Chinese Communist ‘Troll Army’ Floods Social Media with Anti-Hong Kong Messages

ANTHONY WALLACE/AFP/Getty Images
ANTHONY WALLACE/AFP/Getty Images

The South China Morning Post on Wednesday noted a sharp escalation in Chinese information warfare against the Hong Kong protest movement as an army of trolls poured out of a forum supported by Chinese state media to push pro-Beijing memes and harass protest supporters.

The trolls incubate in an online Chinese nationalist discussion forum called Baidu Diba, which has a 15-year history of unleashing massive, coordinated swarms of hostile posts on websites and social media accounts disliked by the Chinese Communist Party. 

The Diba group is bringing the same nationalist enthusiasm routinely deployed against Taiwan to bear against Hong Kong:

[Pro-democracy legislator Claudia] Mo’s Facebook page was spammed with pictures of the Chinese flag on Monday, shortly after it was thrown into the harbour for the second time in three days by protesters. But they were eventually outnumbered by supporters of the protests, with many leaving comments remarking on the number of wumao – or “50 cent trolls” as they are known.

Diba’s troll army is believed to be behind memes depicting hard hat-wearing protesters as cockroaches and zombies, as well as a lexicon of slurs such as “rubbish youth”, “yellow zombies” (yellow is the signature colour of the pro-democracy movement) and “LIHKG dogs”, the latter referring to the popular Reddit-like local forum used by protesters to coordinate and spread information.

Diba’s modus operandi is also to cherry-pick and amplify social media content from Hong Kong voices speaking out against the protests, as well as highlighting reports of harassment towards Hong Kong police officers – including the leaking of their relatives’ personal details online – which is shared via Weibo to its estimated 20 million members for further dissemination.

“You use memes to show off to your friends and chat up the opposite sex, but why don’t you use your knowledge and your memes to battle the rubbish youth of Hong Kong? Let them hear the sound of our anger,” said a post on Diba’s official Weibo social media account on Monday.

Diba’s sizable membership appears to be augmented by the liberal use of bots and “sock puppet” accounts, and it has no difficulty getting past China’s infamous “Great Firewall” to post on foreign websites usually blocked for Chinese citizens. Its posts enthusiastically push the Communist Party line, such as denouncing the Hong Kong protesters as “rioters” and portraying them as puppets of hostile Western powers. 

The South China Morning Post quoted researchers who think many of Diba’s operations are meant primarily for domestic consumption, generating useful headlines about patriotic Chinese overwhelming subversive websites to win online “victories” that nourish the nationalist ego.

Chinese state media are careful to create a little distance between the Chinese government, the Communist Party, and Diba trolls to make their campaigns look like spontaneous acts of patriotism and to keep them under control in case they get any funny ideas about criticizing the rulers of China. 

Diba attacks are frequently launched against organizations singled out for criticism by Chinese government officials, as in a September 2018 crusade against a Swedish television station lambasted by the Chinese Foreign Ministry for “insulting China” with a report on bad behavior by Chinese tourists and April 2018 attacks on human rights groups advocating for the oppressed Uighur population of Xinjiang province. 

The Diba online army is also useful for coordinating Chinese nationalists overseas, as in the case of thuggish students who attempted to violently suppress pro-Hong Kong demonstrations in Australia and New Zealand last week. According to the SCMP, the organizers of those pro-Hong Kong rallies were subsequently targeted with online death threats “in what seems to be a coordinated effort.”

Diba forum participants describe themselves as a paramilitary operation and describe their coordinated trolling attacks on overseas websites as militaristic “expeditions” in which thousands of digital footsoldiers mobilize to practice the equivalent of scorched-earth warfare.

“Wherever Diba’s expeditionary force reaches, not even a blade of grass can be spared,” reads a slogan popular on the forum.

Although they are curiously unimpeded by the mainland Chinese firewalls that prevent most of their fellow citizens from being exposed to foreign news and opinion, they are sometimes thwarted by cyberdefenses on the target end. 

An “expedition” to infiltrate a forum created by Hong Kong protesters was thwarted in late July because the forum administrators took the precaution of monitoring incoming IP addresses and quickly exposed users who were part of Diba’s troll army, prompting other protest supporters to locate and publish their personal information. The backlash from Hong Kong was serious enough for Diba to call off its “expedition” and temporarily disband its troll army, although they appear to be back in business.

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