The power and misuse of narrative

By Kira Taylor |

Thirty years ago, a man stood before a tank in Tiananmen Square. It is an image seared into memories, an image that keeps his legacy alive – and an image China has been trying to erase since it happened.

If you Google Tiananmen Square, you won’t see this any more | Michael Mandiberg on Flickr

On October 1st, China celebrated 70 years of single party rule with marches under the image of Xi Jing Ping, showing off weapons and the country’s power.

And they marched past Tiananmen Square. 

It’s an undeniably clever move. Whether it was meant to or not, it has changed what Google shows when you search for the incident. Now, amongst harrowing stories of the night, which is estimated to have claimed over 10,000 lives, are images praising the regime that caused the destruction and displaying its military might.

Google search for ‘Tiananmen Square’

Over the past years, China has been cracking down on mentions of Tiananmen Square. People have used phrases to sneak around censorship, but the Chinese version of Twitter, Weibo, has had these obscure, supposedly innocuous phrases banned. Words like “today”, “candle” and “people” have all been blocked. Now, it seems that crackdown has spread outside of China.

World leaders are rewriting history by creating new news stories…

World leaders are rewriting history by creating new news stories, and it is not a phenomenon limited China. It’s something that Boris Johnson has done several times in the last few months. Whether intentionally or not, Johnson’s choice of phrase and interview answers has subtly shifted search results.

Remember that hilarious answer Boris Johnson gave about building buses as a hobby? It seemed fun and almost clownish at the time. It fitted Johnson’s persona of childlike, the guy who messes up his hair before interviews. That funny, seemingly innocent moment that seemed completely out of the blue has altered the Google searches that now come up. It may have been to distract from the misleading statement on the side of the Brexit bus.

Google search for ‘Boris Johnson bus’

That swerve was reiterated at the Conservative Party Conference, where Johnson stated, “we’re going to need a bigger bus.”

And see the new phrase ministers have been reeling off: Johnson is apparently the “model of restraint” against a tirade of accusations about his use of language. That use of the word “model” may have been a smoke and mirrors trick to drag the spotlight from his alleged affair with the model and politician, Jennifer Arcuri.

We live in a time when words have a new power…

We live in a time when words have a new power; they are not limited now to debate and argument. They’ve even travelled beyond the populism Trump utilises them for. They are tools to rewrite narratives.

Frustratingly, and perhaps intentionally, it’s difficult to know what can be done about it. Because we can’t say for certain whether these events are planned simply to change a narrative, and neither can Google monitor what words ministers and leaders use and how that affects search engine results. Who can say what is intentional or not?

It may be we need to change our way of finding out stories, dig deeper than the first ten results we get. Because nothing, on the surface, is at it seems.