LLast month, an “unknown hill in the Chinese desert” was covered in dozens of large red and white billboards that fluttered vitriol in the breeze. “I hope you die, bitch,” said one. “Bitch, fuck the feminists,” others said.
All were actual messages sent to women, a direct act of harassment anonymized by social media. They were sent for weeks of intense debate about the treatment of women on platforms like Weibo, sparked by the abuse of Xiao Meili who posted a video of a man throwing hot liquid at her after she asked him to quit smoking.
After collecting more than 1,000 of the abusive messages sent to feminists and feminist groups, a group of young artists placed them on a hill, creating a temporary “museum of Internet violence”.
“When the Xiao Meili incident happened, many feminists were being controlled, including me,” said one of the artists, Yaqing, who did not want to use her real name. “We wanted to turn the trolling words into something that could be seen, touched, materialized the trolling comments and amplified the abuse of what happens to people online.”
Much of the abuse has been fueled by growing nationalist fervor, and people who criticize or draw attention to China’s human rights issues have become the targets of major attacks online – or worse.
Some women who have come into public view to draw attention to human rights issues, such as the abuses in Xinjiang, have been the target of fake nude photos, threats, accusations of traitors, separatists and paid actors, and harassment. to relatives. The attacks come from ordinary citizens online, as well as government officials and state media.
“I was lynched in the Chinese media,” Sino-Australian researcher Vicky Xu told Australian television Q&A in April. “Along with many of my colleagues who study Xinjiang.”
Xu said that a report he produced with colleagues from the Australian Institute for Strategic Policy, which implicated more than 80 international brands in forced labor, led the Chinese government to “go on the offensive.”
She became a trending topic on Weibo, with a story being clicked over 9.2 million times, calling her a demon and race traitor. In an article titled “Bewitched Vicky Xu, who fabricates a Xinjiang story, stokes anti-China sentiment in Australia: Observer,” said the state media tabloid Global Times that Xu was endangering the Chinese in Australia.
Fake nude images of Xu have circulated online, her past relationships dubbed and dissected to shame her, and her family and contacts in China harassed, detained and interrogated – a charge repeated by most of the women the Guardian spoke to. this article.
A WeChat post that ran some of the most offensive claims about Xu later ran another hit story about Australian broadcaster Cheng Lei and Chinese journalists Haze Fan, who have been detained in China on indefinite national security suspicions.
“Every time nationalist sentiment rises, a woman is cyber-harassed, from Fang Fang to Tzu-i Chuang, from Vicky Xu to Xiao Meili,” he said. journalist Shen Lu on Twitter. “Chinese ethnic women are considered property of the state; as long as they are considered to have deviated from patriarchal values, they are doomed. “
In response to waves of harassment against feminists who defended Xiao, Weibo closed approximately 20 accounts – all property of the victims. Sina Weibo saying the pages were closed for posting “illegal and harmful information.” At least one of the women is suing.
Powered by state media
A study by Taiwan’s research group Doublethink Labs tracked online attacks against Chuang Tzu-i, the wife of the former US consul general in Chengdu. It found that it was largely fueled by reports in state media like the Global Times that were picked up by other government-controlled outlets in the days after, and “amplified the focus of patriotic Weibo users and key influencers.”
The organization said they found two main motivations behind the influential accounts that stoke the hoards: profits and ideology. “You see state actors pointing to a specific incident or narrative that could help spread their nationalist ideology.”
A sociologist professor at Fudan University, who declined to be named, said it was unclear whether the accounts were hacked or shut down under official direction or not, but “it is clear that there are no social platforms in China that are friendly. with women and women’s rights issues. “
He said the political-tinged targeting was related both to the rapid changes in China’s online environment and the increasing commerciality of the need for Chinese media traffic.
On the receiving end, motivation matters little. Many women the Guardian spoke to declined to come out officially, fearing retaliation or an escalation in online abuse. One said the attacks on her seemed coordinated, or at least driven by a particular group of people with a large online presence, who quickly organized to target her family and friends as well.
Xu is choosing to draw strength from it.
“Before this saga, I think few on Weibo spent much time thinking about Uighurs or forced labor,” he said in April. “I am getting so much hate because people felt righteous; imagine if they had access to more information about the plight of the Uyghurs.”
Yaqing said she hoped that people would see the artwork and reflect on the treatment of women, and that other women could take some comfort from it. But it took its toll.
“We found almost 1,000 comments and we didn’t use them all. But now, looking back, I don’t want to look at the files again. It makes you feel bad and your heart is beating very hard. “
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism