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Redditors are criticizing r/Pics subreddit moderators for removing an image showing the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square massacre, a violent military response by the Chinese state in 1989 against a peaceful pro-democracy demonstration in the nation’s capital of Beijing.
The image, which shows dozens of people lying injured or dead across a highway leading to the square, was first posted on Tuesday. It quickly gained over 137,000 upvotes and generated 5,000 comments. The comments even appeared to include some first-hand accounts by users who were living in China at the time.
Censorship Bad from pics
The massacre, which occurred in 1989, was part of the communist government’s brutally violent response to a national movement led by Chinese young people, who for months had been peacefully demanding political and economic reform.
Hundreds of thousands of people were protesting in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square on June 4 when thousands of military troops opened fire on the crowds without warning, killing hundreds as armored vehicles crushed others to death.
The horror of that day was immortalized in another picture of a lone protestor with a shopping bag standing in the way of a column of tanks. The unknown individual, who became known as Tank Man, came to symbolize the struggle of the unarmed and non-violent protestors in the face of the oppressive regime.
The massacre remains one of the most tightly censored topics in China. The government deletes all references to it from social media and the country’s internet, punishing those who do speak openly about it for inciting state subversion.
So, when moderators on the Pics subreddit deleted the post on Wednesday, users were extremely unhappy—some accusing the mods of doing the censorship work of the regime.
Criticism was posted in a thread beneath the subreddit’s July transparency report, where the mods publicly tally post takedowns and bans they have implemented.
“Will your suppression of Chinese oppression continue into the next month and will the amount that your Chinese handlers pay you to fuck over [the] world be included?” one redditor wrote beneath the report.
“Nice desperate attempt to pump up your social score lmaooooo,” another user wrote, referring to China’s national social credit system that rewards its heavily surveilled citizens for compliant behavior.
For many, the pro-democracy protests currently underway in Hong Kong are reminiscent of the movement that had culminated in the Tiananmen massacre, a parallel that was not lost on Pics redditors.
Hong Kong is a former British colony that was returned to China in 1997 and has since operated politically as a special administrative region of China with limited autonomy. The territory maintains a capitalist economic set-up with Western-style freedoms for those that live there. However, in recent years, Hong Kong has been the location of protests whenever its citizens perceive that a new law or initiative by China challenges those freedoms.
Current protests were triggered by a proposed amendment to Hong Kong’s extradition law. The police response has been brutal and amid reports of the Chinese government amassing military personnel and vehicles on the border, analysts and commentators fear a violent Tiananmen Square-style put down.
Responding to the image’s takedown, some redditors posted support for the ongoing Hong Kong protests.
“I can’t wait until next month’s transparency report when you explain why a picture of Chinese military vehicles entering Hong Kong was repeatedly removed,” one wrote.
Responding to the rising furor, the moderators locked the July transparency report post and eventually backed down by reposting the image under the title “censorship bad.” They also restored the long-form comment by the redditor who said they had been there.
Late Wednesday, a Pics moderator took to the OutOfTheLoop subreddit to blame much of the hype around the image takedown on “brigades” of users and trolls from other unnamed subreddits.
“Quite frequently, both approvals and removals will prompt ire from people who don’t like the actions we take,” Pics_Mod_Bot wrote. “In this case, however, a rather extreme amount of vitriol (originating from subreddits which are better left unmentioned) resulted in something of a cascade effect, during which accusations of paid censorship, agenda-pushing, and similar such things were posted.”
To evidence that the moderators had not acted to censor the post, Pics_Mod_Bot reasoned that the same image was, in fact, present on the subreddit in a post from six months prior. Still, the mod went on to explain why the team had made decision to repost the picture under the title “censorship bad.”
“While we don’t expect it to silence anyone—nor would we want it to,” they continued, “our hope is that it will offset many of the ill-conceived rumors, take the focus away from standard users (who are no more to blame for the initial removal than the critics are), and also send a positive message.”
The mod never explained the exact reasoning behind initially pulling the photo.
David Gilmour is a reporter who specializes in national politics, internet culture, and technology.