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Hong Kong's Own Reddit Is Doing the Protesters' Dirty Work—Sometimes too Dirty

ALEX OGLE/Getty Images

Around 6 p.m. on Tuesday, a user on a web forum called Hong Kong Golden suggested that Occupy Central protesters seize Lung Wo Road, a major thoroughfare running through downtown Hong Kong. Demonstrators should “coincidentally and accidentally walk onto the road,” the user wrote. Soon after 9 p.m., a group of protestors swarmed into the street, freezing traffic in both directions and setting off violent clashes with police. After midnight, someone posted a photo on Facebook showing protestors barricading a tunnel, with the triumphant title, “Brave Golden Forum, Suddenly Attacking Lung Wo Road.” 

If Occupy Central is a calm, polite gathering of well-behaved students, Hong Kong Golden is the movement’s combative id. Part attack dogs, part merry pranksters, the anonymous “Golden brothers”—the forum’s users are mostly male—have given the otherwise diminutive umbrella movement its teeth, getting their hands dirty in ways that average protestors aren’t willing or able to. They dig up the personal information of people who oppose the movement and publicize photos of the anti-Occupy thugs who have harassed peaceful protesters. They create memes like parody songs mocking government figures, which protesters then forward around on Facebook and WhatsApp. And in the absence of a movement leadership structure, the forum has become a staging ground where “keyboard fighters” discuss strategy and float ideas, such as occupying Lung Wo Road. Lester Shum, one of the leaders of the Hong Kong Federation of Students, has credited Hong Kong Golden with inspiring his political awakening. 

Hong Kong Golden first began in 1999 as a website for personal computer users to check the prices of hardware sold at the Golden Shopping Center, a famous electronics market in Kowloon. After a couple of months, they added a discussion forum, which soon spun off into topics other than gadgetry. “Initially I was pissed off, because I thought the main theme of the website should be computers,” said co-founder Wong Kwok Leung, who goes by the nickname “Dr. Jim.” But as talk shifted to politics, TV shows, and philosophy, traffic exploded: By 2003, they had more than 100,000 paying users, and more than 2 million page views a day. What made Hong Kong Golden so popular was the lack of rules, Wong said: “We didn’t have sufficient funds to manage the website, so there was lots of freedom.” The forum has since become a fixture of Hong Kong’s online culture. It's part-4Chan, a cyber-Wild West that takes pride in its contrast with the censored Internet just to the north, and part-Reddit, a meeting den for Anonymous-style activists and amateur sleuths who are unafraid to dox private citizens.

Since the latest round of pro-democracy protests began in late September, the forum has served as the movement’s oppo research team. When police were caught on tape beating a protester on Tuesday night, forum users quickly identified the officers involved. As tensions rose in the Mong Kok neighborhood last week, one protester negotiated a truce with police, and was photographed shaking hands with an officer. Golden users soon discovered that he was an auxiliary policeman himself, and accused him of being a spy. (He said he had already quit the force.) The forum’s “Uncover Team” identified another man who was supposedly a spy within the movement and posted his name, approximate address, birthday, photos of him and his girlfriend, and his alleged connections to triad gangs. They followed up with a warning: “Anti-Occupy people, if you keep messing around, you will bear the consequences. The Golden Uncover Team will make you unable to show your face again in your life.” 

Many of the Golden brothers use their perch for more traditional activism. A spokeswoman for jewelry store chain Chow Tai Fook posted messages on her Facebook account last week mocking protesters who had been sexually assaulted, spurring forum users to launch a campaign to get her fired. It worked. Users have raised money to run full-page ads in Hong Kong newspapers advocating for political causes. When an anti-Occupy group called the Alliance for Peace and Democracy set up a hotline for complaints, forum members flooded the lines with irrelevant questions to disrupt its service.

The forum is also a thriving creative community, with many users recording parody songs making fun of anti-protest figures. Golden brothers have taken particular delight in mocking police spokesman Steve Hui, whose stiff delivery during his 4 p.m. daily press conferences has made him a minor celebrity. (This parody, set to the theme song of a popular Japanese cartoon, includes the lyrics, “White collared shirt/Hope the policeman's English will improve.”) They have also gone after individual anti-Occupy protesters, such as a woman with a strange accent who allowed her child to eat on the subway.

The forum’s anarchic style has gotten it into trouble. In 2011, the Oriental Press Group sued the site for defamation after forum users insinuated that the Ma family, the company’s owners, had drug trafficking connections. (A member of the family was once known as “White Powder Ma.”) That same year, business magnate Albert Yeung sued for libel after users alleged that he’d exploited his position as chairman of the Emperor Group for sexual favors. Legal liability was one of the reasons Wong and his co-founders decided to sell the site in 2008 to Fevaworks, an IT education company. “We didn’t want to put ourselves at risk,” he said.

Especially controversial is the practice of targeting private citizens. “Some might say they’re cyber-bullying,” said Mickey Fong, a technology editor at the Hong Kong Economic Journal and author of a book about Hong Kong web companies. “Some might say they’re actually breaking the law.” In 2012, a Hong Kong woman who was about to get married posted a message on her Facebook page telling wedding guests not to bother showing up unless they planned to bring a sizeable cash gift. Golden forum users revealed her personal information online, leading to harassment, and at least one heckler showed up at her wedding. “I don’t think the girl deserved that kind of bullying,” said Fong. The incident reflects the dark side of a community full of anonymous teenage and twenty-something men with time on their hands, he said: “They’re geeky male internet users, so some of them hate the female Hong Kong thing.” 

Others argue that the forum’s political radicalism can go too far. One user who called himself “Paul” told me that there’s a “worrying trend” in the movement to attack student leaders and moderate supporters as spies or label them “leftist idiots” (or, in Golden slang, “leftist plastic”). These so-called “hot-blooded citizens” want to “have a more radical approach,” he wrote in an email. “The big problem is that they simply don’t have any clear idea on how it should be done in practice.”

But most protesters talk about the Golden brothers as folk heroes. “They are super keyboard fighters,” said Leona Ho, 25, a web designer who has been manning the barricades in Admiralty on a nightly basis. In Hong Kong society, which often seems to prioritize money above all, and where rents are so high that most young people can’t afford an apartment, the attraction of cyber-heroism is clear. “Most of them, in the real world they’re nobody,” said Wong. “But on the website, they’re creating something useful and interesting and funny.”

This article originally quoted the forum user discussing "rightist idiots." The user meant to say "leftist."