PINK Floyd’s former frontman Syd Barrett may seem an unlikely vehicle for the dissemination of pro-China propaganda. But Mr Barrett’s face appeared on one of around 100 sham Twitter accounts uncovered by Free Tibet, an advocacy group, and the New York Times. The sole purpose of these accounts, it seems, was to spread airbrushed depictions of how great life is in Tibet and Xinjiang, two regions with large minority populations that have long bristled under Beijing’s rule.

Mr Barrett (pictured, second from the left, with 1960s bandmates) is among diverse and unusually attractive company. Another account purportedly belonging to one Tom Hugo features a photo of a muscular Brazilian model, Felipe Berto, emerging from the surf. Another carries the likeness of Erica Durance, an actress from the television series “Smallville”. Many of the false accounts shared certain qualities, such as the combination of two Western first names for the handle—Oliver Nina, Philomena Rebecca and Felix James—and many re-tweeted each other. While Twitter has suspended some perpetrators, select accounts can be viewed here, on Free Tibet’s Flickr page.

The content of the tweets echoes other state-driven efforts to shape overseas opinion on contentious matters such as the ongoing suppression of culture and religion in Tibet. Written in English and Chinese, they link to state-run media reports of bumper harvests on the Tibetan plateau and photo stories depicting Tibetans happily adjusted to metropolitan Beijing life. Others carried less subtle pro-Beijing sentiments. One tweet from the Tom Hugo account, forwarded some 6,500 times, linked to a report in which a meeting between the Dalai Lama and the American president, Barack Obama, is called “another anti-China farce”. The campaign is “an insidious effort to change the message and muddy the waters about Tibet,” Alistair Currie, the media manager of Free Tibet, told the New York Times.

In recent years China’s soft power efforts have both expanded in scope and become more sophisticated in delivery. One element is a state-funded band of internet trolls known as “the 50-Cent Party” (so called for reportedly earning 50 Chinese cents per post). They routinely storm comment sections under reports casting the Communist Party in an unfavourable light with inane or erroneous postings aimed at commandeering public debate.

In African countries where China invests heavily, state-run news agencies have launched a full-on charm offensive, praising bilateral cooperation in newspapers, on television and radio. Hollywood, too, is not immune to Beijing’s soft power push. “Transformers: Age of Extinction” recently became the top-grossing film in China. Some of the action seemedwritten to appeal directly to Chinese censors. After mutant robots invade Hong Kong, it is the Chinese government who comes to the rescue, while the Americans prove useless.

But the clumsy execution of the fake Tibet tweets has, this time, backfired. One lesson can be drawn from an account using the name @olivernina567: it is better not to pilfer the image of an American high school pupil from the website of a professional photographer for a profile picture. “It’s not like she’s being used to promote horrible stuff, but it’s her likeness and she’s just a teenager,” Kirsten Kowalski, the Atlanta-based photographer, told the New York Times. “It’s kind of bizarre, and frustrating. And it’s also illegal, at least in the United States.”

 

Link to The Economist online