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Free Tibet: Fake Twitter Accounts Spread Chinese Propaganda

  • VOA News

FILE - A man holds an iPhone as he visits Sina's Weibo (China's version of Twitter) microblogging site in Shanghai.

FILE - A man holds an iPhone as he visits Sina's Weibo (China's version of Twitter) microblogging site in Shanghai.

A human rights group says it has uncovered at least 100 fake Twitter accounts used to spread Chinese government's propaganda about Tibet.

The accounts, found by the organization Free Tibet, often used awkwardly constructed Western names and were accompanied by profile pictures that included photographs of American schoolgirls taken by professional photographers. Others used commercial stock images or pictures of dead celebrities.

Free Tibet spokesman Alistair Currie told VOA's Tibetan service many of the fake accounts trace back to the Chinese capital.

"The accounts that we have identified are completely phony accounts," he said. "They don’t relate to any individuals. Many of these accounts link to a website which is a Beijing-based website of a company which denies knowledge of the accounts. It says it is responsible for the website, but not the fake accounts."

The London-based rights group says the accounts posted English-language articles that attacked the Dalai Lama and that portrayed Tibet as a "contented and idyllic Chinese province."

The New York Times says many of the fake Twitter accounts now appear to be suspended, just hours after the release of the Free Tibet report.

China has gone to great lengths to paint a picture of stability in Tibet, where more than 130 people have set themselves on fire since 2009 to protest Beijing's rule. It blames the Dalai Lama for inciting the self-immolations, a charge he rejects.

The Chinese government has not responded to the allegations found in the report by Free Tibet, which worked with the Times in its investigation.

Free Tibet did not explicitly accuse the Chinese government of setting up the accounts. But in a letter, it urged Twitter CEO Dick Costolo to ensure that the social media service "cannot be used for deceptive propaganda interests of authoritarian regimes in the future."

The campaign group said the accounts are "an act of cynical deception designed to manipulate public opinion regarding an occupied and brutally repressed country."

It is unclear whether the Twitter accounts had any impact on public opinion. But Free Tibet pointed out that one tweet attacking the Dalai Lama had been re-tweeted (shared on Twitter) more than 6,500 times.

By early Tuesday, Twitter had suspended many of the fake accounts found in the report. Free Tibet warned there are likely hundreds more fake accounts that have not been discovered.

Twitter and all other major Western social media are blocked in China, although Beijing's state-run media outlets do have Twitter accounts that disseminate the government's stances on domestic and international issues.

This report was produced in collaboration with the VOA Tibetan service.

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