In their view, the reason is that Chinese government-sponsored users are engaging in a coordinated effort to spread propaganda and bury anti-China messages on Reddit. Many users agreed, saying they’ve seen threads about China downvoted or inundated with trolls posting comments they believe are in line with Chinese propaganda.
“Go check out any thread about Huawei or the extradition, it's pretty insane,” wrote one person, citing the recent detention in Canada and ongoing extradition process of the CFO of Chinese technology giant Huawei.
But others mocked their fellow redditors for accusing anyone expressing even a moderately pro-China view of being a government troll. One user accused of being a paid government actor joked that they earn “$1,000 from glorious China Communist Party not only for each post, but for each time I even think something critical about Canada.” (The thread was soon locked and removed by /r/onguardforthee moderators for rule violations.)
That discussion followed an earlier one on /r/geopolitics about why articles critical of China were suddenly being downvoted or inundated with pro-China “shills.”
These public threads reflect growing concerns among redditors about what they say is coordinated activity on the site by pro-China accounts, according to a moderator and users who spoke to BuzzFeed News, and reflect intense discussions taking place behind the scenes among those who help oversee subreddits.
The sources say they’ve seen an increase in posts from newly created accounts that downvote anything critical of China, swarm threads to push pro–Communist Party views, or attack anyone criticizing the country. Threads about sensitive topics such as Tiananmen Square, Huawei, or Falun Gong, the religious group classified by the Chinese government as a cult, are quickly seized upon by pro-China accounts. While a BuzzFeed News analysis indicates that some of these accounts appear to belong to Chinese citizens based overseas acting in support of their country, there are also indicators that something more coordinated could be taking place.
One source familiar with the moderation practices of the /r/geopolitics subreddit, which they say generates roughly 1 million visits a month, called the influx of pro-China accounts and activity “the most active and aggressive” effort they’ve witnessed to date.
“In the past, /r/geopolitics had been targeted by Russian trolls, who are generally the most well-known and active across various social media platforms. However, in our situation the pro-CCP effort vastly overshadows any operation by the Russians,” they said. (BuzzFeed News agreed to not identify Reddit users in this article by their full name or username so they could not be linked to their presence on Reddit, due to concerns about being targeted.)
There is currently no evidence that pro-China activity on Reddit over the past year is directly linked to the Chinese government or the Chinese Communist Party. But China expert Bill Bishop, who publishes the Sinocisim newsletter, told BuzzFeed News that the behavior on Reddit aligns with an aggressive Chinese effort to control the narrative about the country outside mainland China.
“They are trying to rally what they call ‘greater discourse power’ and control the discourse and the dialogue about China. And so Reddit would be natural forum for that,” he said.
“Recently, really I’d say in the last 18 months or so, you seem to have seen quite an upsurge in [Chinese government accounts] taking the battle overseas to the global internet.”
The redditor with insight into /r/geopolitics said the activity goes beyond simply downvoting negative threads about China.
“Comments and articles pushing a pro-CCP narrative or praising Xi Jinping's ventures, such as the Belt and Road Initiative, are upvoted by either a coordinated effort or bots,” they said in a message sent via Reddit.
“Ironically, our freedom of press and an open internet is being exploited by an adversary to subvert democracy.”
Adding to the concerns for some is the fact that Reddit recently received a $150 million investment from Tencent, the Chinese technology giant that owns WeChat, the country's dominant social platform, among other properties. Reddit users responded to the news by sharing memes that are banned in China to protest the investment, and to express concerns that Reddit may increase censorship on its platform. Reddit’s CEO responded by telling users that Tencent does not have a board seat and that the company has not changed any policies as a result of the investment. (Reddit has been blocked in China since last August.)
A Reddit spokesperson told BuzzFeed News that an initial check for signs of coordinated activity on /r/onguardforthee and /r/geopolitics did not uncover anything. They also pointed to a recent post by the company about its efforts “to detect and mitigate content manipulation on the site."
"At Reddit, the integrity of the site is paramount,” read a statement sent by a Reddit spokesperson. “We have dedicated teams that enforce our site-wide policies, proactively go after bad actors on the site, and create engineering solutions to detect and prevent them in the future. We also continue to strengthen the measures we have in place to prevent or limit the impact of any malicious actors including human review and moderation of suspicious activity and content.”
