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China’s online troll army wages war on Uighurs


Police patrol as Muslims leave the Id Kah Mosque after morning prayer on Eid al-Fitr in Kashgar in China’s Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region on June 26, 2017.

Photo: AFP

The Chinese troll army suddenly struck one evening, bombarding the Facebook pages of two pro-Uighur groups with an array of verbal grenades and offensive images.

The social media onslaught was the handiwork of the self-styled Diba Central Army, a Chinese patriotic group that has targeted other pages in the past to defend Beijing.

With China increasingly concerned about its global image over issues ranging from Taiwan to draconian security in restive Xinjiang, Diba has served as a powerful online ally with its propaganda efforts.

While the group’s links to the state are unknown, its members have been lauded in state media as “patriotic grassroots voices.”

On April 10, several posts on the Talk to East Turkestan (TET) and Uyghur World Congress Facebook pages were strafed with a battery of images showing postcard-perfect pictures of happy people in Xinjiang with captions to the same effect.

The images were stamped with the Diba Central Army logo.

Other comments and images were either racially offensive or threatening, many referring to the pages as “terrorist groups.”

“A terrorist page, no different from ISIS [Islamic State of Iraq and Syria],” read one comment on the TET page.

Another comment contained a Soviet era-style poster showing a hand crushing brown and black people.

Arslan Hidayat, an editor of the TET Facebook page, said he realized something was out of the ordinary after he received more than 1,400 comments on a post within mere hours.

“We’re happy that this is happening because it means that the things we are sharing is angering the CCP [Chinese Communist Party],” Arslan said.

“The Chinese are trying to downplay our efforts,” he said.

China has attracted widespread criticism for placing an estimated 1 million Uighurs and other mostly Muslim Turkic-speaking minority groups in internment camps, which it describes as vocational education centers aimed at preventing religious extremism.

Diba counters that the camps are lies being spread by foreign powers.

The Diba “army” spawned out of a fanpage using the nickname for a popular Chinese former soccer player — who is not associated with the group — and now boasts more than 20 million users across various social media platforms, each representing a “platoon.”

It even gives mainland Chinese instructions on how to use software to circumvent China’s Great Firewall, which blocks sites such as Facebook.

The group is known colloquially as a “fifty-cent army” — people paid to post patriotic comments on social media. Diba rejects the label.

However, observers say its tactics are right out of the playbook of the United Front Work Department — an umbrella department governing issues ranging from minority rights, religion and overseas Chinese communities.

While the department did not respond to Agence France-Presse’s questions, state media have given Diba their seal of approval, lauding the group as “patriotic” for their “crusades” against falsehoods about China.

The April 10 memes were created to mock “biased and fabricated reports about Xinjiang,” organizer Yin Yuancheng told the state-run tabloid Global Times.

World Uyghur Congress program coordinator Peter Irwin said the attack shows the “growing anxiety” from the CCP “rushing to defend what many now consider crimes against humanity.”

Groups like Diba use similar modus operandi by exploiting Facebook’s comment-ranking algorithm so the public sees the spam comments first, said Raymond Serrato, a social media analyst with international civic rights group Avaaz.

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