Vigilante Justice: Coming to an Internet Forum Near You?

Chinese "human-flesh search engines" are spreading

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"Human-flesh searches," the practice of using the Internet to discover and punish misbehavior, is a rising form of vigilantism in China--and it appears to be spreading. The New York Times Magazine devotes a story to the phenomenon, which started with the search for and shaming of a kitten killer and has progressed to harassment of cheating spouses and, in one case, a tasteless online commenter. Where do populist self-expression and community action turn into something darker? Here's the debate on the present and future of Internet-based vigilante justice.

  • Promise in New Laws  Stanley Lubman at The Wall Street Journal points to, previously, a laxity in Chinese law that let human-flesh searches run unchecked. But he says "the comprehensive Tort Liability Law" passed in December "includes a provision that gives citizens the right to sue for infringement of their privacy, which thereby solidifies the legal foundation of that right." By strengthening privacy law, "it could limit the growing practice of using the internet to harass and vilify people deemed by internet users to have committed criminal or improper acts."
  • A Product of Chinese Society  The New York Times' Tom Downey argues that "damages awarded thus far in China have been so minor that it's hard to imagine lawsuits having much impact on the human-flesh search." That's just one of many observations in the lengthy article: Human-flesh searches complicate the "prevailing narrative in the West" regarding Chinese Internet, which is largely one of censorship. The searches and the online forums they work through raise questions about free speech, community, mob mentality, and populism. Looking at one case involving a cheating spouse, Downey thinks some of the online forums' draw lies in "the desire for a community in which people can work out the problems they face in a country where life is changing more quickly than anyone could ever have imagined." But he also notes Chinese tech expert Rebecca MacKinnon's view, which is that the human-flesh search, used to target corrupt officials, can be a "mechanism for checking government excess." Doing so in this limited, targeted way can also "serve as a safety valve in a society with ever mounting pressures on the government."
  • A Dangerous Practice That's Spreading, say Alex Lightman and Rachel Coleman for h+, back last summer. They look at instances of the phenomenon in the United States as well. "Fortunately," they observe, "human flesh search engines don't end the lives of their victims, like the witch-hunts or lynching of the past." But they have caused significant damage, and "there is no doubt that these cases are just the beginning a vast social change taking place right now. What we can see from these incidents is that the flow of information will no longer be controlled and that the power of public outrage will not easily be quelled ... The Internet does not forget, does not forgive and cannot be stopped. Ever."
  • Facebook: the Technology that Enables the Search  Blogger ADM wonders if "perhaps all online communities and social networks are essentially human flesh search engines, or easily transformed into them as desired--although usually with less malice." His provocative take touches on widespread concerns:
Recent technological advancements such as real-time face recognition built into cellphones will soon erode, if not entirely dissolve, anonymity ... Does it matter? ... We know the short-term consequences of this already... but what are the long-term social and psychological consequences? ... Will today's kids grow up acting more conservatively because they know their behavior (and that of their friends) will be publicly and permanently documented? Or, will this instead cause a greater liberalization of social behavior as they become adults in a generation that accepts everyone acts foolishly, and everyone's foolish acts are publicly and permanently documented?
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.