"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:
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?
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