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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Qatar is determined to stand up to its Gulf neighbours – but at what price?

The tensions date back to the maverick rule of Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani.

For much of the two decades plus since Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani deposed his father to become emir of Qatar, the tiny gas-rich emirate’s foreign policy has been built around two guiding principles: differentiating itself from its Gulf neighbours, particularly the regional Arab hegemon Saudi Arabia, and insulating itself from Saudi influence. Over the past two months, Hamad’s strategy has been put to the test. From a Qatari perspective it has paid off. But at what cost?

When Hamad became emir in 1995, he instantly ruffled feathers. He walked out of a meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) because, he believed, Saudi Arabia had jumped the queue to take on the council’s rotating presidency. Hamad also spurned the offer of mediation from the then-President of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan. This further angered his neighbours, who began making public overtures towards Khalifa, the deposed emir, who was soon in Abu Dhabi and promising a swift return to power in Doha. In 1996, Hamad accused Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE of sponsoring a coup attempt against Hamad, bringing GCC relations to a then-all-time low.

Read more: How to end the stand off in the Gulf

The spat was ultimately resolved, as were a series of border and territory disputes between Qatar, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, but mistrust of Hamad - and vice versa - has lingered ever since. As crown prince, Hamad and his key ally Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani had pushed for Qatar to throw off what they saw as the yoke of Saudi dominance in the Gulf, in part by developing the country’s huge gas reserves and exporting liquefied gas on ships, rather than through pipelines that ran through neighbouring states. Doing so freed Qatar from the influence of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries, the Saudi-dominated oil cartel which sets oil output levels and tries to set oil market prices, but does not have a say on gas production. It also helped the country avoid entering into a mooted GCC-wide gas network that would have seen its neighbours control transport links or dictate the – likely low - price for its main natural resource.

Qatar has since become the richest per-capita country in the world. Hamad invested the windfall in soft power, building the Al Jazeera media network and spending freely in developing and conflict-afflicted countries. By developing its gas resources in joint venture with Western firms including the US’s Exxon Mobil and France’s Total, it has created important relationships with senior officials in those countries. Its decision to house a major US military base – the Al Udeid facility is the largest American base in the Middle East, and is crucial to US military efforts in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan – Qatar has made itself an important partner to a major Western power. Turkey, a regional ally, has also built a military base in Qatar.

Hamad and Hamad bin Jassem also worked to place themselves as mediators in a range of conflicts in Sudan, Somalia and Yemen and beyond, and as a base for exiled dissidents. They sold Qatar as a promoter of dialogue and tolerance, although there is an open question as to whether this attitude extends to Qatar itself. The country, much like its neighbours, is still an absolute monarchy in which there is little in the way of real free speech or space for dissent. Qatar’s critics, meanwhile, argue that its claims to promote human rights and free speech really boil down to an attempt to empower the Muslim Brotherhood. Doha funded Muslim Brotherhood-linked groups during and after the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011, while Al Jazeera cheerleaded protest movements, much to the chagrin of Qatar's neighbours. They see the group as a powerful threat to their dynastic rule and argue that the Brotherhood is a “gateway drug” to jihadism. In 2013,  after Western allies became concerned that Qatar had inadvertently funded jihadist groups in Libya and Syria, Hamad was forced to step down in favour of his son Tamim. Soon, Tamim came under pressure from Qatar’s neighbours to rein in his father’s maverick policies.

Today, Qatar has a high degree of economic independence from its neighbours and powerful friends abroad. Officials in Doha reckon that this should be enough to stave off the advances of the “Quad” of countries – Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE - that have been trying to isolate the emirate since June. They have been doing this by cutting off diplomatic and trade ties, and labelling Qatar a state sponsor of terror groups. For the Quad, the aim is to end what it sees as Qatar’s disruptive presence in the region. For officials in Doha, it is an attempt to impinge on the country’s sovereignty and turn Qatar into a vassal state. So far, the strategies put in place by Hamad to insure Qatar from regional pressure have paid off. But how long can this last?

Qatar’s Western allies are also Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s. Thus far, they have been paralysed by indecision over the standoff, and after failed mediation attempts have decided to leave the task of resolving what they see as a “family affair” to the Emir of Kuwait, Sabah al-Sabah. As long as the Quad limits itself to economic and diplomatic attacks, they are unlikely to pick a side. It is by no means clear they would side with Doha in a pinch (President Trump, in defiance of the US foreign policy establishment, has made his feelings clear on the issue). Although accusations that Qatar sponsors extremists are no more true than similar charges made against Saudi Arabia or Kuwait – sympathetic local populations and lax banking regulations tend to be the major issue – few Western politicians want to be seen backing an ally, that in turn many diplomats see as backing multiple horses.

Meanwhile, although Qatar is a rich country, the standoff is hurting its economy. Reuters reports that there are concerns that the country’s massive $300bn in foreign assets might not be as liquid as many assume. This means that although it has plenty of money abroad, it could face a cash crunch if the crisis rolls on.

Qatar might not like its neighbours, but it can’t simply cut itself off from the Gulf and float on to a new location. At some point, there will need to be a resolution. But with the Quad seemingly happy with the current status quo, and Hamad’s insurance policies paying off, a solution looks some way off.