Photo Credit: Chinese Propaganda Poster
ON JANUARY 20TH, 7 PM, Taipei time, a massive wave of Facebook traffic sourced to China began to systematically “attack” any and all politicians, public figures, and media outlets that were identified as pro-Taiwanese independence. Instantly filling the comment section of these Facebook pages with pro-China patriotic sentiments, images, and arguments against all pro-independence comments, all of which procured “likes” in the thousands to allow them to be the “top” comments of the posts they attacked. This operation was not conducted by individuals with high technological know-how disrupting the workings of software, but rather a large-scale, coordinated effort to simply flood targeted pages with comments, drawing comparison to other similar coordinated mass trolling efforts as those perpetrated by Anonymous.
In China, this incident is now widely discussed by major media outlets, which dubbed it “Emperor Ba’s Expedition.” Emperor Ba is the nickname of a Baidu Tieba community that managed to garner 20 million followers, as a source of primarily humorous and satirical internet contents posted by a large group of celebrity posters and staff. The community worked as the primary coordinator to recruit, plan, prepare, conduct and assess the operation. Allegedly, the community was alarmed by the rise of pro-independence sentiment in Taiwan. In particular , it appears that it was Taiwanese celebrity Show Luo becoming widely reviled in the Taiwanese cybersphere for saying “we are all Chinese” that led the Emperor Ba’s leaders to decide on coordinating this operation. The stated purpose of this occupation was to “destroy pro-independence elements in Taiwan through civilized methods.”
Example of trolling by Emperor Ba forum participants
The coordinating process of the operation, as of the time of writing, is also widely reported on in Chinese cyberspace and mainstream media, usually with a lionizing tone. The Emperor Ba community managed to gather a large group of participants and has attracted much attention, collecting almost 100,000 simultaneous viewers of the operation’s livestream on DouYu. The participants were divided into teams with a wide variety of responsibilities include communication, posting, translating into different languages (claimed to include English, French, German, Korean, and Japanese), image asset creation, researching, “liking” comments posted by the posting team, as well as reporting any and all pro-Taiwanese independence sentiments to Facebook as inappropriate content. Among all the Facebook pages that were victimized by the operation, the president-elect Tsai Ing-wen’s page is one of the hardest hit.
The subject, “Emperor Ba’s Expedition”, was instantly a strong trending topic on Weixin, and attracted voices of support from accounts of Football star Li Yi as well as that of the Chinese Communist Party’s Youth League, although as of now there is no evidence that the Chinese state is directly behind this operation.
Tsai’s page, in particular, is no stranger to this kind of attack. In November 2015, a wave of Facebook accounts registered in China flooded Tsai’s Facebook page in a similar fashion. The crucial difference between the case in 2015 and the one now is the fact that the former appeared to have happened concurrently with a mysterious lifting of China’s firewall against Facebook, whereas the latter was a mass penetration of the firewall using VPN. To be sure, China’s state instituted internet firewall, which precludes access to western-based social media such as Facebook, Twitter, and a wide variety of blacklisted websites, can be easily circumvented, a fact that is widely known to Chinese internet users. Though not impossible, there also has yet to be evidence showing that these users were members of the “Fifty Cent Party,” Internet users paid by the state to post pro-government comments on social media, this being a technique implemented by the state within Chinese cyberspace.
Tsai Ing-Wen’s Facebook page being trolled
Such pro-China action spontaneously organized amongst the general populace is not without precedent. One may point to the April Movement of 2008, which initially began as fervent criticism against western media’s bias on portraying the riot in Tibet earlier that year, which later even materialized into sizable pro-China demonstrations, both within and outside of China. “Emperor Ba’s Expedition,” however, would mark the first spontaneously organized Internet action that engages spaces outside of Chinese cyberspace.
What is important to note, however, is the fact that the state allows for such a mass action to be carried out without its direct involvement. Such was its position towards the April 2008 demonstrations. The Chinese government generally prohibits any form of spontaneous mass actions even if it is pro-government in nature. In the case of “Emperor Ba’s Expedition,” which was publicly announced and promoted by the organizers, the state could easily have stepped in and halted it with its censorship technologies. We actually see some of the participants in the operation being wary of this, and used a variety of techniques and code words to evade censor web crawlers in the event that the state does decide on a crackdown. For now it would seem that, while the state itself has not made a stance on the operation, major media outlets such as Phoenix and Tencent News are reporting on the affair.
Of course, it would be a tricky proposition for the government to prohibit this movement, as the spirit of it is undeniably to curb pro Taiwanese independence sentiments. This is certainly an ideology that the state itself relentlessly propagates. Just as the dilemma of choosing Chinese/Taiwanese identity is a highly emotional subject in Taiwan, the question of Taiwan’s status also takes a highly emotional form both in the state’s political narrative and also amongst the population. In spite of Chinese Communist Party’s explicit atheism, Taiwan is referred to as “a part of the sacred territory of China” in the preamble of the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China. Within this nationalist discourse, the independence of Taiwan would thus be viewed as an unacceptable extension of China’s century of shame and humiliation under foreign forces, a view of history which the state encourages in the Chinese population.
It is important to note that the logic of patriotism doesn’t always lead to pro-government conclusions, as we see in forms of relatively harmless civic nationalism in China and elsewhere. Moreover, it is highly likely that participants of this trolling operation are proportionally a small minority within Chinese Internet users. It is just the massive number of Chinese Internet users makes the number of participants in this trolling operation gargantuan nonetheless.
Pro-unification Internet meme
While we see that the Chinese state thus far is allowing Internet actions to happen, we have yet to see how much the state would tolerate spontaneous movements of this sort. Such movements, if not directed to the ends of the state, could have far-ranging implications.
The Chinese economy is now showing signs of slow down and has been experiencing a sharp rise in inequality, stock market crashes, and a slew of other sources of domestic unrest. The massive demonstration against the city government of Shanghai in June 2015 over its decision to construct a dangerous chemical plant near a densely populated area is an example of a spontaneous movements. It is likely that in the coming years, the Chinese state’s capacity to control spontaneously organized movements, both pro-China and anti-China in nature, will be increasingly tested. If spontaneous demonstrations against government actions took place on the Internet, how would the Chinese government respond?
The Taiwanese public’s response to the “Expedition” is far less alarmed than during the attack on Tsai Ing-Wen’s Facebook page in November 2015. We have seen light-hearted joking against some aspects of this operation. For example, Liberty Times reported on a humorous instance where prominent KMT party member Tsai Cheng-yuan’s page was mistakenly identified as Tsai Ing-wen’s brother and attacked. Tsai Ing-wen responded to the attack on her page by welcoming the Chinese netizens to Taiwan, the same gesture she used towards the attack last November. However, should this kind of operation become more regularized, it is yet to be decided how the ecology of Taiwanese cyberspace, or the public sphere as a whole, would be changed by this.
For now, however, it can be said with confidence that any welcoming voices of this kind of operation from within Taiwan remain in the extreme minority.