Fake social media accounts are spreading pro-Chinese propaganda on Twitter, disseminating upbeat news stories about the troubled regions of Tibet and Xinjiang, according to an investigation by advocacy group Free Tibet. It’s unclear if this effort is led by the Chinese government, whose online-propaganda efforts normally involve real people paid to post favorable comments to shape public opinion. But if China is indeed behind the propaganda, it wouldn’t be the first country to try something like this.
Russia has reportedly used fake Facebook accounts to attack Ukrainian protesters, accusing them of horrendous crimes, according to Forbes. The pro-Russian commenters — some real, some fake — even spread bogus photos, the magazine reported. One example of a government using social media “bots” to sway opinions online can be found on American soil. In 2011, the United States military reportedly handed out a $2.76 million contract to California company Ntrepid to develop software to manipulate social networks with fake accounts that would spread pro-American propaganda.
The program was not designed to target Facebook and Twitter, but the goal was to develop an “online-persona management service” that would allow soldiers to control up to 10 fake accounts “replete with background, history, supporting details and cyber presences that are technically, culturally and geographically consistent” to counter anti-American information.
Post by fake account ‘Free Tibet’ on Twitter (Source: Free Tibet)
Andrea Stroppa, an independent security researcher who has studied the booming business of fake Twitter accounts and Facebook pages, wasn’t surprised by The New York Times story that first reported the fake pro-Chinese accounts. Using fake accounts can be a great way to spread false information, and trick many into believing lies, Stroppa told Mashable
“Many people believe anything they read, and never check the source of the information,” he said. “John Doe has the same power that I do online, and if John Doe is a bot, who is going to notice?” “John Doe has the same power that I do online, and if John Doe is a bot, who is going to notice?”
In this case, however, Stroppa noted that many of the accounts were clearly fake, since they used photos of attractive, scantily clad people — mostly stock images of models — and had vague information in their biographies.
Whoever was behind the pro-Chinese operation, Stroppa said, “is dumb.” The accounts “are made in a superficial way, and easily attributable to fake accounts,” he added.
Just hours after The Times published its report on the fake pro-Chinese accounts, Twitter suspended most of them. Twitter, just like Facebook, has been dealing with fake accounts for a while now. A previous study by Stroppa and fellow researcher Carlo De Micheli estimated that there are 20 million fake Twitter accounts for sale, while Jason Ding, a research scientist at Barracuda Labs, said 10% of Twitter accounts are bots. For its part, Twitter claimed that only 5% of its accounts are fake in its S-1 filing before going public.