World & Nation

Dozens of pro-China Twitter accounts outed by Free Tibet as fakes

the Dalai Lama
Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, shown July 7 near Leh, India, was a target of critical fake tweets. Dozens of fake Twitter accounts were suspended Tuesday after being outed by Free Tibet, an advocacy group.
(Tsering Topgyal / Associated Press)

What the world knew about him from his online persona, Tom Hugo, was that he looked like Adonis in a swimsuit and hated the Dalai Lama.

Alayna Newark, with beautiful blond curls and cleavage, had strong feelings about China’s right to the East China Sea islands disputed by Japan.

They were among dozens of fake pro-Chinese Twiteratti whose accounts were suspended Tuesday after being outed the day before by Free Tibet, a London-based advocacy organization.

Curious about the people who were most prolifically tweeting pro-Chinese political messages, Free Tibet discovered they were fictitious personae created out of appealing photographs plucked from the Internet. @Tomhugo148, for example, used the photograph of a Brazilian underwear model. @Alayna Newark used the photograph of a Canadian actress.


The others were a grab bag of photographs of actresses, a New Zealand radio hostess and a handful of American high school students whose images were apparently taken from a commercial photography website.

Alistair Currie, Free Tibet media manager, said that circumstantial evidence points to the Chinese government as the perpetrator behind the phony accounts.

“It is impossible to imagine anybody else who would be behind it given the nature of the messaging,” said Currie.

Beijing is notorious for propagating positive messaging on bulletin boards and chat rooms. In fact, the government’s messengers are known as the “50-cent party’’ because they are reportedly paid half of one Chinese yuan (the equivalent of 8 cents) per message. But the network uncovered by Free Tibet appears to be one of the most extensive targeting the Western Internet.


“We have been generally aware of Twitter-related spam and the use of fake identities to spread it, but nothing as flagrantly deceptive as this,” said Currie.

Free Tibet identified about 100 fake accounts and said there were probably hundreds more. They submitted their findings Monday to Twitter Chief Executive Dick Costolo and released the results to the New York Times.

Not only were the fake identities unusually good-looking, many of them had two first names, such as Tom Hugo, Ken Peters and Felix James, as though they were randomly chosen by a computer program. Some also had YouTube and MySpace accounts. They listed one another as followers, retweeting each other. One tweet criticizing the Dalai Lama, Tibet’s spiritual leader, was retweeted 6,555 times.

Their messages either condemned the Dalai Lama or the Japanese, or praised daily life in Tibet or Xinjiang, the restive northwestern region, often tweeting articles from Chinese propaganda sites.

“Tibetans hail bumper harvest of highland barley,” enthused Tom Hugo.

Follow news from China on Twitter at @BarbaraDemick.