The 14th Dalai Lama in 2006. Photo: Yancho Sabev via Wikimedia Commons.
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The strange case of the anti-Dalai Lama protesters trolling Glastonbury

A mass of near-identical accounts have been spamming the Glastonbury hashtag over the past week. But who are they, and what do they want? 

If you happen to visit the Glastonbury hashtag on Twitter this week, prepare to be perplexed. Competing with Instagram snaps of tents and flower crowns are tweets upon tweets slamming the Dalai Lama. David Icke-style memes accusing him of promoting segregation and suppressing religious freedom appear, then reappear from different accounts as you scroll through the feed.

First, let’s look at the parts of the story that make sense. The Dalai Lama, Buddhist and Tibetan spiritual leader, is due to appear first at Glastonbury on Sunday, then in Aldershot, to commemorate victims of the Nepal earthquake. A small, yet dedicated group of around 500 plan to protest his appearances – as they have done since 1996 during most of his visits to western countries; most recently in Sydney earlier this month.

This group is made up of Shugden Buddhists and their supporters; a sect of Buddhism that the Dalai Lama himself was once a member of, yet renounced in 1975 and now "strongly discourages" among the Buddhist community. The group argues that in Tibet and the Tibetan diaspora, the Dalai Lama is encouraging persecution and segregation of Shugden Buddhists. In one Tibetan settlement in India, they allege, 37 of 40 shops don't allow Shugden Buddhists to enter, and carry signs to that effect*. Others, they say, have been cut off from their families because of their faith.

This is where things get a bit murkier. Earlier this week, The Guardian ran a news piece on the protest (now “the subject of complaint to the readers’ editor”). It included quotes which called Shugden Buddhism an “extremist sect”. It also noted that China is suspected to be using anti-Dalai Lama protests in order to stoke up unrest and division in Tibet and opposition to the Dalai Lama, who is seen by China as a separatist threat. In a press release, an organisation named the International Shugden Community said the piece was “essentially propaganda from the Dalai Lama's supporters”.

The #Glastonbury tweeters weren’t happy with the Guardian piece, either. But the more I looked into the accounts, the more confused I became. Each tweeted huge numbers of times every hour, and almost every tweet was tagged #Glastonbury. At time of writing, @dl_tellthetruth has tweeted 12,500 times about the Dalai Lama's visit since 20 June, the equivalent of 87 times an hour, 24 hours a day. @Tibet_Youth_USA has tweeted 20,000 times since 21 June; @KingDuldzin 20,600 times since 18 June. All constantly retweet one another. Whenever I contacted one, their responses would be retweeted by one or more other, similar accounts

@TomPotter1945, one account that I engaged with directly, claimed that his profile picture was a self-portrait, and that he is an ex-member of "HMS Navy". A quick Google search, though, showed that the painting is actually the work of Tom Rooney, who exhibited it at a small gallery in Staffordshire a few years ago. (I am trying to get in contact with Rooney, and will update this piece accordingly if and when he gets back to me.) When challenged on this, the account responded, rather perplexingly, with this:

(@bur is the Twitter feed of Burbank Glendale Pasadena Airport. The significance of this still escapes me.)

On Wednesday, journalist Hugo Rifkind made his thoughts on the accounts clear. He accused one of the pro-Shugden accounts of being run on behalf of the Chinese propaganda machine – a little like China’s “50 Cent party” of paid pro-government online commentators, investigated by Ai Weiwei for the New Statesman in 2012. Rifkind challenged one account, @IndyHack, to a kind of Britishness duel:

 I joined in, hoping to figure out who the account, which claimed to be that of a UK-based freelance journalist, really was:

 As it turned @IndyHack really knew his* stuff. But then, the account has been open since last November, and has only tweeted 1,900 times – in fact, many of the images and memes used by the other accounts trolling the hashtag were first used by @IndyHack months ago. Eventually, he agreed to take a photo of Wednesdsay's paper with his Twitter handle written on it:

I spoke to @IndyHack by email to find out what he thought about the other, seemingly spam accounts - and whether he thought they could be the work of the Chinese government. @IndyHack said he didn't believe that the Chinese are meddling in Tibetan affairs through the accounts; that in fact, the US has used the Dalai Lama to promote an “anti-Chinese Communist message” since the 90s. "Anyone could be running the accounts -  I’ve seen five different Buddhist traditions take part in the protests from all over the world.”

