Dozens of screen captures from China’s most popular social media platforms have been translated and shared on Twitter in recent weeks, providing Western audiences with a rare glimpse into the Chinese internet.
The posts appear courtesy of anonymous Twitter users who say their goal is to expose Western audiences to the true extent of pro-Russian or nationalist content on China’s heavily censored platforms.
It often falls under the hashtag “The Great Translation Movement,” or is shared by an account of the same name operated by a decentralized and anonymous team that collects and translates popular posts about Ukraine and other hot topics, according to an official interviewed by CNN. Many, but not all, appear to have been widely admired or shared within China – the official cited the selection criteria.
Since launching the account in early March, it has already gained a lot of friends and enemies – attracting 116,000 followers (and the number is growing) and a slew of criticism from China’s state-run media.
“We want the outside world to at least know what’s going on inside, because we don’t think any change can be made from the inside,” said the official, who asked not to be identified for security reasons.
In bad faith?
China’s state media criticized what it described as “carefully selected content”. The People’s Daily, the mouthpiece of the ruling Communist Party abroad, alleged that the translators behind the movement were guilty of attributing the “extremist statements” of some Internet users to “the whole country”.
The nationalist Global Times accused the group of being “bad-faith Chinese-speaking actors” and one of its opinion writers claimed the group included “foreign hostile forces” perpetuating a “psychological war against China”.
Outside of China, media experts have warned that the publications do not capture an overall view of public opinion in China and appear to have been chosen at least partly for shock value – but they can still be useful in highlighting these elements in the Chinese media landscape.
Critics also say the group’s tweets show evidence of its bias – as in posts that use a term comparing China to Nazi Germany.
Experts say the posts gaining traction on China’s social media must be seen in light of its heavily censored environment, where nationalist voices thrive and liberal voices have largely declined or been censored.
But the official who spoke to CNN said the goal was to highlight the emergence of such posts — some of which come from famous influencers, the comments receiving thousands of likes or from VIPs, even government-backed news outlets.
“Our goal is to raise awareness of the state of public opinion in China, whether it is the result of spontaneous interactions (or) as a result of government censorship,” the official said.
“We want to counter the efforts of the Chinese state media by showing the West some content that they don’t want to show.”
China has often sought to present two different narratives – one for domestic audiences and the other for audiences abroad. This is made possible by the language barrier and the online ecosystem that blocks apps like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. The great translation movement breaks down both of these barriers.
said David Bandorsky, director of the China Media Project, a research program in partnership with the University of Hong Kong’s Center for Journalism and Media Studies.
And when it comes to Ukraine, China has sought to portray itself – at least to the public abroad – as unaligned and invested in peacemaking. But Bandersky said his media coverage back home tells a different story.
“If you just look at the (government) media coverage, it’s really hard to talk about neutrality… All they said was amplify the disinformation and align with Russia in terms of the narratives.”
While the tone of the state-backed media is clear, experts say it is difficult to gauge public opinion in China just by looking at social media, even when it comes to popular influencers or viral posts.
Like anywhere in the world, views on social media can be extreme. In China, extreme manipulation and extreme censorship often amplify the chosen voices.
“The authorities are certainly interested in promoting their favorite online novel, and they have the technical and political means to ‘unapologeticly direct public opinion’,” said Florian Schneider, director of the Leiden Asia Center in the Netherlands.
“We shouldn’t underestimate the power of social media algorithms: As pro-Russian statements turn mainstream, they receive more likes and shares, making them more visible,” he said.
Suppressed voices, echo chambers
The situation is complicated: Beijing also has cause to worry about ultra-nationalist voices, which platforms sometimes censor. And while nationalist rhetoric has become more dominant online in recent years, the majority of loud voices may not emerge.
The analogy, Bandorsky said, would be to consider very conservative voices in the American media environment, and to assume that represents the American viewpoint.
“So the danger is in this kind of echo chamber content, which we might assume represents China and its perspective, and is really much more complex than that,” he said.
When it comes to Ukraine, Maria Rybnikova, director of the Center for Global Information Studies at Georgia State University, said there have been “alternative voices talking about war…but they are not dominant, loud or visible.” Their posts may be either censored or difficult to detect because social media users may express opposing views through code and hint.
“If people could see all these pictures and scenes, would that be a different story? Would it pick up on the different sounds?”
The official of the Great Translation Movement said they hope the movement will help push Beijing to tone down the rhetoric on these platforms so that there is room for more voices.
“In the rhetoric prevailing in China today, there is very limited space for people with a rational mind to speak,” the official said.
“Even if you spoke and it wasn’t deleted, you would still get spam… and people would say you were a spy… the dignity of the people themselves was destroyed.”
CNN’s Beijing office contributed to this story.