Bing Versus Tank Man

Is Microsoft Censoring Anti-Chinese Government Content?

Tank Man, Jeff Widener, 1989. Retrieved from Time Magazine

Do you recognize this photo?

Probably. It is one of the most famous, iconic, and memorable photos ever. Time magazine rated it as one of the 100 “most influential” photos ever. In 2016, Esquire magazine ranked it as the 15th “most remarkable” photo ever taken.

The photo was taken on June 5, 1989, after the Tiananmen Square protest. Chinese students were staging a peaceful demonstrating in support of democratic reforms when the government launched a violent crackdown. While the exact figure is unknown, it is estimated that hundreds or thousands of unarmed civilians were killed by the Chinese military. Tank Man — whose true identity is unknown — was photographed and videotaped as he blocked tanks that participated in the operation.

Despite all this — its dramatic impact, stirring composition, and historic relevance — Microsoft somehow managed to forget this photo existed.

On the afternoon of June 4th, 2021, folks on Twitter caught wind that something was amiss about Bing’s image search results. Searching “Tiananmen Square” retrieved only images of the brilliant red palace — no sign of the historic massacre. The contrast with Google’s image search results was stark.

A Twitter user also noted that a search for “tank man” returned nothing. I don’t mean “no images of the tank man photo”. I mean nothing.

Photo taken by author, June 4, 2021

No pictures of men riding in tanks, repairing water tanks, wearing tank tops, or cleaning fish tanks. This bizarre outcome is only intensified when comparing to results retrieved for similar search terms.

Photos taken by author, June 4, 2021

If “tank great grandmother” brought a variety of cheesy printed tops, it is hard to fathom a reason why “tank man” would give us nothing. Unless, of course, it is being censored.

China and Censorship

For those not aware, the Chinese government is fiercely opposed to any attention on the Tiananmen Square Massacre. In a nation known for draconian censorship, Tiananmen Square is close to the top of the list of sanctionable topics. On the day that I am writing this, non-violent, pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong were arrested for organizing commemoration, the 32nd anniversary of the massacre.

China is also not content with enforcing its censorship within its borders. Blow-ups about the NBA, Disney, and even airlines have been non-stop in recent years. China’s Communist Party throw a tantrum and threaten to kick out companies that cross them on issues like the Hong Kong protests, Tibet, Taiwan, the Uighurs, or Tiananmen Square.

This strategy may seem preposterous. Why would a powerful and wealthy nation like China get hot-and-bothered about every minor slight? While it seems petty, this strategy actually makes sense from the perspective of game theory.

Have you ever worked with (or for) someone with an extremely short temper? I bet you and your coworkers often took preemptive precautions to avoid annoying them. This irritable demeanor has pushed others to police themselves. This obviously sucks, but doing a bit of extra work is preferable to getting screamed at by a maniac.

China’s strategy of getting huffy about minor insults seems to be an effort to replicate that phenomenon on a global scale. Walmart, the largest company in the world, had a revenue of 542 billion USD in 2020. China had a GDP of approximately 14.7 trillion USD — about 27 times the size of Walmart. The budget of just the Chinese government was estimated at 3.4 trillion USD in 2019. No company, not matter how big, wants to start a fight with an economic gargantuan with a hot temper.

Corporate Complicity

Microsoft, the company that owns Bing, has a cozy relationship with the government of China. The company has gone along with enforcing government mandated censorship, and Microsoft’s former CEO Bill Gates is friendly with the government. Apparently Microsoft is even getting into “grocery tech” in China? Bing itself has a complicated relationship with China, but it is currently operational in the country. I’m not going to pretend to be an expert on the subject, but Microsoft seems comfortable playing by China’s rules.

Did Bing censure the Tank Man photo? It is hard to say, but this fact pattern smells mighty fishy. One specific search term that is linked to a controversial topic was completely stonewalled, while related terms work fine? How does that happen other than a deliberate block?

Microsoft has said that “This is due to an accidental human error and we are actively working to resolve this”. This has extremely strong “steamed hams” vibes, if you know what I mean.

The Tank Man image drama itself is more bizarre than nefarious. The picture was blocked, it was pointed out, Bing unblocked it, the end. Who really cares about this irrelevant search engine?

I am more concerned about is the deeper implications. Bing is a joke, but Microsoft is an influential company. Is it possible that Bing was hacked? Was this self-censorship, or did the Chinese government request this? Are there other ways that Microsoft is working to perpetuate China’s censorship globally?

What other companies are aiding China’s obsession to rewrite history?

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