London: - A number of YouTube accounts promoting Chinese propaganda have been removed following an expose by Free Tibet. YouTube has deleted all but one of more than fifty suspect accounts the campaign group reported to them in September. The deletion of the accounts follows Twitter's removal of similar accounts following a Free Tibet campaign in July.
Many of the deleted YouTube accounts posted videos portraying Tibet as a happy Chinese province. Most activity, however, was dedicated to supporting a YouTube channel, Review China, which produces content intended to reassure foreign observers of China's general domestic progress, good intentions and neighborliness.
Free Tibet campaign manager Alistair Currie told the Tibet Post International (TPI),"The bulk of the accounts focused on supporting the generic pro-China content on Review China. These videos use Western pundits and purport primarily to be independent analysis but they're carefully edited (or the Westerners speaking edit themselves) so that there is no controversial content, they focus on the "progressive" changes in China and are basically congratulatory to the Chinese leadership."
The accounts used images, primarily of Caucasians, stolen from other online sources and Anglo-Saxon names produced by combining two first names, the same format used for the Twitter accounts.
There is no evidence to directly link the Chinese government to the YouTube accounts but the scale, content, and nature of the videos posted are very similar, suggesting the same source. The same can be said for the nearly 100 Twitter accounts that were broadcasting positive news stories about life in Tibet and Xinjiang.
Highlighting the importance of combating this type of propaganda Mr Currie said, "China's emphasis on the manipulation of Western public opinion is a sign of how important that public opinion is. The reality that China is an occupying power, brutally repressing Tibetan resistance and guilty of grave human rights abuses in Tibet must never be obscured by its PR."
The news raises questions over whether YouTube, Twitter and other social networks should be doing more. Mr Currie said he was "very pleased"that Google had removed the accounts but believes"that it can and should do more", he also told us that the Review China YouTube channel is still online,"These bogus accounts existed to promote Review China and it's a reasonable assumption that they originate with Review China.
"The channel itself should be pulled and we're going back to Google to pursue that. More to the point, it shouldn't be the job of a small NGO to ferret out these kinds of abuses." YouTube did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Although Twitter was quick to act on suspect accounts in July, Review China also still has a Twitter account with 15,000 followers many of whom appear to be bogus. Free Tibet said it has notified Twitter of the accounts.
Earlier in the year Chinese-language Twitter accounts were used to target the Chinese author Murong Xuecun, a critic of the Communist Party, in which a series of Chinese essays titled "The Past and Present Life of Murong Xuecun" berated his lifestyle and his sex life. These articles were re-tweeted over 1,000 times by around 100 accounts with matching characteristics.
Other suspect accounts have aimed at interfering with pro-democracy activism in Hong Kong, including making fake terrorism threats.
"China is constantly experimenting with new ways to spread its chosen image of a country making progress under enlightened leadership and worthy of respect in the world. That may be the subtle influence of Confucius Institutes or carefully selected access to Tibet for Western public figures, such as at the recent Lhasa forum, or on social media.
"We're doing all we can both to interfere with that project and, more importantly, to expose it. People need to know that an attempt is being made to manipulate them. China has huge resources and there is very likely to be social media content we haven't uncovered. The achievement, we believe, is pulling back the curtain on China's propaganda machine," said Mr Currie referring to Free Tibet's investigative work.