From designer handbags to entire copycat towns, China has an impressively long list of fakes, but none as bizarre as the fake social media accounts set up to praise the central government’s stance on Tibet. Earlier this summer the New York Times and Free Tibet, a Tibet independence advocacy group in London, discovered China was running a new public relations tactic: setting up fake Twitter accounts that appear to be foreigners who know a lot about Tibet, and its relationship with the Chinese government.
Today, Alistair Currie, the press and media manager for Free Tibet, said after reports and complaints, YouTube has suspended several accounts associated with these fake Twitter accounts, deleting a number of videos that portray Tibet as a happy Chinese province.
“China’s cack-handed attempts to use western social media to spread its message may appear too obvious to pose a threat but they form part of a current charm offensive which must be taken seriously,” Currie said via email. “In recent months we have seen a new, coordinated effort to sell the message to external audiences that Tibet is full of contended people benefiting from the Chinese government’s financial largesse and content that China respects and preserves their culture.” In reality, Currie said that “China is an occupying power, brutally repressing Tibetan resistance and guilty of grave human rights abuses.”
The New York Times focuses in on one Twitter account, @tomhugo148, who frequently tweeted about Tibet, linking to photos and articles about how Tibetan people appreciated China’s rule over the autonomous region. He would also share videos from his YouTube account. The shirtless man at the beach is actually a Brazilian model named Felipe Berto, who didn’t know his picture was being used for Tibetan politics.
The fake account, however, is not limited to just Tom Hugo. Dozens of other Twitter accounts posting almost exclusively about Tibet or the restive Xinjiang province from what appeared to be the accounts of Caucasian foreigners were found. In some cases, Free Tibet reports profile pictures for such accounts were discovered to be from commercial stock image websites and even celebrities like the late Syd Barrett, a former member of Pink Floyd. On YouTube, comments on videos would also appear featuring awkwardly worded pro-China comments purporting to be from concerned (and fake) foreigners, some with improbable names such as "Malthu Snowl" and "Nell Raleign".
While there isn’t definitive proof that China’s government is behind the fake accounts, in the past, the government has paid people 50 renminbi cents to post comments on news articles or message boards espousing the position of the Communist Party.
“We’re grateful YouTube for pulling the accounts but more needs to be done by social media companies to prevent the abuse of their products in this way,” Currie said. “China’s emphasis on manipulation of western public opinion is a sign of how important that public opinion is.”