The Asian Volunteer Army Rising Against China’s Internet Trolls
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because it takes a troll to beat a troll.
It all started with a retweet. In April, Thai TV star Vachirawit “Bright” Chivaaree reposted a series of four urban landscapes shot by a Thai freelance photographer, one of which called Hong Kong a country.
It was a controversial move by Vachirawit, whose TV show 2gether: The Series — a romance drama revolving around two male college students — had been a hit in mainland China since it premiered in late February. A torrent of online abuse followed his retweet. Chinese fans slid into Vachirawit’s Instagram and other social media with comments “correcting” him. Vachirawit — like many before him worried about losing out on the Chinese market — apologized.
But then Vachirawit’s rumored girlfriend, Thai influencer Weeraya Sukaram — who goes by the name Nnevvy on Twitter — retweeted a Thai-language post asking why China would not let foreigners investigate whether or not the coronavirus had originated in a Chinese lab.
That was it. Vachirawit’s outraged fans were replaced by a team of Chinese internet trolls, known as the Little Pinks, says James Buchanan, a researcher specializing in Thai politics at the City University of Hong Kong. The Little Pinks, known for their aggressive trolling, pointed to an exchange between Weeraya and Vachirawit on Instagram in 2017 that they claimed implied Taiwan isn’t part of China.
The online hate grew. The number of Vachirawit’s followers on Weibo dropped from more than 600,000 to 430,000 in a couple of days. The insults multiplied on platforms otherwise banned in China, such as Twitter and Instagram, revealing the official support the troll army enjoys.
Over the past few years, China’s troll armies have bullied and coerced countries, organizations and individuals into self-censoring or taking back anything they’ve publicly said that is critical of the Communist Party. A tweet last year by Daryl Morey, general manager of the Houston Rockets, that supported Hong Kong’s anti-extradition protests dragged the NBA into a diplomatic row with China, a major market for the basketball association. Morey deleted his tweet and the NBA apologized.
But in the case of Vachirawit and Weeraya, the Chinese trolls hadn’t bargained for what happened next. Thai netizens used self-deprecating humor to counter the insults hurled by their online adversaries, winning, according to independent experts, this 21st-century war that’s being fought entirely online.
Another Chinese troll army, the 50 Cent Army, tried to take the Thai digital activists on. But the Thai were quickly joined by activists from Hong Kong, Taiwan, the Philippines and other nations in what was dubbed the Milk Tea Alliance — a reference to the milky tea drunk by people in those nations.
When Chinese trolls called Thailand “poor,” the Thai hit back, referencing how in 2018, China banned Winnie the Pooh after memes likening President Xi Jinping to the rotund Pooh were used to mock the country’s leader.
After Chinese trolls called the Thai king “trash,” Thai online activists responded with a meme — happily accepting the opportunity to publicly criticize their leader, a right most Chinese don’t enjoy. “When the Chinese criticized the Thai government and the monarchy, it was as if they were doing the things that the Thai [online activists] wanted,” says Buchanan.
To the now-classic Chinese insult “NMSL” (“your mom is dead”), Thai youths replied that they had at least 20 mothers, poking fun at their king’s rumored collection of mistresses. In fact, they posted so many “NMSLese” memes and tweets that the insult quickly became a part of Urban Dictionary.
Support has also come from Hong Kong.
And when the Chinese Embassy in Bangkok tried to threaten Thai online activists, Joshua Wong, the Hong Kong pro-democracy leader, hit back.
In fact, it is Hong Kong where the online retaliation against the Chinese troll armies began. In July 2019, Diba — a group of pro-government mainland China netizens — targeted Hong Kong anti-extradition activists on Facebook and LIHKG, a Reddit-like forum, recruiting around 12,000 Chinese netizens. But Hong Kong netizens hit back by doxxing Diba administrators and publicly revealing their personal information, thereby yanking off the cloak of anonymity the Chinese trolls were hiding behind.
That forced Diba to “dissolve the online army group,” the Chinese group told its followers on Weibo. Now, a year later, it’s Thailand’s turn.