‘THE TIBETAN COMMUNITY HAS BEEN PERSISTENTLY TARGETED BY DIGITAL ESPIONAGE OPERATIONS FOR OVER A DECADE’

For 61 years, the Tibetan diaspora has been a community in waiting. As those from outside Tibet prepare to elect their government-in-exile at a time everything has moved online, disruptions have become easier. Cybersecurity researcher Tenzin Dalha, who works with the Tibet Policy Institute (TPI), a think tank under the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA), talks about this with Chandrima Banerjee:

What happened at the Geneva Forum?

The CTA (the elected Tibetan parliament-in-exile) has been organising the forum in Geneva since 2018. It has been an important international platform where human rights advocates, activists, diplomats, academics and politicians deliberate on and report human rights violations by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) regime. Because of the pandemic, it had to be held online this year, between November 9 and 13. The central theme was the global impact of China’s policy on freedom of religion. The sessions were on how intolerance of religious practices in areas under China’s watch has led to persecution of Tibetan Buddhists, Uighur Muslims, Christians and Falun Gong practitioners. It was streamed live on social media platforms.

There were 7,000 troll attacks, with more than 50,000 comments through all the five days.

What did they do?

They wrote offensive comments about the forum, its participants and Tibetan human rights activists. They also spoke a lot about CCP’s development programmes in Tibet and East Turkestan. Some tried to spin a narrative of capitalism versus communism out of nowhere. Being online meant being more vulnerable to disruptions. It also ended up providing a larger stage for trolls.

Why did you conclude they were organised trolls?

The first thing you’d notice about the comments was that they didn’t engage with what was being said at all. They avoided arguments or direct discussions, which is because they didn’t know anything about what was actually being discussed on the forum. Instead, they focussed on repeating what has been the CCP stance with baseless allegations and propaganda. They did this in multiple languages – Tibetan, English and Mandarin. The syntax of the Tibetan language used, interestingly, was that used within China-occupied Tibet. The aim was clearly distraction.

So, you think this is a state-sponsored campaign?

The Chinese government has one of the most comprehensive propaganda networks. The state-sponsored troll machinery, known as the 50 Cent Army, is said to have anywhere between 5 to 20 lakh people at work. Their work is to post comments that appreciate what the CCP does and remove content that is thought to be unfavourable.

The Washington Post had reported that these government employees have been generating about 448 million comments a year since 2012. The latest on them is that the pandemic has increased their workload – everything has moved online – and they have been given a pay bump, from the 50 cents they used to get to 70 cents a word they write or delete. It’s the 70 Cent Army now.

Have there been instances of similar disruptions in the past?

This is not new. The trolling and flooding of Tibetan social media with divisive comments has been happening forever. Tenzin Tsultrim, visiting research fellow at the TPI, had analysed this and said that the CCP has been getting better at disrupting anything that goes against its state-sponsored narrative, even outside its own territory.

Does this increase concerns about the upcoming Tibetan elections then?

Yes, the intent will be to spread confusion and disseminate misinformation and false narratives. The existence of the CTA challenges everything China wants to assert about Tibet and its geopolitical position. Distracting voters, trying to influence their decision-making, and seeding hatred and distrust would further the attempt to challenge the legitimacy of the Tibetan elections. As we approach the elections, this is expected to go up. Everything is online – campaigns, discussions, political messages. It may just make their job easier.

How is the CTA preparing to counter this and ensure a fair election?

President of the CTA, Lobsang Sangay, has urged the community to be cautious about the increasing number of fake profiles, trolls and misleading messages on social media. There are a series of video messages about misinformation that will be shared soon. There are also guidelines for being safe online that the Election Commission has issued. But see, we are up against a well-organised, paid army of trolls.

The Tibetan community has been persistently targeted by digital espionage operations for over a decade. The Toronto-based Citizen Lab had uncovered largescale phishing operations aimed at the Tibetan community for 19 months. Malicious emails that install spyware are common. Even the use of WeChat, before India banned it, was something Tibetans here did cautiously when speaking to loved ones back home. It is always assumed that the Chinese government is watching and listening to every form of communication with a recipient across the border.

DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.

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