Published daily by the Lowy Institute

We’ve been trolled – expect more of it, because it worked

Here’s how Scott Morrison might have responded to China’s online provocation.

Vladimir Smirnov\TASS via Getty Images
Vladimir Smirnov\TASS via Getty Images

With a wicked and now infamous tweet, Australia has joined India, the US, Canada, and the Pope on a list of those China’s “wolf warrior” diplomat in chief Zhao Lijian has deliberately provoked. By reacting with fury we’ve done what a troll would hope.

Internet trolling referred originally not to beasts under bridges but to a fishing term – to cast a line and entice prey to hook themselves. By demanding an apology from the Chinese government and saying they should be ashamed, we’ve taken the bait.

Those suggesting this is a misstep by China argue it diminishes their international standing. Well, China is not seeking anyone’s approval anymore. And this is not a mistake – it’s a strategic use of communication. It won’t be the last time.

To not respond is unthinkable – the image Zhao tweeted is appalling – but Australia’s reaction could have been different.

  • The leader of the government should not be the initial responder to a Chinese bureaucrat, no matter what the issue. It elevates the matter and energises the troll. The PM will inevitably be asked, at which time the response can begin by putting the antagonist in their place. For example, Morrison could have said, “It’s not usual for a prime minister to respond to foreign public servant’s social media post, but I need to make a few points.”
  • Don’t call it disinformation – this implies an intent to deceive using deliberately false information. The intent here is not deception, it is provocation. Arguing the image is false centralises the veracity of claims about Australian war crimes, which remain under investigation, and in any case this isn’t the point.
  • Take the high ground: “Images of violence against children are especially inexcusable, and I hope Twitter and the Chinese government will delete it right away. I don’t want children being exposed to those sorts of pictures, regardless of whatever the political point might be.”
  • Call it trolling, which is what it is, and identify and isolate the troll. Whether or not he is operating under directions (Zhao certainly is), focus on him. “This official has made a name for himself by being a petulant irritation. He’d do well in student politics.” (Apologies to the student politicians out there.)
  • Call out his tactics: “This is an attempt to get a rise out of us. Giving this troll attention is what he wants. But I am not getting sucked in, and neither should you.”
  • Stay calm. Trolls love to make people angry.

You may also be interested in