Human-Flesh Search Engines: China's Net VigilantismS

This week's New York Times Magazine looks at China's human-flesh searches, a widespread practice in which "netizens" systematically track and harass individuals ranging from adulterers to corrupt local officials. But the searches tread a fine line between justice and revenge.

To anyone familiar with 4chan, its hard to imagine internet vigilantes residing anywhere besides the darkest corners of the web. In China, however, human-flesh search engines are a common occurrence, occupying a central role in the nation's internet culture.

The human-flesh searches are "not just a search by humans but also a search for humans"—humans that have in some way incurred the wrath of the anonymous bulletin board mob. One target, in an act of undeniable cruelty, killed a kitten on video (she was publicly shamed and forced out of her job). Another was singled out after criticizing the government's response to the Sichuan earthquakes (she was publicly shamed and forced out of her University).

This is where things get sticky. When, if ever, is it OK for the anonymous masses to dole out punishment for wrongdoing? What offense warrants this type of "public harassment, mass intimidation and populist revenge," as the article suggests it can quickly become. It's easy to see how a group could feel like they had the right to take retributive action after seeing a kitten killed on video, but it's much harder to make a case for searching out an anonymous dissident.

As the article points out, the rest of the world tends to fixate on issues of censorship when they consider China's internet culture. But reading about human-flesh search engines and their prominence, it seems like the internet activity that's not being censored is just as interesting. [New York Times Magazine]

Image credit Kai Hendry