Many screened posts from China’s most popular social media sites have been translated and shared on Twitter in recent weeks, giving Western visitors a rare view of the Chinese Internet.
These posts appear with the respect of anonymous Twitter users who claim that their purpose is to expose Western audiences to the true extent of pro-Russian or nationalist content on China’s heavily censored sites.
They often come under the hashtag “The Great Translation Movement” or are shared by an account of the same name run by a decentralized, anonymous group that collects and translates popular posts on Ukraine and other hot topics, says an administrator. CNN interview. Many, but not all, seem to be widely liked or shared within China – quoted by the selection criteria administrator.
Since the account was launched in early March, it has already made numerous friends and foes – has attracted 116,000 followers (and counts) and many criticisms from the Chinese state-run media.
“We want the outside world to know what’s going on inside because we think no change can be made from the inside,” said the administrator, who did not want to be named for security reasons.
China’s state media has lashed out against criticism of “cherry selected content.” The foreign section of the People’s Daily, the mouthpiece of China’s ruling Communist Party, has blamed translators behind the movement for the “serious comments” of some netizens, blaming the “whole country”.
The nationalist Global Times newspaper group accused the group of being “Chinese-speaking bad faith actors” and said one of its commentators included “anti-foreign forces” who were waging a “psychological war against China.”
Outside of China, media experts say these posts do not show a complete overview of public opinion in China and appear to be at least somewhat selective for shock value – but would still be useful to shed light on these elements of China’s media industry.
Critics also say the group’s tweets show evidence of its own bias – such as posts that use a word comparing China to Nazi Germany.
Experts say the posts that are gaining traction on China’s social media should be viewed in light of its highly censored environment in which nationalist voices thrive and liberal voices are often retreated or censored.
But the executive, who spoke with CNN, said the visibility of such posts should be highlighted – comments from some well-known influencers, gaining thousands of options or the views of major commenstators and government-backed news organizations.
“Our goal is to raise awareness of the state of public opinion in China, whether it is the result of purely arbitrary interactions (or) the result of government censorship,” the executive said.
“We want to oppose the media’s attempt to join the Chinese government and show the West some content that they do not want to show.”
China often tried to present two different stories – one for domestic audiences and the other for overseas. This is made possible by the language barrier and the online ecosystem that blocks apps such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. The giant translation movement breaks down these two barriers.
“Before the era of social media, the way China spoke domestically through its state media did not appreciate being discriminated against and translated for the world,” said David Bandursky, director of the China Media Project. Center for Journalism and Media Research at the University of Hong Kong.
As for Ukraine, China sought to portray itself – at least to foreign visitors – as unorganized and invested in calling for peace. But its media coverage tells a different story, Pandursky said.
“If you only look at (state) media coverage, it’s very difficult to talk about neutrality … everything they say is misleading and linked to Russia in terms of stories.”
Experts say it is difficult to gauge public opinion in China by looking at social media, even if the tone of the pro-government media is clear, whether it be popular influencers or viral posts.
Views on social media can be as intense as anywhere in the world. In China, rigorous manipulation and censorship often amplify select voices.
“Officials are certainly interested in advertising their favorite stories online, and they have” technical and political ways of guiding “public opinion” into public opinion, “said Florian Schneider, director of the Leiden Asia Center in the Netherlands.
“We must not underestimate the power of social media mechanisms: when pro-Russian statements become the mainstream, they gain more likes and shares, and thus more and more,” he said.
Suppressed voices, echo chambers
The situation is complicated: Beijing also has reason to be wary of radical nationalist voices, which sometimes censor sites. While nationalist rhetoric has become more dominant online in recent years, loud voices may not be showing the majority.
Pandursky said he saw radical conservative voices in the American media environment and considered it to represent the American perspective.
“So risk is the echo chamber of this kind of content, which we can consider China’s representative and its perspective, and it’s actually more complicated than that,” he said.
Maria Repnikova, director of the Global Information Research Center at Georgia State University, said in Ukraine that “there are alternative voices talking about war … but they are not dominant or loud or visible.” Their posts may be censored or difficult to detect because social media users may express differences of opinion by code and reference.
“If people could see all of those pictures and scenes, would it be a different story? Would different voices arise?”
We hope that this movement will help Beijing, the administrator of the Great Translation Movement, to reduce the rhetoric on these sites so that there is room for more voices.
“There is very little room for rational people to speak in today’s keynote speeches in China,” the administrator said.
“Whether you speak out or not, you’re going to spam. People are going to call you a spy. People’s dignity is being destroyed.”
CNN’s Beijing Bureau contributed to this story.