One of the Shugdens’ allegations against the Dalai Lama is that he has publicly circulated names, photographs and even addresses of those who speak out or protest against him, and @IndyHack says this may be one reason for the accounts’ anonymity:

People still get abused and threatened regularly online, but at least through Twitter many more Tibetans can have a voice without fear of being photographed and added to a public list that labels them as terrorists or threats to the Dalai Lama's life.”

@IndyHack says he is an investigative journalist who has worked in the UK media for over 20 years (as part of the sparring with Rifkind, he proved he had access to the an NUJ in-house magazine), and now runs AreBuddhistsRacist.com. He first came across the Shugden issue while investigating other human rights issues, and is currently working on a book.

I also spoke to Nicholas Pitts, a spokesperson for the International Shugden Community (ICS), and based in London. He said he’s “surprised” to hear about the wave of new accounts, since “there’s been a strong social media presence around the campaign for some time”. He says he doessn’t know who the new accounts are, but that

Lots of people feel very passionately about the campaign, so I assume they're doing it to raise awareness. It’s not part of our official campaign – we mostly talk to mainstream journalists and organise protests.”

I explain that the sheer volume of tweets coming from the accounts seems a little odd, and he responds with quite a reasonable point - that this really constitutes a kind of “Twitter storm” or thunderclap, used to boost a hashtag or campaign up the trending list and draw as much attention to it as possible. “I don’t know the etiquette of these things, but I’d always assumed it was a legitimate way of raising awareness,” Pitts says.  Later, he emails me to clarify his position:

You seemed to be concerned that there was something wrong with the tweet campaign. I disagree. I think it’s a large group of people who feel very passionately about this issue and are aware that it is being suppressed in the British media. 

Pitts’ colleague at the ICS tells me that she feels the Guardian piece demonstrates how hard it is to get the community’s voice heard in the media, considering the Dalai Lama’s “PR presence” internationally.  “He has such a big voice,” she says, “and we have such a little one.” 

The sheer volume and coordination of the trolling accounts implies they're the work of someone who knows what they're doing. It's possible that they are Chinese propaganda accounts, or that Shugden campaigners desperate to drum up support are behind them. Either way, their robotic tone and incessant spamming probably aren't doing the campaign much good. And they're making it really hard to find out what's going on at Glastonbury. 

 

Update 26/6: Twitter user @Tashaargh directed me to this gallery on Facebook, which appears to show screenshots and photos of the Shugden community planning and coordinating Twitter storms. One comment reads:

By the way guys... I was able to schedule messages to 4 accounts on Hootsuite, not all at the same time, but two at a time. Try it, you will be able to double or triple your tweets per day. :)" 

Other pictures show groups with laptops, tweeting using Hootsuite. 

Then, I received another email from Nicholas Pitts, giving me warning of what would happen next:

I've been in touch with some of the twitter campaigning people. They're trying to find a way to tweet you evidence of their locations (and the fact that they are actual people) without losing their anonymity.

There are hundreds of them from all around the world - and yes they have multiple accounts, and yes they use tweetdeck (and other programmes) to send a massive volume of tweets and automatically re-tweet each others posts....

Anyway, I wanted to give you a heads up just in case it looked like your twitter feed was under attack or something. If you get lots of that kind of tweet it's just them trying to do the right thing."

Here's a round-up of some of the tweets I've received so far. The best, however, is this meme made specially by one of the accounts:

*According to a press release issued by the International Shugden Community.

*@IndyHack wouldn't reveal his identity to me, but said he is male. 

Barbara Speed is comment editor at the i, and was technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman, and a staff writer at CityMetric.

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Why Russia holds the key to resolving the North Korea crisis

China is propping up North Korea’s economy, but it seems to get little influence in return.

For more than half a century, China has seen North Korea as a dangerous irritant as much as an asset. It might be useful for keeping the United States off guard, and regarded as an essential buffer by the military establishment, but China would happily ditch it if there were a better option.

The North Korean regime has tended to be characterised as uniquely irrational and unpredictable. From its perspective, however, its behaviour makes eminent sense: in fact, its argument for developing a nuclear capability closely echoes the rationale of the great powers. It has no declared intent to launch a first strike, but as long as others have nuclear weapons, North Korea reasons they serve a deterrent function. The regime also argues, as others have, that there are associated benefits with civil nuclear power.  

