Twitter users expose pro-Russian sentiment in China, and Beijing does not like it

In recent weeks, dozens of screen shot posts from China’s most popular social networks have been translated and tweeted on Twitter, giving Western audiences a rare chance to peek into China’s Internet.

The messages come from anonymous Twitter users who say their goal is to show Western audiences the true extent of pro-Russian or nationalist content on heavily censored Chinese platforms.

According to the administrator, they often come under the hashtag “Great Translator Movement” or shared by an account of the same name run by a decentralized anonymous team that collects and translates popular posts about Ukraine and other hot topics. CNN interview. Many, but not all, appear to have become widespread in China, a selection criterion specified by the administrator.

Since launching the account in early March, it has already made many friends and enemies, attracting both 116,000 followers (and growing) and plenty of criticism from Chinese state media.

The movement was formed in response to the alleged hypocrisy of China, which has portrayed itself as neutral towards Ukraine, even as its state and social networks propagated pro-Russian narratives, a CNN administrator told CNN.

“We want the outside world to at least know what’s going on inside because we don’t think any changes can be made from inside,” said the administrator, who requested anonymity for security reasons.

In dishonesty?

China’s state media has come out strongly against what they call “selected content.” The overseas branch of the People’s Daily, the mouthpiece of China’s ruling Communist Party, said the translators behind the movement are guilty of attributing “extreme remarks” by some netizens to “the whole country.”

The nationalist newspaper Global Times accused the group of being “Chinese-speaking unscrupulous actors” and one of its contributors claimed that the group included “foreign hostile forces” waging “psychological warfare against China.”

Media experts outside of China warn that the posts do not represent a holistic view of public opinion in China and appear to be at least partially chosen for their shock value, but may still be useful in highlighting these elements of China’s media landscape.

Critics also say the group’s tweets are indicative of its own bias, such as in messages that use a term comparing China to Nazi Germany.

Experts say the posts that are gaining popularity on China’s social media should be seen in light of the country’s heavy censorship, where nationalist voices thrive and liberal voices have largely backed down or been censored.

But an administrator who spoke to CNN said the goal was to highlight the visibility of such messages — some coming from popular influencers, comments that received thousands of likes or from well-known commentators, and even government-backed news outlets.

“Our goal is to raise awareness of the state of public opinion in China, whether it is purely the result of spontaneous interactions (or) the result of government censorship,” the administrator said.

“We want to counter the efforts of Chinese state media by showing the West some content they don’t want to show.”

Dual messaging

The resistance to the group by China’s state media highlights the delicacy of how China wants to present itself on the world stage, especially at a time when it is trying to navigate the diplomatic tightrope between Russia and the West over Ukraine.

China has often sought to present two different narratives, one for domestic audiences and one for foreign audiences. This is made possible by both the language barrier and the online ecosystem that bans apps like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. The great translation movement breaks down both of these barriers.

“Even before the era of social media, the way China communicates domestically through state media is something it doesn’t like being analyzed and translated for the world,” said David Bandurski, director of the China Media Project, a research program at the partnership. from the Center for Journalism and Media Studies, University of Hong Kong.

And when it comes to Ukraine, China is keen to portray itself – at least to foreign audiences – as non-aligned and actively calling for peace. But his media coverage at home tells a different story, Bandurski said.

“If you just look at the (state) media coverage, it’s really hard to talk about neutrality… Everything they say amplifies disinformation and aligns with Russia in terms of narratives.”

While the tone of the state-backed media is clear, experts say it’s hard to gauge public opinion in China just by looking at social media, even when it comes to popular influencers or viral posts.

Like anywhere else in the world, social media views can be extreme. In China, brutal manipulation and censorship often strengthen the voices of the elite.

“The authorities are certainly interested in promoting their preferred narrative on the Internet, and they have the technical and political means to unashamedly “direct public opinion,” said Florian Schneider, director of the Leiden Asia Center in the Netherlands.

“We also shouldn’t underestimate the power of social media algorithms: as pro-Russian statements become mainstream, they get more likes and shares, making them more visible,” he said.

Suppressed voices, echo chambers

The situation is complicated: Beijing, too, has reason to be wary of the ultra-nationalist voices that platforms sometimes censor. And while nationalist rhetoric has become more dominant online in recent years, the loudest voices may not reflect the majority.

Bandurski said that one could draw an analogy with ultra-conservative voices in the US media environment and suggest that this reflects an American point of view.

“So the danger lies in this kind of echo chamber of content that we might assume represents China and its point of view, and in reality it is much more complex,” he said.

Maria Repnikova, director of the Center for Global Information Studies at Georgia State University, said that when it comes to Ukraine, “there are alternative voices talking about war… but they’re not as dominant, they’re not as loud, they’re not as visible.” Their posts may either be censored or difficult to detect as social media users may express dissent through code and hints.

She also asks if things would have been different if images of shelled cities in Ukraine or the atrocities in Bucha had not been restricted in China.

“If people could see all these images and scenes, would it be a different story? Would there be other voices?

The administration of the Great Translation Movement has expressed hope that the movement will help push Beijing to tone down the rhetoric on these platforms to make room for more votes.

“In today’s mainstream Chinese discourse, there is a very limited space for people who have rational minds to speak,” the administrator said.

“Even if you tell and if it is not removed, you will still be spammed… and people will say that you are a spy… the dignity of the people themselves is destroyed.”

The Beijing Bureau of CNN contributed to this story.

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