Bishop said it’s often difficult to separate which part of the activity on Reddit or elsewhere is simply Chinese people who are “patriotic and just taking it on themselves” to support the country, and how much is coordinated by the government or related entities.
“It’s really difficult to see which is which,” he said.
That was reflected in a BuzzFeed News analysis of more than 30 accounts banned from /r/geopolitics specifically for comments related to China.
These accounts sometimes identified themselves as Chinese people working in the United States or Canada, or indicated this by making comments about their work or other aspects of their lives. Some of the banned accounts do appear to belong to people in China who managed to get around the country’s block of Reddit.
Several of the accounts were active on subreddits dedicated to Canadian universities in Ontario, and offered comments that indicated specific knowledge about these schools and locations. (Chinese student groups are a well-documented part of the Chinese government’s effort to spread its messaging abroad.)
The most suspicious accounts were recently created, seemed to primarily exist to weigh in on discussions about China, and in some cases went dormant after being banned from /r/geopolitics.
The source connected to /r/geopolitics, and who provided the list of banned accounts, said that over the past year moderators have had to deal with users who quickly create new accounts after being banned.
“We've had to implement a rule that prohibits posts from accounts less than 20 days old,” they said. “This has helped to an extent but these redditors seem to be very patient and disciplined, and can ‘wait out’ the 20-day requirement.”
In some cases, these accounts use names that appear to directly reference the concerns about Chinese trolls. One banned account was called “Prepaid_Shill” while another chose “5000000cents,” which may be a reference to the so-called 50 cent army. These are people employed by the Chinese government to flood online discussions with pro-government messages, or with messages intended to distract people from sensitive topics.
One banned user spoke to BuzzFeed News and said his ban was undeserved. He said it happened after he “pointed out that anti-China users of the sub is using whataboutism themselves while not allowing pro-China users using it.”
Aside from /r/geopolitics, the user, who said he’s a Chinese citizen, also posts on the subreddit of a university in Ontario. He said the moderators on /r/geopolitics subreddit seem quick to close threads about China in order to stifle discussion.
“From what I have observed, it seems that a lot of posts on China will be locked just in a few hours if it's just a wee bit controversial,” he said, but added, “I don't think that the moderation team is doing much wrong.”
He said he’s never seen any coordinated downvoting on /r/geopolitics, and called many of the downvoted articles about China “fake news” due to their US-centric viewpoint.
“They are either propaganda pieces made by US govt affiliated organizations … or biased one-sided news reports that does not tell the whole story,” he wrote in a message sent via Reddit. (Other banned users contacted by BuzzFeed News did not respond to requests for comment or declined to be interviewed.)
The user said he’s never personally been called a CCP troll or shill. But those accusations are now common on Reddit discussion threads about China. It’s an illustration of how accusing people of being state-sponsored tolls or bots has become more common online since the revelations about the Russian Internet Research Agency’s operations before and after the 2016 election.
In a discussion thread on the /r/TrollFarm subreddit, one user said, “Bad enough to have to deal with Russian Ops and the Alt-Right, but now we have to deal with Chinabots as well."
One Reddit moderator told BuzzFeed News even they’ve been called a “CCP shill” after banning “western users who've resorted to uncivil discourse.”
One Reddit user who’s paying close attention to China content on the platform is a Westerner who has lived in China for more than 20 years. Jim, as he asked to be called, told BuzzFeed News he has definitely seen a change in the tone of discussion on the site about anything related to China over the last year.
“You mention Falun Gong and it’s amazing, they just come out of the woodwork and all say the same thing,” he said.
“You get a lot of brand-new accounts that are suddenly popping up and their whole deal seems to be to engage you on China-related topics.”
He said his long experience in China helps him recognize the party’s propaganda and messaging tactics when they’re applied outside the country. And he thinks Reddit and the West as a whole are not prepared to deal with it.
“Believe it or not, this shit is effective,” he said. “This shifting the narrative and downplaying and questioning sources, it actually works. People in the West are entirely stupid when it comes to China.” ●
Added that /r/onguardforthee moderators locked the thread about Chinese propaganda shortly after it was posted.