Out for A Battle on Instagram: How Chinese trolls Prompt Nationalism with Memes

On: October 29, 2021
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The enriched interfaces and affordances of digital media platforms have enabled people’s online practice and expression to become more creative than ever before. Much like what Schneider (2021) points out, nationalist messages now also tend to be “communicated visually”, unfolding their emotional potential in the form of “viral contagion and memetic diffusion” (de Seta, 2016). According to Shifman (2013), “meme creation is an accessible, cheap, and enjoyable route for voicing one’s political opinions”, therefore, making online nationalism increasingly infectious and ‘digestible’ in the digital milieu. By taking nationalist trolling that targets Japanese gymnast Daiki Hashimoto as an example, in this article, we will discuss how memes have prompted online nationalism trolling during Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics. In an attempt to explore the question raised above, a visual analysis of memes posted on digital platforms (i.e., Instagram) will also be done.

Origin of online nationalist trolling during Tokyo Olympics

The 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games were packed with drama. After Japanese gymnast Daiki Hashimoto won gold in the men’s all-around gymnastics final (Lee, 2021), his Instagram tagged page was inundated by insulting memes posted by trolls coming from Chinese social media platforms. During the final competition, Hashimoto tripped and ended up stepping out of bounds, still, “edging out China’s Xiao Ruoteng by only 0.4 points” (Lee, 2021). The decision made by the referee rapidly angered Xiao Ruoteng’s supporters. Some Chinese online users accused the referee of being partial towards the host’s team and even vented their rage on Hashimoto.

The historically adversarial relationship between China and Japan has long been a major theme of online nationalist discourse (Kokubun et al., 2017) in China, for this reason, the noisy dispute over the result of this gymnastics competition lingered on and triggered online nationalism among Chinese netizens, having a knock-on effect throughout Weibo and Instagram. Along with text-based hatred comments, ironic and invective memes were intensively created by online users to express their outrage on Weibo initially. However, owing to the strict censorship pertaining to regulations of addressing chaotic online environment imposed by the government this year, Weibo is no longer an optimal platform for online users to pour out their growing wrath. In addition, the furious words and memes posted on Weibo could not directly reach Hashimoto or the referee since none of them use Chinese social media platforms, in the circumstances, trolls from Weibo started to cross over platforms.

To understand cross-platform online nationalism in China, the neologism of chuzheng (出征) will be briefly explained. Chuzheng literally means ‘going out for a battle’, and it is an internet slang that specifically refers to behaviours of using VPNs to cross the Great Firewall (GFW) to trash talk on overseas social media platforms. It is interesting to note that the Chinese rhetoric of firewall and cross-platform trolling are both war-related. Chuzheng, which implies the meaning of long march against the enemies, allows “its participants play the part of patriotic warriors” (Wang, 2018); the Great Firewall can be seen as the political rhetoric to “express the ruling party’s supervisory intentions” (Li 2008, as cited in Wang, 2018) of resisting the attack from ideologies outside, and this political rhetoric can also be associated with the idea of enclosing or conquering the digital space and territory.

In light of the above factors, the political rhetoric does play a significant role in terms of constructing online nationalism in China. Within the context of image-based digital platforms like Instagram, memes are particularly well-suited for use as visual political rhetoric because of its collective, accessible and “intertextual nature” (Huntington, 2016). To answer the question of how memes have sparked online nationalism trolling during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, a visual analysis of memes posted on Hashimoto’s Instagram tagged page will be done as follows.

Method and scope

In this article, we will first conduct a dominant image analysis of those memes to examine the general tendency of how memes have been utilized as political participation during this issue, since dominant image analysis “allows for a distant reading in the quantity comparison” (Rogers, 2021). Second, we will look at templates of the memes in details and then emphatically analyse how political rhetoric has been weaved into the meme templates by Chinese Internet users for expressing emotions and reinforcing their national identity.


Dominant image analysis: meme as online political participation
The interface and affordances of image sharing and tagging make social media platform like Instagram a home to Internet memes, allowing young people to participate in politics in an “appealing and convenient way” (Shifman, 2013). Internet memes are collections of digital items that share common characteristics and are created with mutual awareness (Shifman, 2013). According to Nissenbaum and Shifman (2018), Internet memes can also be seen as an expressive repertoire “which is collectively authored and developed as a means of communication”, and a mode of political participation, to be specific, expression and public discussion (Shifman, 2013). By looking at the “discursive imagery”, the “size of publics and counterpublics” (Rogers, 2021) can be observed on Instagram. Additionally, through examining the spatial variables, “space allows us to see patterns between media elements that are normally separated by time”(Manovich, 2011). From the perspective of a spatial dimension, in Figure 1 presented below, it is easy to notice that during the early stage of this nationalistic trolling, Hashimoto’s Instagram mentioned and tagged page was occupied by tons of homogeneous and repeated memes.

Figure 1. Dominant image analysis of memes appeared on Hashimoto’s Instagram mentioned and tagged page on the day (28.07.2021, before Hashimoto closed his mention and tag page) of men’s all-around gymnastics final of Tokyo Olympic Games, image created by Photoshop.

The density of memes shows how meme itself functions as political participation of the coalescing crowd entering and occupying the “virtual square” (Zhang, 2020) (i.e., interface of Instagram). Lovink (2012) points out, the “basic rule of how crowds gather is also operational on the Internet, as if the masses want to celebrate their own presence by demonstrating their sheer quantity”. In a Chinese political and cultural context, crowds, unless orderly organized or approved officially, are thus can be seen as a threat (Zhang, 2020). By posting memes to overwhelm and cover other images and rational expression, the trolls, acting as crowds, demonstrate for the doctrine of nationalism in the virtual square. Through efficiently utilizing two major templates that can be directly perceived and understood, trolls who see themselves as patriotic warriors rapidly start a battle.

Figure 2. Two major templates of memes posted at the early stage of the trolling.

The two templates initially created by Chinese online users are re-creations based on the Tokyo Olympic logo as well as the scene of Hashimoto’s mistake. With captions in different languages on memes, from the perspective of an outsider (other Internet users), these memes are not indecipherable. As Nissenbaum and Shifman (2018) says, meme templates create a “binding structure for expression, while directing its range of possibilities”. These two most used templates embodied mainly a mockery towards Tokyo Olympics’ desecration of Olympic spirit, because the trolls insisted that Hashimoto did not deserve the gold medal. However, when zooming out, we also can observe that the dominant image analysis “yields marginal and orphan images” (Rogers, 2021) as well.

Figure 3. Images and memes posted by Taiwanese (and Japanese) to stop the online trolling and support Hashimoto

Among massive memes of trolling, there are a few random images scattered. In reacting to the nationalist trolls, some Taiwanese and Japanese Instagram users started to tag and mention Hashimoto under random images as a way of supporting him and beautifying his mentioned and tagged page. The only meme used repeatedly for supporting was a composition of flag emojis of Taiwan and Japan and a heart emoji. In contrast to various re-creations of memes posted by trolls, the only supportive and positive meme template is mundane and moderated, thus, “limiting those using them” and their “emotion was rarely realized fully or unequivocally” (Nissenbaum & Shifman, 2018).

By and large, the homogeneous meme templates emphasize the density of trolls as unified crowds in political participation, echoing and reenforcing the nationalism political rhetoric of chuzheng (go out for a battle), while the humdrum template of supportive meme restrains the expression of positive emotions that against trolling.

Moreover, as Nissenbaum and Shifman (2018) claims, it is also important to see meme templates as “an expressive repertoire, which is collectively authored and developed as a means of communication”. By changing the composition of memes as well as templates, creators and users of memes can generate different visual political rhetoric. According to Schneider (2021), meme as visual communication also “directly construct politics as visual performances that viscerally move and connect people in unexpected ways”. After the trolls noticed Taiwanese and Japanese Instagram users’ attempt to stop the trolling by posting memes symbolizing the alliance of Taiwan and Japan, there was an upsurge of new creation of memes from the trolls. The trolling started to be away from the theme of Tokyo Olympics, instead, the visual communication got extremely political and nationalistically emotional.

Figure4. Image grouping of most re-created genres of memes, created by ImageSorter

Memes and visual political rhetoric
A meme is highly contextual since understanding the rhetoric relies on additional considerations related to memes’ associations among sender, message, context, and receiver (Huntington, 2016). The nationalist message in memes used in the case of Hashimoto also requires background knowledge to be explained.

Figure 5. Newspaper with headlines of ‘Shame of Japan’
Figure 6. The original picture of Figure 5, which is a Japanese newspaper with headlines of ‘Shame of China’

The meme posted by trolls in Figure 5 is an example to explain the intertextuality of memes. It is a re-creation of Japanese newspaper (see Figure 6) with the headline of ‘shame of China’ after Japanese table tennis team defeated Chinese team during the early stage of Tokyo Olympics, provoking the anger of Chinese netizens. D’Angelo (2009) explained that intertextuality employs practices of “adaptation, recycling, appropriation, parody, pastiche, and simulation”, all those elements are crucial to the ethos of memes. The parody of the newspaper is not only for satirizing Hashimoto, but also for retorting Japan’s mocking of China before. The visual rhetoric of memes could be misinterpreted once separated from the background information.

Figure 7. The image of mushroom cloud of the atomic bomb blast.

