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The Autocrats' Language Game

The Autocrats' Language Game

New large-scale translation projects are laying bare the propaganda and deception that authoritarian regimes do not want foreigners to see.

Christopher Carothers

Hungary’s ruling Fidesz party likely assumed that the Romanian government would never hear Zoltán Kiszelly’s remarks. In April of this year, the pro-government academic and pundit appeared on the main news program of (Fidesz-controlled) HIR TV network, defending Putin’s invasion of Ukraine by comparing it to a Hungarian wish to control Transylvania. “The Crimean peninsula is as symbolic an issue for Putin as Transylvania is for us,” Kiszelly argued. 

It was an inflammatory comment; but it was not out of the ordinary in the country’s current pro-government media environment. The Orbán administration frequently pushes extreme nationalism and pro-Russian talking points in its domestic propaganda, while toning down such rhetoric in its Europe-facing, English-language propaganda. 

Nevertheless, this time around, the government clearly did not reckon with BLACKMAGIC2, a new digital media project led by researchers Martin Wendiggensen and Benjamin Novak. BLACKMAGIC2 automatically scrapes and translates text, video, and audio from across a large swath of Hungary’s media environment, enabling foreigners to read and to understand what the regime is actually saying on any issue. 

Following Kiszelly’s TV appearance, Novak put translated subtitles on a clip of Kiszelly’s comments and tweeted it out, tagging Romania’s foreign ministry. 

Novak’s tweet (since deleted) took off, bringing Kiszelly’s comments to the Romanian media’s attention. The incident was soon widely reported in Romania, prompting the Romanian backlash to have to be reported on in Hungary. Orbán even revealed that the Romanian foreign ministry had sent him a démarche, specifically asking him not to speak about Transylvania ahead of his visit to Romania this past July.

Po-tay-toe, Po-tah-toe

Authoritarian propaganda frequently brings to mind sophisticated censorship regimes and covert digital influence campaigns, but autocrats’ everyday manipulation of information often relies on a far simpler strategy: playing the language barrier. As the Orbán and Fidesz case makes clear, language barriers make it easier for autocrats to tailor and target their propaganda differently for domestic audiences and for the outside world. The larger the language barrier—the fewer foreigners who speak the local language—the better for the controlling regime.

Autocrats often want to send moderate or even friendly messages to external audiences in order to benefit from international cooperation, even while employing extreme messages at home to stoke nationalism and xenophobia. In his book The Cleanest Race (2010), the scholar B.R. Myers argues that racism is at the core of the North Korean regime’s ideology and propaganda—but that this is only expressed domestically. “Generally speaking . . . the less accessible a propaganda outlet is to the outside world, the blunter and more belligerent it will be in its expression of the racist orthodoxy,” Myers writes. Externally, the North Korean regime presents itself as a deeply misunderstood country that is only seeking international community. 

In China, the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) propaganda department divides its messaging between inward-facing (duinei) and external-facing (duiwai). This two-pronged approach has traditionally been aided by the inaccessibility of the Chinese language for most foreigners.

Comparing Chinese foreign policy statements and their official English translations in a recent study, political scientist Sabine Mokry finds notable differences in about half of the documents, with a pattern of substantial differences in the CCP’s descriptions of China’s intentions on the world stage. Let foreigners think China is a panda; meanwhile at home, China is portrayed as returning to its rightful position at the center of the world.

The CCP also relies on the language barrier to help hide grassroots anti-foreign sentiment, which it tolerates or even encourages, but does not want foreigners to see. The Great Translation Movement (GTM)—established during Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022—is a group-run anonymous Twitter (now X) account that translates content from Chinese social media into English and other languages. It has raised the ire of the CCP by focusing on comments that show Chinese citizens’ xenophobia and schadenfreude in response to disasters in foreign countries. “News of the #Hawaii wildfire maybe devastating to many, but Chinese netizens are happy for the sharks who finally get to get stuffed on a buffet of human BBQ meat,” the GTM account tweeted on August 13, citing Chinese social media comments.

Sometimes, it is Chinese companies that deliberately use the language barrier to try to hide sensitive information. In 2020, Alibaba was proud to explain to its Chinese clients that its software could be used to identify the faces of Uighurs and other minorities. Likely knowing that this would be controversial abroad, Alibaba excluded this service from its English-language advertisements of the product. 

English: Not So Universal

Beyond hiding extreme domestic rhetoric from foreign audiences, autocrats also use language barriers to hide foreign realities from their domestic audiences. Authoritarian regimes of course have censorship apparatuses to block out foreign news that might criticize them, but some regimes have an added layer of protection, in the fact that their citizens do not read news in foreign languages.

