The 14th Dalai Lama in 2006. Photo: Yancho Sabev via Wikimedia Commons.
Show Hide image

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.

Getty
Show Hide image

Martin McGuinness's long game: why a united Ireland is now increasingly likely

McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

In late 2011 Martin McGuinness stood as Sinn Fein’s candidate in Ireland’s presidential election, raising all sorts of intriguing possibilities.

Raised in a tiny terraced house in the Bogside, Derry, he would have ended up living in a 92-room presidential mansion in Dublin had he won. A former IRA commander, he would have become supreme commander of Ireland’s defence forces. Once banned from Britain under the Prevention of Terrorism Acts, he would have received the credentials of the next British ambassador to Dublin. Were he invited to pay a state visit to London, a man who had spent much of his youth shooting or bombing British soldiers would have found himself inspecting a guard of honour at Buckingham Palace.

McGuinness would certainly have shaken the hands of the English team before the Ireland-England rugby match at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin every other year. “I’d have no problem with that,” he told me, grinning, as he campaigned in the border county of Cavan one day that autumn. Though a staunch republican, he enjoyed the “Protestant” sports of rugby and cricket, just as he supported Manchester United and enjoyed BBC nature programmes and Last of the Summer Wine. He wrote poetry and loved fly-fishing, too. Unlike Gerry Adams, the coldest of cold fish, McGuinness was hard to dislike – provided you overlooked his brutal past.

In the event, McGuinness, weighed down by IRA baggage, came a distant third in that election but his story was astonishing enough in any case. He was the 15-year-old butcher’s assistant who rose to become the IRA chief of staff, responsible for numerous atrocities including Lord Mountbatten’s assassination and the Warrenpoint slaughter of 18 British soldiers in 1979.

Then, in 1981, an IRA prisoner named Bobby Sands won a parliamentary by-election while starving himself to death in the Maze Prison. McGuinness and Adams saw the mileage in pursuing a united Ireland via the ballot box as well as the bullet. Their long and tortuous conversion to democratic politics led to the Good Friday accord of 1998, with McGuinness using his stature and “street cred” to keep the provisional’s hard men on board. He became Northern Ireland’s improbable new education minister, and later served as its deputy first minister for a decade.

His journey from paramilitary pariah to peacemaker was punctuated by any number of astounding tableaux – visits to Downing Street and Chequers; the forging of a relationship with Ian Paisley, his erstwhile arch-enemy, so strong that they were dubbed the “Chuckle Brothers”; his denunciation of dissident republican militants as “traitors to the island of Ireland”; talks at the White House with Presidents Clinton, George W Bush and Obama; and, most remarkable of all, two meetings with the Queen as well as a state banquet at Windsor Castle at which he joined in the toast to the British head of state.

Following his death on 21 March, McGuinness received tributes from London that would have been unthinkable 20 years ago. Tony Blair said peace would not have happened “without Martin’s leadership, courage and quiet insistence that the past should not define the future”. Theresa May praised his “essential and historic contribution to the extraordinary journey of Northern Ireland from conflict to peace”.

What few noted was that McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation – albeit by peaceful methods – than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

The Brexit vote last June has changed political dynamics in Northern Ireland. The province voted by 56 per cent to 44 in favour of remaining in the European Union, and may suffer badly when Britain leaves. It fears the return of a “hard border” with the Republic of Ireland, and could lose £330m in EU subsidies.

Dismay at the Brexit vote helped to boost Sinn Fein’s performance in this month’s Stormont Assembly elections. The party came within 1,200 votes of overtaking the Democratic Unionist Party, which not only campaigned for Leave but used a legal loophole to funnel £425,000 in undeclared funds to the broader UK campaign. For the first time in Northern Ireland’s history, the combined unionist parties no longer have an overall majority. “The notion of a perpetual unionist majority has been demolished,” Gerry Adams declared.

Other factors are also working in Sinn Fein’s favour. The party is refusing to enter a new power-sharing agreement at Stormont unless the DUP agrees to terms more favourable to the Irish nationalists. Sinn Fein will win if the DUP agrees to this, but it will also win if there is no deal – and London further inflames nationalist sentiment by imposing direct rule.

McGuinness’s recent replacement as Sinn Fein’s leader in Northern Ireland by Michelle O’Neill, a personable, socially progressive 40-year-old unsullied by the Troubles, marks another significant step in the party’s move towards respectability. As Patrick Maguire recently wrote in the New Statesman, “the age of the IRA old boys at the top is over”.

More broadly, Scottish independence would make the notion of Northern Ireland leaving the UK seem less radical. The Irish republic’s economic recovery and the decline of the Roman Catholic Church have rendered the idea of Irish unity a little less anathema to moderate unionists. And all the time, the province’s Protestant majority is shrinking: just 48 per cent of the population identified itself as Protestant in the 2011 census and 45 per cent Catholic.

The Good Friday Agreement provides for a referendum if a majority appears to favour Irish unity. Sinn Fein is beginning to agitate for exactly that. When Adams and McGuinness turned from violence to constitutional politics back in the 1980s they opted for the long game. Unfortunately for McGuinness, it proved too long for him to see Irish nationalism victorious, but it is no longer inconceivable that his four grown-up children might. 

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution