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Transnational Meme Wars: #MilkTeaAlliance

Meme War Weekly is a newsletter addressing political messaging that comes from the wilds of the internet, produced by Dr. Joan Donovan and the Technology and Social Change Research Project.

April 30, 2020 — What began as a Twitter war between pro-China accounts targeting Thai celebrities — whose social media activity was interpreted as an affront to China’s COVID-19 response and their claims to Taiwan — has birthed a new online movement dubbed the Milk Tea Alliance. The Milk Tea Alliance is a tacit coalition of accounts representing Taiwan, Thailand, and Hong Kong; who are pro-democracy, anti-authoritarian, and anti-CCP (Chinese Communist Party); and promote a range of political causes from Taiwanese independence to protesting China’s Mekong dams.

The name of the alliance stems from each of the countries’ longstanding affinity for milk tea, for which Taiwan, Thailand, and Hong Kong have their own local variations. All are delicious. Taiwan is known as the birthplace of bubble tea, Hong Kong, for their sweet milk tea which dates back to British colonial rule, and Thailand, for their ubiquitous orange-colored Thai iced tea. Though the Milk Tea Alliance was formed out of shared political values, it was popularized by a common love for sweet milk tea.

In this edition of Meme War Weekly, we explore the questions: “Where do memes come from? How does local culture factor into the spread of memes?” Although memes tend to flourish in hyper-local online spheres, sometimes their creators and distributors can span across multiple countries. The dense memes of the Milk Tea Alliance not only combine imagery, jokes, and other cultural references from a variety of countries, but due to their inclusive nature can also result in tacit coalitions, the potential for infinite remixes, and real world impacts on diplomatic relations.

The Belligerents and Their Allies

Initially, the Twitter war was started by pro-China accounts in response to what they perceived to be slights from Thai idol and television star, Vachirawit Chiva-aree (known as “Bright”) and his girlfriend Weeraya Sukaram (a.k.a. “New”), who goes by “nnevvy” on social media. Bright had accidentally liked a photo on Instagram that referred to Hong Kong as a country, while his girlfriend, New, had retweeted a COVID conspiracy theory and referred to her style of dress as Taiwanese, as opposed to Chinese. These actions were enough to provoke pro-CCP netizens to jump the Great Fire Wall and go on the offensive, firing the first shot in the Thai-China meme wars of 2020.

Using the hashtag #nnevvy (New’s handle on social media) on Twitter and the massive Chinese microblogging site Sina Weibo, pro-CCP users demanded New apologize, in addition to trolling her account and hurling insults at Thai users. But Thai users on Twitter were quick to respond, resulting in the majority of activity under the #nnevvy hashtag being pro-Thai or anti-CCP. Joined by other regional allies, namely anti-authoritarian and pro-democracy voices from Taiwan and Hong Kong, the onslaught of tweets attacking the Chinese netizens led much of Western media to declare Thailand the winners of the meme war.

Once the #nnevvy hashtag was taken over by anti-CCP accounts from Thailand, Taiwan, and Hong Kong, the #MilkTeaAlliance was born, making it to Twitter’s trending list in Thailand, along with #MilkTeaIsThickerThanBlood. Within a single thread, one could find Chinese and Thai slang and content written in Thai, English, and Chinese. Writing about the #nnevvy saga for The Diplomat, technology and human rights researcher Dan McDevitt noted that “While Milk Tea Alliance members may be separated by thousands of kilometers in physical distance, they’re also as connected as the closest keyboard.”

To the Victor Go The Memes

According to Reuters, over 2 million tweets were launched in the clash. The memes against the pro-Beijing users were so large in volume that a separate Facebook page is archiving, sharing, and uniting the various anti-CCP netizens from the region. In less than two weeks the page has already amassed 92,000 followers. Emerging from the #nnevvy and #MilkTeaAlliance hashtags were the reuse of popular global meme formats like the Virgin/Chad macro, the American Chopper template, and the Disappointed Black Guy. These were widely shared on Twitter and Facebook, along with fresh memes, protest art, and even IRL drawings on Hong Kong’s Lennon Wall, a major collective art space born of the pro-democracy Umbrella Movement.

There are two main reasons why China lost this battle. First, the sheer volume of anti-CCP, pro-Thai tweets are a testament to how uneven the battlefield was. Because Twitter is banned in China, its user base is far smaller and those that do engage on Twitter need to go through a VPN. Thai users, on the other hand, account for 4.5 million accounts on Twitter, and when combined with users from the Milk Tea Alliance, the number of pro-Thai tweets and memes overpowered whatever initial content the pro-China accounts were putting out.

Second, the insults lobbed at the Thai users were easily deflected by self-deprecating humor and awareness of their own domestic problems. In essence, you can’t troll a troll. When “wumao” (a derogatory term referring to pro-CCP cybertroopers) attacked Thailand’s poverty, king, and government on Twitter, Thai netizens were already critical of their domestic situation and responded with more memes, sarcasm, and even agreement with the taunts. Many replied with “Say it louder” in full acknowledgement of the problems that ail their country. Failing to offend their intended targets, these insults only gave the Thai Twitter users more fodder for memes and witty comebacks.

From Memes to Movements and Back Again

Since the Milk Tea Alliance began, netizens from around the globe have pledged their allegiance, similar to past transnational movements documented by scholar An Xiao Mina in her book From Memes to Movements. Social media users from the Philippines, Malaysia, and Vietnam have also voiced their anger and opposition to Chinese expansion. In particular, the issue of the Mekong Dam has drawn the attention of the Milk Tea Alliance. In a recent study, Eyes on Earth, a research and consulting company specializing in water, found that the Chinese-controlled Mekong dams have held back large amounts of water in downstream nations like Myanmmar, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam, worsening the effects of drought. As such, many of the #MilkTeaAlliance tweets also now overlap with #StopMekongDam. This has prompted a White House petition asking the United States to stop China from building the Mekong Dam. Pro-democracy Hong Kong activist Joshua Wong also tweeted his support for the Milk Tea Alliance, reminding his followers that transnational solidarity was crucial.

However, with China as one of Southeast Asia’s largest trading partners and political elites who are more than happy to deepen engagement with China, time will tell whether milk tea is truly thicker than blood. As one pro-democracy Hong Konger tweeted, “The question is, can this #MilkTeaAlliance become more than a squad mercilessly dunking on wumaos?” In addition to the Mekong dams, the rest of Southeast Asia, Taiwan, and Hong Kong have long standing issues that won’t be going anywhere in the near future. An anti-CCP account dedicated to the #nnevvy saga reminded its followers of the ongoing territorial dispute in the South China Seas. The issue of Taiwan’s membership to the WHO has been brought up along with Hong Kong independence. Tracy Beattie of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute concluded, “While #Nnevvy started off as an intense overnight Twitter war between Thailand and China, it’s now turned into meaningful diplomatic engagement with Hong Kong and Taiwan.” Although the #nnevvy meme war may have been sparked by the seemingly trivial social media activity of celebrities, the #MilkTeaAlliance may bring about social change.

Meme War Weekly is a newsletter addressing political messaging that comes from the wilds of the internet, produced by the Technology and Social Change Research Project at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy. Each week, we will look closely at the use of popular slogans and images and how they are shifting political conversations.

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