A Taiwan-based non-profit organisation has launched a website to counter disinformation on the Tiananmen Massacre, a tactic by China’s supporters to “whitewash” the bloody crackdown in Beijing more than 30 years ago.

Doublethink Lab on Wednesday launched its website “How to Respond to Tiananmen Trolls” after witnessing a rise in disinformation on social media by individuals who side with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) version of the events of June 4, 1989.

tiananmen trolls
Photo: tiananmen-trolls.doublethinklab.org.

The website in English and Chinese aims to provide the public with tools to “identify Tiananmen propaganda” and equip social media users with “strategies to counter propaganda,” with the hope of promoting a rational discussion online.

“As the world mourns the Tiananmen Square Massacre every year, grieving pro-democracy protesters who were killed while condemning the CCP, a disinformation and propaganda campaign that denies and downplays the severity of the incident is growing,” Yun-ju Chen, a researcher from Doublethink Lab, told HKFP. “To counter that campaign, we started this project.” 

The Tiananmen Massacre ended months of student-led demonstrations in China. It is estimated that hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people died when the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) was deployed to crack down on pro-democracy protesters in Beijing.

HRIC Tiananmen Square 1989
Standoff between citizens and troops. Photo: HRIC archive, courtesy of Gail Butler, Libby Schmalz.

According to research by the organisation, there are three methods used to spread disinformation online. The first is to evade any criticism aimed at the CCP, the second is to deny that the event ever happened, and the third is to rationalise the use of violence by the PLA by placing blame on the student activists.

“As trolls are whitewashing the Tiananmen Square Massacre systematically, if we don’t respond to these posts, they can little by little convince us and the generations after us that the Massacre was necessary — or never happened,” Chen said. 

Doublethink Lab reviewed 17,843 social media pages, groups and verified accounts that discuss the tragedy. More than 30,000 posts were reviewed for this project. 

tiananmen trolls
Photo: tiananmen-trolls.doublethinklab.org.

“Have you always thought the CCP’s leadership used tanks to crush people during the June 4th incident? Footage was bought from Spain at a high price… it is great evidence, showing the truth that tanks did not crush anyone dead. It’s pathetic, poor Hongkongers have been lied to for 30 years,” wrote one user on Facebook.

Another tactic, according to the group, is when users deflect attention from the topic with “whataboutism” — the practice of responding to an accusation or difficult question by making a counter-accusation or raising another issue.

“This year on June 4 it’s the US government’s turn to perform a crackdown on its people and then meet with activists from June 4th. What concept is that? And these activists who advocate for human rights freedom and democracy, why don’t they utter a thing against US’s forceful crackdown. Aren’t they just slapping their own faces,” wrote another user on Facebook, adding the hashtags #AmericanBrainInflammationIsScary and #ShamlessBeyondCompetition.

tiananmen massacre vigil 31st 2020 june 4 victoria park
June 4, 2020. File Photo: Studio Incendo.

Between 1990 and 2019, Hong Kong commemorated the Tiananmen Massacre with an annual candlelight vigil in Victoria Park attended some years by hundreds of thousands of people – the only large-scale commemoration on Chinese soil. 

However, for the second year in a row, the Hong Kong government has banned the vigil, citing public health concerns as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. Rights groups and foreign governments have accused authorities of using the National Security Law to gag all political dissent in the city, while local authorities assert the law is necessary to restore social order.

More than 1,000 anti-riot officers will be deployed to patrol the area around Victoria Park on Friday, according to local media reports. The police presence across the city will also be strengthened and black-clad people roaming in the vicinity of Victoria Park risk being charged with taking part in an unauthorised assembly. Local reports say that other vigils held across the city may violate the four-person limit on social gatherings during Covid-19.

“We would like to emphasise the importance of continuing to discuss the Tiananmen Square Massacre,” Chen said. “As 32 years have passed, the world starts to forget the CCP’s atrocities. Those narratives are a part of the CCP propaganda that would propagate authoritarianism to the world.”

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Rhea is a Hong Kong-based journalist interested in gender issues and minority rights, whose work has appeared in a number of publications across Asia. She is also on the 2019 Diversity List: a list of ethnic minorities that are qualified and committed to serve on Hong Kong government committees.