At 7 pm on January 20, 2016, users of “Di Ba” — Internet giant Baidu’s message board — organized a social media war called “Di Ba’s Facebook Battle” (表情包大战), to flood the official pages of pro-Taiwan independence media like Sanlih E-Television and Apple Daily, British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) as well as fan pages of celebrities such as Taiwanese leader Tsai Ing-wen, Taiwanese K-pop star Chou Tzu-yu and Hong Kong singer Denise Ho with memes and messages. It was organized and prepared in military precision. The mission was to promote cultural exchange and ideas, particularly the political notion of Taiwan being a part of China, incited by the “Chou Tzu-yu incident.” Participating “warriors” were encouraged to act in a civilized manner and not attack the Taiwanese people, though some of the memes and rhetoric could appear offensive.
“Di Ba” was an unprecedented social media battle that was imagined and enacted on the Chinese Internet. Different from traditional political Chinese memes which are sensitive and controversial, and are blocked by the Great Firewall, “Di Ba” memes are nationalistic and patriotic. It is ironic that the discourse of Taiwan Independence (台独) is taboo on the Chinese Internet, yet these “Di Ba” memes were uncensored and the battle was even called a “carnival” (狂欢) by the People’s Daily, the Chinese government’s mouthpiece.
Memes (表情包) are used widely on social media. They often rely on a combination of visual and textual materials and references in order to construct humorous parodies of existing issues (Szablewicz, 2014). Memes are used to structure feelings. Chinese netizens have to be very creative and subtle with their memes to get past censorship. The use of memes is a part of Chinese netizens’ online activism. For instance, the grass mud horse/alpaca (草泥马) meme created by political activist/artist Ai Weiwei and the empty chair meme that humorously references Chinese Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo are censored from the Chinese Internet as regulators find them unfavorable due to political sensitivity. Memes related or making reference to June 4th 1989 (Tiananmen Square incident)and images of Lego tanks or big yellow ducks on Tiananmen Square are also banned. Other obscure memes include selfies of netizens wearing sunglasses pretending to be the blind human rights activist Chen Guangcheng. To Internet censorship authorities, “good” memes structure good feelings such as nationalism and patriotism. In contrast, “bad” memes are taboos that are harmful to social and national unity and harmony. The messages expressed through “Di Ba” memes reflected the government's official discourse — anti Taiwan independence and the greatness of the culture of Mainland China.
According to Wikipedia, the “Di Ba” message board has a staggering 20.6 million users. Mobilizing this many people on the Internet is challenging but the campaign was very well organized and prepared. Screenshots showed that attackers were separated into six “columns” in the military sense: information gathering; posting; writing opinions and creating images; translation; miscellaneous Facebook tasks such as liking posts; and a vanguard to head things up (Sonnad, 2016). ￼￼￼￼The fact that this series of actions leaped over the Great Firewall bypassing censorship suggested that the government did not consider the memes inappropriate or undesirable. Different than the usual political memes, “Di Ba” memes are pro-China, playing in tune with the Chinese government’s public discourse.
The messages expressed through “Di Ba” memes reflected the government's official discourse — anti Taiwan independence and the greatness of the culture of Mainland China.
It was not the first time Chinese netizens occupied western social media. Google+, like many foreign social media, is blocked in China but this block was lifted for a short period of time. In February 2012, thousands of Chinese netizens flooded US President Barack Obama’s Google+ page. “Occupy Obama’s Google+” was not as large scale and well organized as the “Di Ba” campaign. Some comments were posted for fun while others were overtly political. This campaign showed how fast Internet mobilization of Chinese netizens could be, and it also reflected the participants’ desire for freedom of expression. It is said that young people nowadays are apolitical, but do memes and social media battles get them more interested in politics? Infusing politics into entertainment may stimulate young people’s nationalistic feelings and interest in political participation online, but it is a double edged sword for the government’s control of discourse.
In his book, Chinese Internet expert Guobin Yang talked about the pressure to be a “good netizen” and participate in “patriotic leisure.” He said that within the field of Chinese Internet research, Fengshu Liu argued that young Chinese found themselves being pressured to adhere to a norm of the “good netizen.” Similarly, Yang demonstrated the manner in which the Internet may serve as a location in which notions of ‘ideal citizenship’ and ‘patriotic leisure’ are cultivated and reinforced.(Yang, 2009)” “Di Ba” has brought up cross-straits politics and national identity issues for discussion on the Internet where notions of “ideal citizenship” and “patriotic leisure” may have been infused in the process.
The People Daily’s opinion piece said that the contestation was a good fight between brothers, calling it a carnival started by post-90s Chinese netizens (Yu, 2016). With the government’s mouthpiece calling it a carnival between brothers, the culture of play seemed to sit well with the powers at the top. According to Yang, humor and power did not often co-exist on the Chinese Internet: “It is against this culture of official-centricity that the Internet culture of humor and play assumes special significance. Play has a spirit of irreverence. It always sits uncomfortably with power... Much online activism and much Chinese Internet culture in general, is enlivened with this spirit [the spirit of play] (Yang, 2009).” Mainland netizens seemed to enjoy sharing images of food and the landscapes of their hometowns with their Taiwanese counterparts. Some even found romantic dates from the opposite side during the battle.
Memes are humorous and playful, yet they can also be hurtful to other cultures. Nationalism on the Internet creates an “us vs. them” mentality that is not constructive for cross-straits cultural and political exchanges. In the case of “Di Ba”, although the battle was supposed to be civilized, not every netizen abided by the rules. Provoking and insulting comments were made and people’s feelings were hurt. Jokes referring to Taiwanese netizens as “wan wan” (湾湾) or “son” were derogatory, and some Taiwanese media and netizens called their mainland counterparts “strong country people with vitreous hearts” (强国人的玻璃心).
I hope this battle of memes will inspire the young people of Mainland China and Taiwan to think about their identities, interests and needs, and not just to repost and echo one another's messages. “Di Ba” can be a carnival but it can also shape a new political culture that promotes self-reflection and deep cross-strait exchange that is more than just a collection of funny memes.
Szablewicz, M. (2014). The "losers" of China's Internet: Memes as "structures of feelings" for disillusioned young netizens. China Information, 28(2), 259–275.
Sonnad, N. (2016, January 20). An army of Chinese trolls has jumped the Great Firewall to attack Taiwanese independence on Facebook. Retrieved from http://qz.com/598812/an-army-of-chinese-trolls-has-jumped-the-great-firewall-to-attack-taiwanese-independence-on-facebook/
Yang, G. (2009). The Power of the Internet in China: Citizen Activism Online. New York: Columbia University Press.
Yu, X. (2016, January 25). Renminribao Haiwaiban: "Diba Yuanzheng", "90 Hou" de wangluo kuanghuan. [People’s Daily Overseas Edition: "Diba expedition", Post 90s Internet carnival]. Retrieved from http://opinion.people.com.cn/n1/2016/0125/c1003-28080201.html