Alarmed by widespread Western concern over human rights violations in Tibet, China is using false Twitter accounts to spread positive stories about its rule in the Himalayan region and to attack exiled spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, a London-based Tibet support group says.
The accounts, around 100 of which have already been identified, carry false Western names and profile photos and link to stories originating from Chinese websites, Free Tibet said in a statement on Monday.
“We found the fake accounts about two weeks ago and have been doing research since,” Free Tibet spokesman Alistair Currie told RFA in an interview.
“Some of these accounts date back to 2012 but haven’t been especially active. Others have been tweeting for many months,” Currie said, adding, “We think we’ve uncovered the tip of an iceberg of China propaganda on Twitter.”
Many tweeted stories repeat glowing accounts of Beijing’s development policies in Tibet, but others slam the Dalai Lama, with one—retweeted more than 6,000 times—suggesting that in making visits to the West, the exiled spiritual leader is “just looking for more money.”
“I hate to think one of my IDOLS is a fraud,” another tweeted message reads.
The Dalai Lama, who escaped into exile in India from China-occupied Tibet in 1959, is reviled by Chinese leaders as a dangerous separatist who seeks to split the formerly self-governing region from Beijing’s rule.
In what he calls a Middle Way Approach, though, the Dalai Lama himself says that he seeks only a meaningful autonomy for Tibet as a part of China, with protections for the region’s language, religion, and culture.
China’s recently uncovered messaging efforts appear to be aimed at pushing “pro-China propaganda higher up the search rankings on Twitter when people search for “Tibet” or “#Tibet,” Currie said.
“At the moment, this content is only making it into the top 100 results, but if they do this more, that could get higher.”
"The content and breadth of the effort would suggest the involvement of a state actor," agreed The New York Times in a report Monday, pointing to similar messages posted by China's so-called Fifty Cent Party—"government-paid lurkers who earn 0.5 renminbi [yuan] per posting on Internet message boards and chatrooms in an attempt to sway public opinion on issues deemed politically delicate by the [ruling Chinese] Communist Party."
Free Tibet urged Twitter to investigate and delete all accounts found to be fake.
“A company of Twitter’s size and high profile must take responsibility for failing to prevent abuse on this scale for the political purposes of an authoritarian regime,” Free Tibet director Eleanor Byrne-Rosengren said in a letter to Twitter CEO Dick Costolo, according to the statement.
“These accounts are not the exercise of free speech but an act of cynical deception designed to manipulate public opinion regarding an occupied and brutally repressed country.”
Quoted by The New York Times, Twitter spokesman Jim Prosser meanwhile said that Twitter works hard to uncover and delete illegitimate accounts.
"We have a variety of automated and manual controls we constantly use to detect, flag and suspend accounts created solely for spam purposes," Prosser said.
China always “seeks to control the narrative on Tibet,” Currie told RFA.
“It bans foreign journalists and silences Tibetan voices online. It has the resources and money to spread its propaganda, and Western businesses should not be the vehicle for that propaganda.”
And though China-sourced stories on cultural events and wildlife in Tibet may seem harmless, “they are far from it,” Currie said.
“They are central to China’s soft power activities and its plan to strengthen its grip on Tibet.”