Human-flesh Search Engines Unearth Dark Side of Online Community

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  • Published on October 30, 2010
  • Last Updated October 7, 2021

This article was originally published on Search Engine Watch on 30th October, 2010.

Earlier this year, Tom Downey of the New York Times published a fascinating piece entitled, China’s Cyberposse. In the article he discussed a phenomenon that has being going on in China (and other parts of Asia) since 2001, known as “Human-flesh search engine”. Resembling the kind of single issue protest campaigns that the activist network 4-chan is able to achieve, “Human-flesh searches”, originated as a kind of crowd-sourced detective network made up of users of chinese forums and bulletin boards.

Their goalโ€Š: to take justice into their own hands.

The original term “human-flesh search engine” was coined to signify a search for information that was conducted and delivered by humans instead of machines. Rather than relying on a computer based algorithm to locate and calculate the relevance of sources, the forums mobilize the community to discover and post the answers to questions which form the wider part of an investigation.

Creepily, the investigations usually start with the question “who?”, and the motivation to answer it is often vengeance.

Downey re-tells five separate incidents that triggered the deployment of the human-flesh search engine. One is a story of a kitten murderer, the second regards adultery and suicide, the third regards allegations against a politician, the fourth political dissent, and the final story explores a man who wants to avenge victims of the human-flesh search engine, and tries to turn it on itself.

Among all of the reported cases, themes of trauma, powerlessness and solidarity continually re-occur.

Essentially an abhorrent news event is posted on a forum, usually user generated content rather than an an item from the mainstream news agenda, that is extremely graphic or shocking which thus triggers a mob response in the users. Posting their reactions, users collectively whirl themselves into a frenzy of righteousness that can lead to baying for bloodโ€Š-โ€Šor at the very least ‘justice’ to be doneโ€Š-โ€Šand call for a ‘human flesh search’ on the perpetrators.

The outcome of this mob investigation is that the target is identified through pictures found online and social networking profiles.

Their name and village they are from is fervently discussed and finally discovered through multiple forum threads. Usually the target will lose their job or be forced to resign from shame and or ostracized by their local community and forced to leave the town.

The howl for justice goes as far as some people proclaiming that these people should never work again and If anyone is to encounter them, they should never offer them work. Given this activity takes places in forums, ill-feeling becomes amplified and successively more extreme.

This is all the more extreme because, unlike in the west where TV, print and radio drives the public agenda, in China the general distrust of the state controlled media means that the national conversation is driven by forums which are considered to be more trustworthy news sources.

“FOR A WESTERNER, what is most striking is how different Chinese Internet culture is from our own. News sites and individual blogs aren’t nearly as influential in China, and social networking hasn’t really taken off. What remain most vital are the largely anonymous online forums, where human-flesh searches begin. These forums have evolved into public spaces that are much more participatory, dynamic, populist and perhaps even democratic than anything on the English-language Internet. In the 1980s in the United States, before widespread use of the Internet, B.B.S. stood for bulletin-board system, a collection of posts and replies accessed by dial-up or hard-wired users. Though B.B.S.s of this original form were popular in China in the early ’90s, before the Web arrived, Chinese now use B.B.S. to describe any kind of online forum. Chinese go to B.B.S.’s to find broad-based communities and exchange information about everything from politics to romanceโ€ฆ

โ€ฆ Jin Liwen, the technology analyst, came of age in China just as Internet access was becoming available and wrote her thesis at M.I.T. on Chinese B.B.S.’s. In the United States, traditional media are still playing the key role in setting the agenda for the public, Jin told me. But in China, you will see that a lot of hot topics, hot news or events actually originate from online discussions. One factor driving B.B.S. traffic is the dearth of good information in the mainstream media. Print publications and television networks are under state control and cannot cover many controversial issues. B.B.S.’s are where the juicy stories break, spreading through the mainstream media if they get big enough.

China’s Cyberposse by Tom Downey of the New York Times.

Downey investigates why, despite online forum moderators, mass opinion is able to be focussed on a single person and finds that in most cases it is irrationality and conducted as a sort of collective guarantee that such things will not happen again. It’s also a kind of defiant act of moral idealism “in a country where life is changing more quickly than anyone could ever have imagined.”

Whilst the “human flesh search” behavior at first seems so culturally at odds with the west, the most startling facts are that much of them start as a result of technological change. Bulletin board systems were popular before the web and subsequently online forums, blogging and uploading content to social networks took its place.

One woman who survived the 2008 earthquake, wrote on her blog immediately after it struck, expressing really mixed up emotions symptomatic of trauma. Later, after expressing a liberal view towards the Chinese situation in Tibet, web users dug more deeply into her online identity, discovered that post and equated her political views with the ‘inhuman’ emotions expressed in her post and called for a human flesh search against her to “give her a lesson”.

The kitten killer was caught because of the easily “transmittable” nature of the digital format they recorded their act on. Just like the politician, who was caught because a user was able to upload a security camera video to the web.

The adulterer and mistress were found via a social and business networks like Facebook and Linkedin (who, incidentally, were the only ones able to successfully win a defamation case against the human flesh search against them).

Eric Schmidt once joked to the Wall Street Journal, “Every young person one day will be entitled automatically to change his or her name on reaching adulthood in order to disown youthful hijinks stored on their friends’ social media sites”. Which in the context of online mob behavior gives cause to pause and consider how much of ‘themselves’ people are putting online.

Forget Please Rob Me, your photos, videos, blog posts and comments could become weapons against you.

However, a person can rise to fame rather than notoriety by the same mechanism. The power of human powered search can also be used for merit and the same power for everyone to publish and share photos, videos, blog posts and comment can be used to cause someone to rapidly rise in status instead of falling from grace.

In chatting with colleagues at ClickZ Asia they told me that human flesh search is not always as twisted as the term sounds. Recently a human flesh search against a 5-year old girl was conducted simply to find out who she wasโ€Š-โ€Šas she was considered to be so pretty. In contrast, she became a totem for all that was good (although arguably this is a dubious merit).

Online activism is also something that is not foreign to the west.

Social networks recently channelled the publics diametric emotions in response to a story of a 7-year old girl who was being publicly teased on Facebook for having a terminal illness. Activist community 4chan circulated the story whilst users from Reddit successfully raised $19,500 to help the child.

In conclusion, whilst acknowledging the wisdom of the crowds may turn to tyranny, it is nonetheless clear that it can be wielded for great achievement. However, I don’t really know if it can be controlled unless we control ourselves.

The paradox is the cost of a networked society, where the individual voice is able to be so massively amplified. Put another way, it’s the nature of the web that user generated content can trigger “15 seconds of fame”โ€Š โ€”this layer of user generated content, combined with search engines and web power users creates a massive permeability of the individual within society.

Furthermore, I think there is little doubting that online community forums like 4chan and Reddit and social networks, like Twitter and Facebook have the power to drive the public agenda in the west. Therefore the lesson to the web community may simply be that, hypothetically speaking, should western people’s faith in governments, institutions of justice or the mainstream media erode, then we too may find ourselves swept up by the crowd.

With this in mind let’s hope, therefore, that we all personally try to see “ourselves” in one another, rather than difference, because China’s situation is also our own.

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