The Chinese govermnent has attempted to hijack Wikipedia and force a meme that disparages pro-democracy advocates in Hong Kong.

Wikipedia is the encyclopedia anyone can edit. And while its crowdsourcing model has helped Wikipedia become one of the most popular websites in the world, it also causes some pretty thorny problems. “Anyone” makes for quite the expansive umbrella, after all. It can include university professors and journalists but also corporate hacks and pedophilia advocates.

Or even, say, the Chinese Communist Party.

That’s the allegation in a new article called “Battle at Wikipedia – Counterbalance Brainwashing and Slanders through Participation,” published at Chinese site InMediaHK, with a translation provided by Global Voices.

At the heart of the allegations is a Chinese language Wikipedia page for something called the “Three-way Society.” According to the entry that term is Chinese Internet slang, a meme, essentially, used derogatively to describe pro-democracy leaders in Hong Kong. It claims:

 “[The Three-way Society] generally refers to organized Chinese treason groups or societies being subsidized and working for non-Chinese organizations which aims at inciting subversion of the state or local governments. They are mainly based in Hong Kong where freedom of speech is allowed. They also promote the Hong Kong independence movement and separatism.”

To add some authoritative weight to the term’s validity, the article goes on to cite prominent pro-Beijing news organizations, who declare that members of “three way society” have engaged in anti-China conspiracies.

Yet, curiously for such a seemingly well-defined term, “the three-way society” appears nowhere else online. The Wikipedia entry is the only record of its existence.

Memes and image macros—those clever easily digestible and sharable concepts that proliferate online—are the unending and unavoidable noise of the social media age. But some have argued that the very same factors that make memes so obnoxious to many of us make them potentially powerful tools for grassroots political messaging in authoritative states. In China memes are often used to both take digs at the Chinese government and avoid censorship at the same time.

In that sense, the “Three-way Society” may be an official pushback, a forced meme with a pro-Beijing theme. It’s a troubling sign that the Internet is equally good at spreading misinformation as it is at killing secrets.

The InMediaHK story pins the fabrication on what’s called the “50 Cent Party,” which is basically a cadre Chinese netizens who’ve been hired by the Communist party to make it look good online (hence the name, which as a jab at their low salaries). They post favorable comments about the party or harass others who don’t tow the party line. They’re paid political trolls—as if someone hired people from the comment section of your local newspaper, organized them, and let them loose them across the internet.

Thankfully, the Three-way Society article is currently in dispute—meaning Wikipedia editors are debating its merits—but Hong Kong netizens are worried it’s only the first of many 50 Cent Party fabrications. There’s a solution, of course: More ordinary people using Wikipedia. But according to one Hong Kong resident: “The situation has been tough. Without proper measures, ordinary netizens may be outnumbered by occupational writers.”

The Chinese city state has seen a spate of protests recently as pro-democracy advocates attempt to counteract increasingly naked attempts by the mainland to influence the city’s politics. In the most recent flare up, massive protests forced the government to scrap plans for a mandatory “moral and national education” program, which many Hong Kong residents viewed as Beijing’s not-so-subtle attempt to indocrinate the city’s youth.

Photo by Roger Wagner/Flickr

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