The Chinese authorities are using social media trolls to spread false stories and rumours about the Dalai Lama, Indian intelligence sources say.
While the Russian government’s attempts to bombard social media with “fake news” narratives are widely discussed, the extent to which the Chinese authorities use similar methods to undermine the Tibetan leader and the cause of Tibetan freedom is not widely documented or understood. Recent media reports have pointed to the rise of the Nationalist troll army of the Chinese Communist Party, nick-named “the little pinks” who engage in “mass bombings” of public figures who are seen as enemies of the Chinese regime.
In 2015 Reuters investigated a world-wide protest campaign against the Dalai Lama which was orchestrated in Europe and the United States by a New Religious Movement, known as the New Kadampa Tradition. The group, whose headquarters are in Cumbria, UK, claims to be Buddhist and even wear the same robes as their enemy, the Dalai Lama, in a bid to confuse westerners about who they really are, reliable sources say.
“Big attacks will have pre-agreed slogans, memes and a start time, and labour will be divided into groups, such as teams for enforcing internal discipline and for helping people get access to blocked websites like Facebook,” says Kate Yuan Tian, author of a Yale Law School paper on the little pinks.
This exact strategy was used by the New Kadampa Tradition in their online “mass bombing” campaign against the Dalai Lama. The hand of “the little pinks” was clear in the NKT’s tightly co-ordinated “Tweet-storm” campaign against the Dalai Lama using the #DalaiLamaStopLying hashtag.
Twitter were alerted to NKT and the “little pinks” machinations and removed the hashtag from their trending charts.
The Reuters investigation revealed that the Chinese authorities were behind the protest movement, reporting that a 2014 internal Communist Party document distributed to Chinese officials described the Shugden issue as “an important front in our struggle with the Dalai clique.”
According to media reports from Tibet, the ruling Chinese regime gives favourable treatment to Shugden followers, imprisoning people who openly oppose the Shugden worship, which is said to be an anti-Buddhist and harmful practise, according to the Dalai Lama.
A monk and former member of the Shugden movement who was based in India and Nepal, Lama Tseta, told Reuters that China’s powerful United Front Work Department directed the campaign against the Dalai Lama. Tseta, who now lives in the United States, said China paid him and other Shugden monks to plan and coordinate these activities. He didn’t provide documentary evidence of Chinese financing of the protests.
The New Kadampa Tradition is the main western front for the Shugden clique but they deny any financial backing from the Chinese government. Sources say they have no real need for Chinese money because according to financial data provided by the UK Charities Commission the New Kadampa Tradition is very asset-rich, with a large world-wide property portfolio and a £17 million slush fund.
Their argument with the Dalai Lama is not about money: it’s personal. The spiritual head of the New Kadampa Tradition, a seldom-seen Tibetan monk who speaks poor English called Kelsang Gyatso, sees the Dalai Lama as a rival, a corrupt and “impure” influence on Buddhism in the West, due to his opposition to the Shugden practice. There is some irony in this as the Shugden practice favoured by the NKT has its roots in the non-Buddhist, spirit-worshipping, Bon religion of Tibet.
The New Kadampa Tradition’s dislike of the Dalai Lama is vitriolic. They attempt to manipulate social media to spread a false and malign narrative about the Dalai Lama using numerous anonymous online accounts and identities, the most prolific of which calls himself Indy Hack (@IndyHack). Among Indy Hack’s claims is that the Tibetan spiritual leader has cancer and is terminally ill. But Indy Hack’s campaign is nothing new in China’s continuing efforts to undermine the spiritual leader.
Per a Guardian article from 2015, ahead of the spiritual leaders visit to the UK, a social media campaign organized by the New Kadampa Tradition, and likely funded by China, kicked into high gear. According to The Guardian: “The UK protests are being organised by the New Kadampa Tradition, which emerged in the 1990s and now has nearly 50 centres in the UK promoting Shugden practices. In preparation for his visit, the ISC and its supporters have inundated Twitter with tens of thousands of anti-Dalai Lama tweets that have caused offence to mainstream Buddhists.”
The pushback was swift to The Guardian article to the point that a Guardian editor felt compelled to respond. His response likely infuriated Shugden followers even further. Stephen Pritchard lamented, “Hundreds of protesting emails demanding retractions and apologies poured in last month after the Observer reported on planned demonstrations in Britain against the Dalai Lama, Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader. Coupled with a storm on Twitter and placard-waving near our office in London, it had all the hallmarks of a carefully organised campaign to pressure the paper to kill a story, and all from apparently peace-loving Buddhists.”