Even as international media organizations have expanded their content in multiple languages, and as instant webpage translation has improved, language barriers—and the cultural barriers that come with them—still matter. If many citizens of an authoritarian regime cannot read English well, their finding and reading foreign-language news requires extra effort, creating friction that works in the regime’s favor. 

English proficiency varies globally, but most citizens of authoritarian countries in the Middle East and Asia have only a low proficiency. North Korea is an extreme but telling example. When foreign visitors enter North Korea, security agents open and search their electronic devices specifically for Korean-language materials. The regime’s enforcers know that foreign-language materials, even those critical of the Kim family regime, generally pose little threat. Similarly, the vast majority of foreign visitors do not speak Korean; therefore, they will not be able to say anything too dangerous to North Korean citizens. The major exception, South Koreans, are not allowed to visit North Korea (except in specially designated areas) for precisely this reason.

The risk posed by an English-savvy population suggests that autocrats might seek to curb English education. But the economic benefits of a population that can at least read and write the global language may outweigh the political risks.

Nevertheless, this calculus can change. Recently, Xi Jinping’s fight against Western cultural influence in China has led to new restrictions on English language education, starting in primary schools. The English portion of the gaokao (college entrance examination) has been reduced. Original English textbooks are being discouraged in universities. Xi wants China to have more of its own “cultural confidence,” which means less learning from—or about—the West.

Translation with a Purpose

Recently, boosted by the growing ease of automated translation and web scraping, activists and scholars have launched translation projects aimed at breaking down these language barriers that are exploited by authoritarian regimes. BLACKMAGIC2 not only translates Fidesz propaganda in Hungary, but it also aims to expand its coverage to Poland, which has experienced its own share of democratic backsliding under the illiberal Law and Justice party. 

Since Russia’s invasion of Crimea in 2014, foreign analysts have scrambled to understand better Putin’s rhetoric and the Russian regime’s propaganda. One such project that has emerged to meet this need is Russian Media Monitor, which was begun by journalist Julia Davis. Russian Media Monitor catalogues and translates Russian state television content, often highlighting lies and inconsistencies in Russia’s war narrative.

Beijing’s growing global assertiveness has driven its own wave of foreign analysis for China. In 2022, the Center for Strategic and International Studies established the Interpret: China project, which makes available translations of “articles, speeches, policy documents, and other important materials” from China. Other translation projects, like the GTM, focus on public discourse in China’s social media environment, which is largely cut off from the world for both technological and linguistic reasons.

North Korean propaganda remains understudied, but new work is focusing on the issue here as well. In a recent article, Heather-Leigh K. Ba, Sheena Chestnut Greitens, and Kim Yu Bin identified and analyzed hundreds of propaganda slogans posted inside North Korea, noting the variations in how propaganda is targeted at different audiences. Additionally, barrister and researcher Daye Gang has launched Law and North Korea, a website that provides a complete translation of North Korean laws into English.

Translation projects aimed at discourse in authoritarian countries are not necessarily apolitical. For instance, the GTM has been criticized as selectively translating the most hateful and xenophobic Chinese social media comments for the purpose of smearing Chinese people. 

The Washington D.C.-based Middle East Media Research Institute provides translations and analysis of news from across the Arab and Muslim world. It has helped to inform Middle East policies across several U.S. administrations. But critics have long argued that it is Israel-aligned, and that it provides selective or inaccurate translations in order to portray Muslim societies in a negative light and to make ordinary Muslims sound like extremists. 

Nevertheless, many translation projects are doing groundbreaking work across the regions of the world. And like BLACKMAGIC2, these projects have proven that they can shine a light on the propaganda that autocrats would prefer to hide from the outside world. 

Language barriers in foreign countries are easy to overlook because Western policymakers interact mostly with English-speaking counterparts. Additionally, the internet—at least superficially—seems to provide a seamless global connection. Yet even in the digital age, authoritarian regimes continue to exploit language barriers in order to cloak their extreme domestic propaganda and to hide their noxious domestic realities. A great deal of propaganda issued by autocrats currently remains untranslated and is not widely understood. 

Targeted translation projects cannot by themselves overcome all language barriers, but they can make it easier for outsiders to understand autocrats’ inward-facing rhetoric, and possibly to counter it. The United States and other international actors seeking to blunt the tools of autocrats globally should consider establishing a dedicated fund to support such translation projects, along with experience-based learning about smart and effective practices across such platforms. As autocracies grow in number and assertiveness, tools to fight their methods need to keep pace.

Christopher Carothers is the deputy chair of East Asia and Pacific Area Studies at the Foreign Service Institute. The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Foreign Service Institute.

Image: A tarpaulin displayed in a Chinese shopping center, built in Gyantse, Tibet. (Flickr: Desmond Kavanagh)

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