social media contacts have already opened MeWe accounts.

Facebook said that it needed to proactively moderate content in order to prevent the spread of misinformation, but some Hong Kong users likened the move to their own government’s censorship.

A sweeping national security law, imposed in 2020 to crimalize “secession, subversion, terrorism, and collusion with foreign forces” has been used to arrest journalists and civil society activists for vocally supporting the huge pro-democracy protests that began in the summer of 2019. Even mentions of the movement’s slogans — such as “Liberate Hong Kong” — are against the law. Police have shut down a number of Telegram channels popular among protesters. More than 50 pro-democracy politicians were arrested after holding an unauthorized election primary. Authorities have ordered internet service providers to block access to a protest-related website.

Some pro-democracy groups on Facebook have been suspended, including, in December, a neighbourhood page called Tai Po, which had 120,000 members and frequently hosted messages supportive of the protests. On LIHKG, a Reddit-like forum popular among protesters, netizens raised fears — without evidence — that Facebook could be cracking down on anti-China messages as it attempts to access the Chinese market, prompting them to switch to other platforms that appear to have fewer rules for content moderation. Facebook did not respond to several requests for comment, but it said last July that it had stopped processing data requests from the Hong Kong authorities in light of the National Security Law.

The rumors further undermined trust in Facebook within the pro-democracy movement. One pro-democracy district councillor — who did not want to use his full name over privacy concerns — said he has used Facebook for more than a decade. He was elected in 2019 at the height of the protests and runs a page that provides information for his constituents, but he recently set up a MeWe account. Since late last year, he has seen engagement drop off on his Facebook page, and he now frequently posts to MeWe first and shares it on Facebook later.

“We don’t want Facebook to dominate the mainstream voice — right now, it has been controlling what we can see and determining what is right,” he said. “I am still a bit wary of MeWe, but what we don’t want to see is for one single company to monopolize the market.”

“I am still a bit wary of MeWe, but what we don’t want to see is for one single company to monopolize the market.”

But Facebook groups set up in support of the Hong Kong government and police have also been suspended or blocked. One of the most popular pages, Save HK, had more than 200,000 followers when it was suddenly shut down by Facebook in early December. Adrian Ho, a Hong Kong businessman who founded the page, told pro-Beijing media site Silent Majority that he was “shocked” because Facebook had accused his group of violating rules on “regulated items,” which he said was totally unfounded.

The suspension raised concerns among government supporters that Western tech giants might be suppressing China-friendly voices, says Horace Cheung, an advisor to Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam and vice chairman of the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB), the city’s largest pro-Beijing party.

“Even before Save HK was banned, we had already received complaints [from our supporters] that they were unfairly treated on mainstream social media platforms like Facebook and YouTube,” he told Rest of World. “Many people are concerned whether staff members working for these social media companies are putting politics first, and so we began to think we should avoid putting all eggs in one basket.”

Shortly after Save HK’s suspension, Cheung’s party, DAB, published a Facebook post urging its supporters to follow its account on WeChat, one of the biggest social media platforms in mainland China. “The suspension overnight has shaken normal citizens who love Hong Kong,” DAB wrote in the post. “To prevent losing contact with you all of a sudden, please follow the ‘DAB Hong Kong’ WeChat profile immediately, and inform friends around you.”

Some Hong Kong politicians and police officers have already attracted greater support on mainland Chinese social media platforms than Facebook. Junius Ho, a radical pro-Beijing lawmaker who once called for pro-independence activists to be “killed without mercy,” has more than 1.1 million followers on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter. Lau Cha Kei, a police sergeant who rose to national fame after he was filmed pointing his shotgun at protesters, does not run a Facebook page but has more than a million followers on Weibo.

Cheung said that he expects that more people will join WeChat as Hong Kong becomes more closely aligned with the mainland. “Once there is closer integration,” he said, “Hong Kongers will have to learn and get used to using WeChat for everyday communication.”

Fu, the journalism professor, said that these alternative platforms have a long way to go to challenge Facebook’s dominance and that most people have kept their Facebook accounts open. However, they show how social media users’ priorities are diverging from one another. “For example, Facebook’s selling point may be its comprehensive global network; MeWe may emphasize protecting freedom of speech; while other platforms may have different strengths,” he said.

Cat is Cat’s operator, Leung, said that Facebook has a long way to go to win back trust. “This situation was created by Facebook itself,” he said. “Facebook has been using its monopoly power to impose its will on us, and I believe this is what really angered many Hong Kongers.”