COVID Conspiracies, Hashtag Suppression, and a Broadside Aimed at the “Great Translation Movement”

This week saw the proliferation of COVID conspiracy theories on Chinese social media, the suppression of a popular hashtag about the Xuzhou trafficking and abuse case, and a Global Times broadside aimed at discrediting the crowd-sourced “Great Translation Movement.”

On March 24, the hashtag #ResearchConfirmsNovelCoronavirusCreatedByUSCompany# (#研究证实新冠病毒是美国公司制造#) briefly topped the Weibo Trending Topics List, although it has now disappeared from the list. Many were dismayed by the overnight popularity of a rumor whose “chain of transmission” stretches from Chinese state media and a Confucius Institute professor back to the British anti-vax and conspiracy podcast The Exposé, the Daily Mail tabloid, a Fox Business channel interview, and a study that appeared in a minor medical journal. The rumor has been debunked by a number of fact-checking organizations, including AFP Fact Check and Politifact.

Posts debunking the rumor quickly appeared on Chinese social media sites. In a WeChat post titled “Does research confirm that the novel coronavirus was created by the American company Moderna?” Wang Zilong of China Fact Check delved into the source material, including the Daily Mail article that quoted scientists skeptical of the study’s findings, and concluded that the rumor was unfounded. Another WeChat essay (“Moderna created the novel coronavirus? Sorry, you’ve been hoodwinked again”) conducted a deep dive into the medical evidence and concluded: “Subscribing to rumors and conspiracy theories will ultimately only […] blind us even more. Not to mention that at present, the currently effective vaccines are the best way to fight the pandemic and return to normal life and [economic] production as soon as possible. If vaccines are demonized in this way, we will only victimize ourselves.” 

A post by WeChat user donkeymeipin (“No one really believes that #ResearchConfirmsNovelCoronavirusCreatedByUSCompany#, do they?”) took a humorous approach to debunking the rumor and highlighting the official hypocrisy that allowed it to spread:

After reading it, I couldn’t help but be amazed: such big news, such an evil act, yet the BBC, CNN and the like all chose to remain silent. Even RT, hitherto so outspoken, didn’t utter a word about it. It was only some of our local media that chose to stand up and unmask the truth—it turns out that China’s journalism industry is the cream of the crop!

So, who was this maverick foreign media source? According to our local media, it was the Daily Mail. 

This left me speechless, because the Daily Mail is a famous tabloid that often publishes sensational news. In 2017, Wikipedia announced that the Daily Mail would be classified as a “generally unreliable source,” and that citations from it would be prohibited when editing Wikipedia articles in English, except in exceptional circumstances.

The Daily Mail has also spread rumors about us. Last year, when people made memes satirizing some Chinese netizens’ extreme fixation on gold medals, […] the Daily Mail saw it, assumed it was true, and without fact-checking, published the fake news on its website under the headline: “China declares itself the winner of the 2020 Olympics after altering medal count to claim those won by Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macau.”

[…] If you search a bit online, you will also find that as early as July 22 last year, the [Chinese] National Health Commission was proclaiming that the novel coronavirus showed no sign of being altered or manipulated by humans, thus fundamentally negating the possibility of it being man-made. [Chinese]

Despite the debunkers’ best efforts, the rumor was further amplified when China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA) entered the fray. Li Yang, counselor of the Department of Information at MoFA and former Chinese Consul General in Rio de Janeiro, tweeted out a screenshot from the ur-source of the rumor: anti-vax/conspiracy podcast The Exposé.

This is consistent with the recent uptick in Chinese government officials and affiliated academics promoting pet conspiracy theories such as “American-run biolabs in Ukraine” and the warmed-over “Fort Detrick COVID-origins probe.”

The fact that these hashtagged conspiracy theories are allowed to germinate and thrive on Chinese social media offers a glimpse into top-level propaganda priorities, as communicated to tech platforms via censorship directives. Recently leaked directives from the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC), published and translated by CDT, reveal the extreme control that platforms and censors exert over hashtags and trending topics.

A March 3 CAC directive addressed to major media platforms including Baidu, Tencent, Sohu, Netease, and Sina contained the following instructions regarding list management on the topic of Ukraine (italics added by CDT editors):

Strengthen list management. Without exception, existing hashtags started by individuals, self-published media, and commercial platforms must not be included in trending topics, and new hashtags are strictly prohibited. Apart from local media hashtags that feature objective reporting on official government statements or on measures such as the evacuation of Chinese citizens living overseas, any other local media hashtags should gradually move down and drop off the lists, and the addition of new hashtags on lists should be controlled.

