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:
.@IndyHack I’m sorry, but I don’t believe you’re really in Britain at all. To clarify, please define “a cheeky Nandos” ASAP.
— Hugo Rifkind (@hugorifkind) June 24, 2015
I joined in, hoping to figure out who the account, which claimed to be that of a UK-based freelance journalist, really was:
@IndyHack If I say Byker, you say..?
— Barbara Speed (@bspeed8) June 24, 2015
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:
— Indy Hack (@IndyHack) June 24, 2015
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:
— Shugden Library (@ShugdenLibrary) June 26, 2015
*According to a press release issued by the International Shugden Community.
*@IndyHack wouldn’t reveal his identity to me, but said he is male.