The nationalistic rhetoric can be expressed symbolically. As Edwards (2004) states, the iconic images serve as a form of metaphor that could be recontextualized for symbolic association. Sometimes these iconic images operate as a synecdoche by using the concrete to represent the abstract or ephemeral (Huntington, 2016). The mushroom cloud of atomic bombings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki once symbolized Japan’s being defeated in World War Ⅱ, but it was modified as a metaphor of historical contradictions between China and Japan in memes posted by trolls. With the iconic image of mushroom clouds, memes brought the audience back to the context of the Sino-Japanese War, inciting hatred and hostility towards Japan among Chinese netizens and boosted the trolls’ pride of being as a victorious part during the war.

Figure 8. The big frog tells little frogs that ‘Outside world is so dangerous that staying in the well is the best choice’.
Figure 9. The frog is cheering for America and Japan, says “Daddy you are the best, mommy is calling my name!”.

Memes are “interdiscursive, intertwining multiple texts and commentaries into complex collages” (Milner, 2013). To understand visual political metaphors in memes not only relies on knowledge of historical background but also cultural context. Taking memes in Figure 8 and Figure 9 as examples, the trolls compared Taiwan and its leadership to a frog, which derives from an ancient Chinese fable known as ‘frog at the bottom of the well’. The fable is to satirize people who are not aware of their ignorance, and the trolls compared Taiwan to a frog to mock Taiwan’s being close to the U.S. and Japan and being alienating from mainland China. Now the frog has become the representation of Taiwan in memes in Chinese context. When Instagram users from Taiwan express their support for Hashimoto, trolls from mainland China turn to attack them by posting memes of the frog. The insulting memes also imply a thought of oversimplifying political contradictions between mainland China and Taiwan. In addition, the enthymeme of memes also requires “a self-convincing audience” to have a persuasive power (Huntington, 2016). If the metaphor containing in memes is too complicated, making the target audience far out of context, memes created for trolling will only make “strong emotional commitments to the ‘in-group’” (Schneider, 2021) and become tools for self-entertaining sequentially.

Memes as expressions of national identity
Understanding the rhetoric of memes becomes part of gatekeeping process that distinguishes outsiders and insiders because knowledge of culture and historical background is required for decoding. Memes are one part of a special discourse of the community (Ismangil, 2019). The constant repetition of memes contributes to strengthening the identity of community members. In the case we study, memes function as significant expressions of national identity.

Figure 10. The image of patriotic actor Wu Jing whose jacket is with the characters of ‘China’ on it, was used to express extreme nationalism

Chinese actor Wu Jing, the director and protagonist of a blockbuster patriotic film, now has become the symbol of Chinese nationalism. Memes based on the image emphasize the national identity with the Chinese characters “中国” (means China) on the jacket. They also convey emotions of anger or pride by texts like ‘People obeying the rules don’t have rights to compete against China’ or ‘Chinese gymnastics shows strength’. On the one hand, nationalists express national identity by emphasizing the greatness of their country. On the other hand, they establish national identity by mocking and belittling other nations. The phenomenon corresponds with the statement of Petersoo that nationalist ideology is based on the ‘we v.s. they’ opposition (Kanashina, 2020). By using nationalist memes, users strengthen the sense of belonging and identity of their country, while distancing themselves from other nations (Kanashina, 2020).

Discussion and Conclusion

In conclusion, memes developed in the practice of cross-platform chuzheng have been employed as political rhetoric and participation of the unified crowds to conquer the digital territory, in ways that galvanise online nationalism trolling. By examining two primary meme templates and through the lens of dominant image analysis, we argue that meme templates, either the massively posted homogeneous one or the supportive meme template created for reacting to nationalist trolls, to some degree, did restrain users’ expression on image-based media platforms like Instagram. Moreover, based on the context of specific history and culture, the rhetoric of memes is difficult to be decoded for outsiders of the community. Users also strengthen the sense of identity with the community while using memes as coded phrases to express feelings or share information, which is particularly prominent in the case of online nationalism. The political rhetoric of nationalist-themed memes highly relies on specific knowledge and memory of the society that memes come from. Both the political rhetoric and the emotions that nationalist-themed memes convey exhibit extreme exclusivity in the case we study.

Some scholars contend that internet memes serve as a tool for “freedom of speech” (Kanashina, 2020). As Shifman (2013) has stated, memes expand the variety of participatory options because people are given new ways to express political opinions. In a political milieu like Chinese society, some Internet memes are also used to bypass online censorship. For future research, it is also interesting to note that in China, somehow online nationalism is acquiesced by the government, and the united force of crowds such as fandom will also be utilized by the government as power of discourse to reenforce the ideology of nationalism. However, wrapped with visual political rhetoric, Internet memes provide a more sophisticated form for expressing political opinions.


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