The long history of North Korea’s nuclear programme follows a recognisable path, previously trodden by Israel, India and Pakistan. It goes from the ambition, formed in the mind of North Korea’s founding dictator, Kim Il-sung, through the long years of a clandestine programme, to the gradual revelation of a reasonably mature, if relatively small, nuclear capability. Signalling is also an element in deterrence. The regime is certainly unpleasant and destabilising, but it is a mistake to imagine that there is no clear purpose and no plan.

The dynasty began life as a Soviet puppet, sandwiched between a powerful USSR and a weak China. But from the start, Kim Il-sung’s muscular nationalism and concern for regime survival suggested that he was unlikely to be a docile dependent of either. His attempt to unify the peninsula by force in 1950 led to a bloody war in which Mao Zedong was obliged to come to his rescue. In the course of that war, “fire and fury” did indeed rain down on North Korea: the US dropped as much ordnance on North Korea as it had during the whole of the Second World War Pacific theatre, including the carpet bombing of Japan. To this day, any building site in Pyongyang is likely to turn up some unexploded ordnance. North Korea was born in a rain of fire, which it has incorporated into its national story.

The regime succeeded in maintaining relations with both its patrons through the dramas and tensions of the Sino-Soviet split to the end of the Cold War. But as Kim Il-sung contemplated the future survival of his regime, he concluded that a nuclear programme was essential insurance, both against his major enemies (the US and South Korea) and any territorial ambitions or excessive demands from China or Russia.

China was and remains North Korea’s major ally, but that does not make North Korea obedient. Their bilateral history is a story of growing defiance and increasing alienation: Kim Il-sung ignored Mao Zedong’s attempt to dissuade him from naming his eldest son, Kim Jong-il, as his successor. He had visited Beijing once a year and had promised that his son would follow suit, but Kim Jong-il only visited Deng Xiaoping’s China once, in 1983. His next visit came three years after Deng’s death, a death for which Kim had offered no formal condolences, as even the most minimal protocol required. 

On that visit, Kim heard the unwelcome news that China, already closer to the United States than he would have wished, was to open relations with his bitter rival, South Korea. When the third dynastic leader, the young Kim Jong-un, took power in 2011, relations with China slid further. Tellingly, Kim Jong-un has not visited Beijing at all, nor has China’s leader, President Xi Jinping, visited Pyongyang, although he has held four summit meetings with South Korea.

Kim Jong-un has made his defiance publicly evident. Not only has he chosen to test his missiles and weapons, but he has selected such highly sensitive moments as last year’s G20 summit in Hangzhou to do so.

China is propping up North Korea’s economy, but it seems to get little influence in return, and the value of the relationship has long been openly questioned by China’s foreign policy analysts. China has had little success in encouraging the regime to loosen controls on the economy and make limited market reforms.

 In the current crisis, China has consistently urged restraint, while co-operating with the tightening of UN sanctions. Beijing’s attitude, however, remains ambivalent: it doubts that sanctions will be effective, and is highly sensitive to US suggestions that Chinese companies that breach sanctions would be subject to punitive measures.  For China, the dangers of bringing North Korea to the edge of collapse are greater than the difficulties of seeking another solution.

Today, North Korea’s relations with Russia are warmer than those with Beijing and if President Trump is serious in his search for someone to solve his North Korea problem for him, he could do worse than to call his friend Mr Putin. No doubt there would be a price, but perhaps Trump would have less difficulty in appeasing Russia than in making concessions to Kim Jong-un. 

In July this year, China and Russia put forward a proposal that both sides should make concessions. North Korea would suspend its nuclear and its missile testing in return for a suspension of South Korea’s annual military exercises with the United States. Buried in the joint statement was the assertion that third parties should not negatively affect the interests of other countries.

Both China and Russia aim to reduce US influence in Asia, an ambition greatly aided to date by Trump’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, conceived as a vehicle of US influence; his treatment of long-standing US allies; and his decision to withdraw the US from the Paris agreement on climate change.

Today the US seems poised between demanding that China solve the North Korea problem and beginning a trade war with Beijing. China’s challenge on the Korean peninsula, always difficult, has grown even greater.

Isabel Hilton is the CEO of the China Dialogue Trust

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear