Community & Education HKFP Voices

China’s social media war: a political miscalculation?

In the days following her election victory, mainland netizens were able to scale the Great Firewall and launch a coordinated trolling attack on Taiwanese president-elect Tsai Ing-wen’s Facebook profile page. The past week also saw netizens turning cyberspace into a “battleground” to defend Taiwanese pop star Show Luo’s declaration that he is Chinese, as well as attacking the forums of Taiwanese media outlet SETN Taiwan.

Hong Kong was also a target of the trolls, most notably the Facebook page of singer Denise Ho Wan-sze.

A closed Facebook group opened by Di Ba netizens has over 25,000 members.

A closed Facebook group opened by Di Ba netizens has over 25,000 members. Photo: HKFP.

The organization of these cyber-attacks came from mainland China’s version of 4chan, Di Ba (“帝吧”), an internet community comprising mostly youths. It has been widely reported that organizers coordinated the attacks masterfully, with different groups of people assigned to writing comments, translating comments to and from simplified characters to traditional characters or English, liking comments, and creating internet memes. They named their attack “帝吧出征FB”, translating literally to “Di Ba’s military expedition to Facebook”.

While most mainland media declared the cyber-attacks as a natural outpouring of nationalism by China’s youth, the mainland authorities are likely to be too wary of the effects of exposing thousands, if not millions, of people to the open internet to have allowed such a thing. The scale and planned nature of the attacks suggest the work of the wumaos (“五毛黨”) or some semblance thereof.

This begs the question — what is the effectiveness of enlisting an army of wumaos to wage a social media war against free and open societies?

A 50 cents bill, or wumao.

A 50 cents bill, or wumao. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Wumaos perform most effectively in stealth mode. To manipulate public opinion naturally, it is important they remain low-key. Perhaps they should occasionally take a neutral or anti-government stance to establish false credibility. They are also much more likely, if not solely, capable of accomplishing their objectives within the mainland itself. The attacks in recent weeks point to a drastically different propaganda approach.

Tsai laughed off the attacks as the expression of free speech in mainland China. The bumbling efforts of some mainland netizens became the subject of instant hysteria. For example, one netizen could not find the SETN forum where the “war” was taking place until the site administrator provided the link to its politics page. Some Taiwanese account users chose to skirmish with the wumaos, either out of frustration or as an avenue for comedic relief.

Perhaps these attacks were not meant to accomplish anything outside of China, but only to galvanize the anti-democratic sentiments within its borders. Yet, such a blatant use of wumaos outside of China has a political cost. It further alienates Taiwanese and Hongkongers, whose capacity for rational thought is often underestimated by mainland officials. Such a blatant display of political propaganda is likely to irk even the people who are neutral or friendly towards China.

China's social media war: a political miscalculation?