In Hong Kong, a digital memorial of the Tiananmen Square massacre disappears
The 1989 massacre at Beijing’s Tiananmen Square is perhaps the most aggressively censored topic on the Chinese internet. For more than two decades now, the anniversary of the massacre, on June 4, has been commemorated online with photographs from the demonstrations, messages honoring victims and emojis of candles symbolizing a vigil. Chinese authorities have always been swift to snuff these messages out on social media, triggering a cat-and-mouse dynamic in which digitally savvy people find workarounds to evade the ever-alert censors. Instead of referencing June 4, for instance, they use “May 35” or simply “64.” And the infamous “Tank Man” photo has been doctored again and again, sometimes with rubber duckies replacing the military tanks barrelling toward the slight young man standing resolute before them, grocery bag in hand.
Until recently, it was possible in Hong Kong to talk about the events of that day, to discuss the 1989 democracy movement and to publicly memorialize the dead. But this year, as the New York Times’ Tiffany May put it, “Hong Kong is notable for all the ways it is being made to forget the 1989 massacre.” More than 30 Hong Kongers have been either arrested or detained in recent days for engaging in some kind of public demonstration memorializing the slain students.
This history is now disappearing from Hong Kong’s internet too. Having worked closely with journalists in Hong Kong for a number of years, I knew I wanted to mark the anniversary this week. On Tuesday, I decided to go back and look at Weiboscope, a gripping digital archive of photos, art and messages censored on social media in China for their connection with the 1989 democracy movement. But all I found was a blank page. Weiboscope — a joint project of the University of Hong Kong and the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab — still has a domain, but the archive itself is gone. All you can see now is an empty site with the words “Nothing Found” and the standard verbiage for a WordPress site with no content.
This is no accident. The digital records of what people cared about, reported on and knew to be true in Hong Kong have been disappearing from the internet as Beijing has consolidated its power over the city-state. The Weiboscope project fortunately had some redundancy — Citizen Lab hosted some of the material here, and my former team at Global Voices covered the project too. But these sites, too, are blocked in China. And still today, anyone who studies these issues will tell you that most university students in China have never heard about the massacre.
IN GLOBAL NEWS
Access to the internet is being carefully controlled in Senegal, where street demonstrations over a criminal case brought against opposition leader Ousmane Sonko have turned violent in recent days. Sonko was convicted of corrupting a minor and given a two-year prison sentence that could keep him from running for office in the upcoming elections. Protests by his supporters, who believe the case against him was politically motivated, rapidly escalated to violent clashes with the police and have left at least 16 dead. Last week, in an effort to quell the unrest, the Senegalese authorities blocked connections to major social media platforms. By Sunday, mobile internet connections in select areas were being shut down altogether, throughout the afternoon and evening each day. NetBlocks has data confirming what appears to be an internet “curfew” strategy on the part of authorities.
And authorities in Syria shut down the internet to keep students from cheating on exams. This has become a somewhat standard practice in a handful of countries, mostly in the Arab region, where national exams are a deciding factor in whether or not a person attends university. In addition to the obvious problems this creates for businesses and basically everyone who uses the internet, local academics told my friends at the Beirut NGO SMEX that the shutdowns haven’t reduced the number of students who try to skirt the rules. In short, cheaters gonna cheat.
On that note, I’ve been keeping an eye on OpenAI CEO Sam Altman’s global PR tour, which is surely meant to steer global regulatory heavyweights in his company’s favor. It hit peak cringe for me last Thursday, when Altman met with Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission. Von der Leyen tweeted a photo of herself and Altman, standing in front of an EU flag, stiff diplomatic meeting-style. But in this picture, Von der Leyen looks positively delighted, and Altman looks like he’s trying really hard not to crack up. I’m pretty sure the joke is on her.
WHAT WE’RE READING
- New Lines has a bombshell story from a group of U.K. researchers who have combed through Meta’s ad library to trace how the U.K. government is running “fear-based campaigns” with ads on Facebook and Instagram targeting migrants from Africa and Asia, telling them not to come to the U.K.
- It’s great that Meta is letting some researchers into its ad library. For folks in the U.S., this will become an extra rich resource as the 2024 election approaches, especially since Meta (alongside Google) has decided to do away with some of its policies and tactics for reducing election-related disinformation. Axios has a good breakdown of what this might mean for next year.
- AI-driven weapons should scare everyone. This week, +972 magazine took a close look at the Israeli Defense Forces’ use of AI to sharpen its tactics in Gaza. Read it and remember that this may be in Gaza now, but it will probably reach a city or country near you before too long.