In China, it's hard to be anonymous online in part due to a phenomenon known as the human-flesh search engine. It's not really a search engine at all. Rather, it's a community of message board users that seek out and punish in the real world people they find committing offensive acts online. Tom Downey explains in this weekend's New York Times Magazine that the human flesh search engine offers a disturbing mix of justice and revenge.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: For the past few years, politicians like George Allen and celebrities like Michael Richards have seen their careers crater when videos of their offensive behavior went viral on the Net. Of course, ordinary people are obnoxious too, but they have a degree of anonymity that can shield them from the consequences. In China, however, being an ordinary Joe cannot protect you, because of a phenomenon known as the human-flesh search engine. It’s not really a search engine but rather a population of Internet message board users that, if sufficiently outraged, will do whatever it takes to track the offending person down in the real world and ruin his or her life. Tom Downey writes about the human-flesh search engine in this weekend’s New York Times Magazine, and he says that the term first referred to harmless searches conducted by humans, Chinese Web users who would submit questions to the message boards, and real people, not algorithms, would come up with the answers. But now, he says, the term denotes a search for people, after a perverse video was circulated of a woman casually using her stiletto heels to stomp a kitten to death.
TOM DOWNEY: When Chinese Internet users saw this video, they were outraged. After people started to talk about this all over the Internet, eventually people from the actual town where this woman lived saw the video and were able to say, she’s a nurse at the hospital where I live. And eventually she was identified.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And fired.
TOM DOWNEY: And that was the kind of job that people normally keep for life in China. It’s what the Chinese call an “iron rice bowl.”
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So her life was ruined.
TOM DOWNEY: Yeah. Her kids felt terrible going to school every day because other students were making fun of them. And eventually she just had to leave town, along with the cameraman, who was also a resident of the same town, who filmed her.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: She stomped a kitten to death!
TOM DOWNEY: For sure, this is something terrible. It’s animal cruelty. These human-flesh search engines usually start out because there’s something that people are legitimately outraged about. And, you know, one of the other points about this is there’s not really any legal framework to prosecute people for animal cruelty in China. So, whereas, here you find somebody who’s torturing a kitten or killing a kitten, you could report them to the authorities and the person could be prosecuted, that’s not going to happen in China.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The second big case that you cite in your piece, a man cheats on his wife, who kills herself because of it, and then her tragic diary is posted online, generating a great deal of anger. That seemed to be a clear example of how the role of the human search engine changes from justice-seeking to revenge.
TOM DOWNEY: Yeah, in that case there wasn't much searching that actually went on. People assembled very early on, his name, his employment ID, where he went to school, his license plate number, I mean, every possible detail you could imagine about this person. People were going to his family’s apartment, painting, in red, Chinese characters humiliating him. This guy became afraid of going out in public because his face was so well known. I mean, it was plastered all over, not just the Internet but the Chinese media.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Is there something about the structure of Chinese society that has given rise to this search for justice by ordinary people online?
TOM DOWNEY: Yeah, the absence of a real strong rule of law and the absence of institutional means to redress corruption are really some of the big factors behind why people go to the human-flesh search. One of the cases that I talk about in the piece is a case where a government official is accused of trying to molest a young girl. Imagine that happens in the United States. You go to the police, they arrest the guy. While there are some inroads being made to address those kinds of corruption in China, there’s not a generally accepted institutional means to redress corruption and bad behavior by government officials. Therefore, people resort to things like the human-flesh search.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And, as you note in your piece, the Chinese government doesn't mind it very much.
TOM DOWNEY: I think that’s right. One of the reasons that we see human-flesh searches against provincial or local level officials not being cracked down upon is because the central government actually doesn't want corruption on the local level, in many cases. They have an interest in this watchdog effect. If they allow rampant corruption, then the central government’s authority is undermined.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But the problem is if a human-flesh search engine moves into a vacuum that is left by a rule of law that does not work, you have chaos. My colleague Bob Garfield has written a book called The Chaos Scenario, and he raised this issue in a, in a very neat phrase. He says that perhaps we have less to fear from Big Brother than we do from Lord of the Flies. People who aren't guilty can be tracked down with the same vehemence and brutality as people who are.
TOM DOWNEY: Yeah, in a lot of these cases, the actual justice of the outcome is very ambiguous. Even in the case where the government official is accused of trying to molest the young girl, I went to that restaurant, I spoke to the waiters and waitresses and floor directors, and it really wasn't clear that the guy was trying to molest this little girl. It was clear that he acted in an extremely arrogant and dismissive way when her parents confronted him, and that was terrible in its own right. But the original thing that really sparked the incident, it’s pretty unclear.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I think for me the most sobering part of the story is that dissenters were being targeted by patriotic Chinese for, for disagreeing with the policies of the government.
TOM DOWNEY: I think that any situation like this, where basically there’s that kind of mob mentality, creates difficulty for people who have minority viewpoints. In China there’s a specific phenomenon called “angry youth.” This is one of the groups that the government often is able to use to quash the viewpoints of dissenters.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You suggest in your piece that this mass vigilantism pacifies the masses and keeps them from protesting the wider political injustice and corruption in China.
TOM DOWNEY: Instead of people thinking about, for example, is the central government corrupt, when we see human-flesh searches that focus anger on a very specific and typically low-level figure, it’s a way of diffusing that anger and it’s a way of focusing it on somebody who’s a pretty easy scapegoat.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Tom Downey is the author of The Last Men Out, about a rescue firehouse in Brooklyn. His piece on the human-flesh search engine in China appears in this weekend’s New York Times Magazine. Thank you very much.