An army of China’s internet trolls has a message for Hong Kong protesters

Rioters or fighters?
Rioters or fighters?
Image: Reuters
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Di Ba, an online Chinese patriotic group, is venturing outside the country’s walled internet garden to aid China’s efforts to shape the narrative around Hong Kong’s unflagging protests.

On Monday (July 22) night, hundreds of Chinese internet users flooded Facebook pages of two Hong Kong organizations— the Civil Human Rights Front, a major organizer of some of the city’s massive protests against an extradition bill that is now suspended, the Hong Kong National Front, a local political party—with thousands of comments. The organizer of the attack, Di Ba, announced (in Chinese) on social media platform Weibo that the aim of the campaign is to “support Hong Kong police and condemn some of the Hong Kong rioters for insulting the Chinese emblem.”

“One China is our common wish, and ‘One Country, Two Systems’ is our clear goal. Innocent Hong Kongers, don’t be influenced by some Hong Kong trash,” wrote Facebook user Mu Rongxin, whose comment was liked over 1,000 times.

“We hereby persuade some of the violent protestors to pull back before it’s too late, the strong Chinese government and its people will firmly support the passage of the extradition bill,” wrote another user going by Ran Ran. Both users were commenting on the Facebook page of Civil Human Rights Front.

In the past seven weeks, Hong Kong’s protesters have demonstrated against a hated extradition bill that would have allowed the city to surrender suspects to mainland China to face charges. The protests have helped to kill the bill, but the government has yet to completely withdraw it, a major request of the protesters. Meanwhile, the movement has also evolved to encompass broader demands for greater democracy in Hong Kong. A march on Sunday (July 21) saw some of the protesters hurl eggs at the walls of China’s Liaison Office, a representative of Beijing in the city, and deface the Chinese emblem hanging outside.

The pages of the Civil Human Rights Front and the local party were bombarded with repetitive images and text, most of which showed tough-looking cops and protesters holding different objects such as bricks, though it’s unclear where exactly the images are from. The messages condemned the “violent behavior” of the protesters and urged Hong Kong citizens to “wake up” to the foreign influence behind the protests. A screenshot was posted by some members of Di Ba on its Weibo page, showed the following images, without clarifying on which Facebook page they had been posted.

A screengrab posted by members of Di Ba on its Weibo page.
A screengrab posted by members of Di Ba on its Weibo page.

Protesters also went to the Hong Kong police Facebook page to voice messages of support to a force that has faced accusations of using excessive violence against protesters—and not doing enough to protect people in the face of attacks on Sunday (July 21) by organized thugs.

Part of the hatred toward the Hong Kong movement traces to the ”alternative facts” some state-owned Chinese media have presented, labeling the protesters as advocating for Hong Kong independence in some cases. China’s foreign ministry, meanwhile, has repeatedly characterized the protests as foreign-instigated, a message that has been echoed in Hong Kong’s Beijing-friendly newspapers (link in Chinese) and propagated by nationalistic Chinese tabloid Global Times.

Consisting mainly of Chinese people living overseas, as well as Chinese university students, Di Ba spun off from a fan page for a Chinese footballer on an internet forum called Tieba. It remains a secretive but highly organized group that  reportedly has 20 million users across social media platforms including Facebook, Twitter and Weibo. As it did ahead of past attacks, the group announced on Weibo when it would launch this week’s attacks, and distributed customized emojis and slogans for the participants to use. These emojis are usually “reaction images” with trolling text on them, such as the one below.

A reaction image posted by Chinese online trolls on Facebook on July 22. The caption reads: “No matter how much chaos you guys make, China is still your dad.” The Di Ba watermark says: Di Ba Central Army Special Seal.
A reaction image posted by Chinese online trolls on Facebook on July 22. The caption reads: “No matter how much chaos you guys make, China is still your dad.” The Di Ba watermark says: Di Ba Central Army Special Seal.
Image: screen grab

In addition to giving guidance on the time and websites for its online crusades, the group also gave out tips on how to use virtual private networks, or VPNs, to bypass China’s Great Firewall that blocks most major foreign websites including Facebook, Twitter and Google.

While the group denies having a relationship with the government, it has largely targeted people or organization not in line with Beijing’s official stance on political issues—jumping the firewall in April to troll pro-Uighur groups, for example. It has been lauded by state media People’s Daily.

“This is impressive, these youngsters, who were mostly born in the 1990s or even 2000s, have such good discipline and clear division of labor during their ‘online battles’,” said the newspaper in a 2016 editorial (in Chinese), referring to a campaign by the group at the time to flood the Facebook page of Taiwan’s newly elected president Tsai Ing-wen to convey the message that the self-ruled island is part of China.