“Human Flesh Searching”: Ad-Hoc Internet Justice

For The Atlantic, Jessica Levine explores the online grassroots sleuthing phenomenon known as “human flesh searching”, in which platforms allow netizens to work together to expose the wrongdoings of officials and other citizens:

“Flesh searchers feel like they are sharing information in a system that does not have a comprehensive or consistent rule of law,” explained global tech sociologist, ethnographer and blogger Tricia Wang. “In a way, this is like an ad hoc, ground-up rule of law. It’s thrown together, it’s not very systematic, it can fall apart at any second — but what’s amazing is that there is no face-to-face contact and yet trust is able to form.”

Wang specifically cited the infamous and disturbing kitten-killer case.

In 2006, a video of a woman stomping a kitten to death with the sharp point of her high heel appeared on a Mop forum. With no recourse to file a formal complaint, outraged Chinese took matters into their own hands and, through a flesh search, found the culprit: Wang Jiao from Heilongjiang province. The woman summarily lost her “iron rice bowl” (铁饭碗), a coveted government job that usually lasts to retirement and pays a lifetime pension.

“Not everyone is doing it as a response to some moral compass to the government, or for even a righteousness reason,” said Tricia Wang. “We can instead see this as a more broad manifestation of a collective response to a society that’s undergoing some major debates; the issues that people are flesh searching really reveal the things that China is going through.”

The phenomenon isn’t new – The New York Times detailed its rise in a 2010 report – but has undoubtedly picked up steam as more and more Chinese have gained access to the web. Earlier this year, Chinese filmmaker Chen Kaige entertained the subject in “Caught in the Web”, which called out the social pitfalls of China’s Internet cultureFrom The Global Times:

The film took in 147 million yuan (23 million US dollars) in the three weeks following its July 6 debut, a handsome performance for a domestic film.

Its popularity has spawned renewed debate regarding what the Chinese refer to as “human flesh searches,” or the practice of dredging up and publicizing the personal information of a person who is perceived by the public to have committed a grave wrongdoing.

Ye Lanqiu, the film’s protagonist, finds herself being targeted by a “human flesh search” after refusing to relinquish her bus seat to a senior citizen. When a reporter films the incident and broadcasts it on local television, Ye is targeted by netizens who expose the private details of her life online.

The film questions the role of mass media in society and taps into the controversial issue of Internet vigilantism, a phenomenon that has become more prevalent in tandem with the increasing popularity of the Internet in China.

See also previous CDT coverage of human flesh searching.