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An anonymous Twitter account built 60,000 followers translating Chinese propaganda about the Ukraine war and is setting off an international firestorm

·6 min read
A Twitter account, The Great Translation Movement, has been translating nationalistic views on Chinese-language social-media platforms into foreign languages. Here, a Chinese mobile phone user looks at her mobile phone at a local market on September 19, 2020 in Beijing, China.
A Twitter account, The Great Translation Movement, has been translating nationalistic views on Chinese-language social-media platforms into foreign languages. Here, a Chinese mobile phone user looks at her mobile phone at a local market on September 19, 2020 in Beijing, China.Kevin Frayer/Getty Images
  • The Great Translation Movement Twitter account translates Chinese-language posts into English.

  • It's attracted thousands of followers — and criticism from state media calling it a "smear campaign."

  • The translations are fascinating for Westerners but experts say social media doesn't necessarily represent what the Chinese think.

On Zhihu, China's version of Quora, a user wrote that Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy started last year to mobilize troops to the country's border with Russia and began firing across the border.

On Bilibili, a Chinese YouTube-like video-streaming site, a user commented that "the ones that understand (Russian President) Putin the most are not Russian youths, but Chinese youths."

These popular posts and comments, written in Chinese, have found a large receptive audience within China's highly-regulated cybersphere, but they are incomprehensible to Western users who don't speak the language, and can't access Chinese internet services.

A Twitter account, The Great Translation Movement, is now translating Chinese social media posts into English, Japanese, Korean, French, and Arabic. It's been only three weeks since its first post, but the account today has about 300 posts and more than 60,000 followers. It's also mentioned in Switzerland's paper of record Neue Zürcher Zeitung, and the Chinese versions of Voice of America and DW News.

The Great Translation Movement is also drawing a different kind of attention — criticism from the Chinese establishment.

State-run media have called the tweets a "smear campaign" against the Chinese, since the majority of the account's posts highlight inaccurate information, or China's Russian sympathies.

"What kind of people are behind the 'Great Translation Movement'? Why do they see only hatred and negative messages from Chinese internet in their eyes?" China's state-run paper Global Times wrote last week.

In response, the anonymous owners of the account said they choose to publish the most popular or viral posts or comments to "convey the thoughts of the Chinese masses as precisely as possible."

The rapid rise of The Great Translation Movement is indicative of Western appetite to understand China's biases through the accessible lens of social media posts. Experts cautioned, however, against over-relying on online sentiment to indicate what a 1.4 billion-strong population thinks.

"We do have an information gap between China and the West, and not many social media users in the West are able to dive into Weibo and grasp the Chinese online sentiments and expressions," said Maria Repnikova, an assistant professor at Georgia State University who's fluent in Mandarin and Russian, of the account's popularity.

But, she added, the account makes some of its own editorial decisions, "picking very provocative posts, which are attention-grabbing."

The account focuses on popular posts that it thinks can represent mainstream opinion in China.

The operators behind The Great Translation Movement declined to provide their identities to Insider, and have publicly remained anonymous.

The account's public posts and moderator responses Insider indicate that they are fluent in Chinese. Some of them appear more comfortable writing English than others. And they appear aware of news reporting outside of China, using foreign news to juxtapose with what Chinese media and social-media users are saying.

In written answers to Insider, the moderators said they stay anonymous for "personal safety concerns."

"We are operating in a completely anonymous way where no one asks for personal information from each other. Our best guess is that most of us are ethnically Chinese," they wrote.

The moderators told Insider that their intention is to be a "whistleblower for the rest of the world" about China's intentions, and to criticize what they described as "the banal evil of the Chinese people. They added that internal propaganda in China is war-mongering and promotes "even fascism."

Through contributions from followers, volunteers collect screenshots or links to popular posts in Chinese on major internet platforms such as Weibo, Douyin (the Chinese-language version of TikTok), messaging service WeChat, and Bilibili, the managers said.

Translators will then decide which ones to translate, with a strong focus on controversial news reports from China's state-controlled media and comments that respond to these posts, they said. Controversial comments will be left as-is so that readers can judge for themselves, they said.

Because China requires each social media account to be tied to a national identity, the account's managers say that indicates real people are behind the comments.

"We believe these (internet) platforms can represent the mainstream opinion of Chinese people from their popularity," they said.

The account has its roots in a Reddit forum called ChonglangTV, where followers began translating social media posts in February, said the account's managers. After the board was shut down over doxxing concerns, some users decided to set up The Great Translation Movement account on Twitter. The account's managers said they receive more than 50 contributions every day, and post about five to ten of them each day.

Insider has previously documented how falsehoods about the war are allowed to spread on Chinese social media platforms.

China has consistently avoided publicly condemning Russia for its invasion and instead, emphasized the two countries' close relations. Chinese state-run media, in turn, echo these views. And in the absence of access to foreign reporting from within China, the pro-Russia position dominates online.

"Most people in China, unlike the free world, have very limited access to information due to the 'Great Firewall' and heavy censorship" which then turns the entire country into an echo chamber," said the moderators of The Great Translation Movement.

Experts said the account can be useful in highlighting pro-Russian, anti-Western views in China, but also cautioned against taking its translated posts as representative.

"Every major platform or account has a particular agenda, and this agenda needs to be distilled and taken into account in evaluating the posts and whether or not to trust them," said Georgia State University's Maria Repnikova.

There's also a common assumption online that there are "good" actors whose words and deeds are always in good faith, and irredeemable bad ones, added associate professor Chong Ja Ian at the National University of Singapore. "This binary approach overly simplifies the world and can result in misplaced conclusions," he said.

Read the original article on Business Insider