Human-Flesh Search Engines: China’s Mainstream Net Vigilantism

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 dark fringes of the web. In China, however, human-flesh search engines are a widespread phenomenon and occupy 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, kills a kitten on video (she was publicly shamed and forced out of her job). Another, however, was singled out after she rebuked the government for what she perceived to be a manipulative 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 offence 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 of netizens could work themselves into 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 how prominent they are, it’s clear that the activity that’s not getting censored is just as interesting. [New York Times Magazine]