[…] Apart from core media [i.e. the core state-media outlets such as Xinhua, CCTV, People’s Daily etc], all news topics started by commercial websites and self-published media will be dissolved, without exception, and collected content citing foreign media reports will be suppressed and dealt with. [Source]

Past censorship directives provide ample evidence that the central government can “turn down the temperature” on an issue when it so desires, or shut down unwanted discussion about an inconvenient topic, including the origins of COVID-19:

This morning, the State Council will hold a press conference on tracing the origins of COVID-19. Do not report. (July 23, 2021) [Source]

The high-level, tacit approval of the recent Moderna/COVID conspiracy hashtag stands in stark contrast to the relentless censoring of hashtags related to topics the government would prefer to suppress—the Xuzhou trafficking case, Peng Shuai, Xianzi’s sexual harassment lawsuit, commemorations of International Women’s Day, or anti-war sentiments. On the same day that the Moderna/COVID conspiracy hashtag shot to number one, the official hashtag for the Xuzhou trafficking case was quietly scrubbed from Weibo, despite continuing public interest in the case and concern for the woman involved.

Translation of the above tweet by @jakobsonradical: This morning, netizens discovered that the hashtag about the Xuzhou mother-of-eight case had been silently deleted from Weibo. It hasn’t even been two months, much less half a year. How easily forgotten are we lowly “chives” [peons].

Image at bottom left shows a message posted by Weibo user @更九九:  Sure enough, it quietly disappeared. While the China Eastern Airlines plane crash drew major attention, it quietly disappeared, along with the six billion views it generated. #OfficialUpdateOnTheFengxianMother-of-8# [the now-deleted official hashtag]

Image at right shows that @更九九’s Weibo account was later suspended for the previous comment. Notice at bottom right: “This account is temporarily suspended for violating the [Weibo] Community Agreement.” [Chinese]

The issue of what gets censored and what is allowed to remain on Chinese social media is at the heart of the “Great Translation Movement” (大翻译运动, Dà Fānyì Yùndòng), a crowd-sourced project to translate and publicize some of the more extreme and uncensored nationalistic sentiments being expressed on Chinese social media. On March 24, the Global Times printed a scathing editorial in which it accused the movement’s participants of selecting and translating “cherry picked content” as part of “a malicious smear campaign against China.”

Global Voices’ Oiwan Lam reported on the origins of the movement, which began among Chinese-speaking Reddit users and has spread to Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Telegram. She also detailed the varying reactions to the movement, and the dilemma it poses for Chinese censors:

Apart from criticism from official Chinese outlets, some overseas Chinese netizens also expressed concern that translating hate speech on Chinese social media would fuel anti-Chinese sentiment among western societies.

[…] Chang Ping, an exiled veteran Chinese journalist, however, pointed out that the Great Translation movement is not counteracting against Chinese people, but a propaganda and censorship machine that produces a large number of patriotic “zombies” or the so-called Little Pinks

[…] Cai Xia, a retired professor of the CCP Central Party School also supports the initiative.

[…] Some users suggested that the organizers of the Great Translation Movement should review and provide more context for the translations so as to prevent the spread of hatred against Chinese people.

Others believe that the translation efforts are creating a dilemma for Chinese censorship authorities. Namely, if it censors problematic content from the Little Pinks, they may lose some supporters; if the authorities ignore them, they are tacitly approving them. [Source]

A recent CDT Chinese article includes a compilation of Twitter comments describing the ideas behind the Great Translation Movement, and how it seeks to draw attention to the Chinese government’s tacit support of hateful or bombastic online commentary:

@liuchiawan: Since it [the content being translated] 1. was posted within the Great Firewall of China (GFW) and 2. was not deleted, this indicates that this sort of speech is, in fact, very much in line with Communist Party censorship standards for speech, and counts as “allowable speech.” How, then, can it be labeled “extreme”?

[…] @Nicky38950176: This type of censored speech is, in itself, a reflection on them [the CCP leadership]. They’re the reason that this sort of speech can exist.

[…] @RekishitoSeiji: “You insulted China!” “What did we do to insult China? “You translated what I said.”

@Allan_km_lin: Actually, the Chinese government is capable of censoring this sort of speech. The fact that they don’t means that they have no objection to it. [Chinese]


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