In the New York Times magazine, there’s a story about how crowdsourcing is being used to unmask people online. There are questions about whether individual privacy is being violated, and in some cases, whether the “human-flesh search engines” are causing enabling violence.
Human-flesh search engines — renrou sousuo yinqing — have become a Chinese phenomenon: they are a form of online vigilante justice in which Internet users hunt down and punish people who have attracted their wrath. The goal is to get the targets of a search fired from their jobs, shamed in front of their neighbors, run out of town. It’s crowd-sourced detective work, pursued online — with offline results.
There is no portal specially designed for human-flesh searching; the practice takes place in Chinese Internet forums like Mop, where the term most likely originated. Searches are powered by users called wang min, Internet citizens, or Netizens. The word “Netizen” exists in English, but you hear its equivalent used much more frequently in China, perhaps because the public space of the Internet is one of the few places where people can in fact act like citizens. […]
At the Beijing headquarters of Mop, Ben Du, the site’s head of interactive communities, told me that the Chinese term for human-flesh search engine has been around since 2001, when it was used to describe a search that was human-powered rather than computer-driven. Mop had a forum called human-flesh search engine, where users could pose questions about entertainment trivia that other users would answer: a type of crowd-sourcing. […] But the Chinese public’s primary understanding of the term is no longer so benign. The popular meaning is now not just a search by humans but also a search for humans, initially performed online but intended to cause real-world consequences. Searches have been directed against all kinds of people, including cheating spouses, corrupt government officials, amateur pornography makers, Chinese citizens who are perceived as unpatriotic, journalists who urge a moderate stance on Tibet and rich people who try to game the Chinese system. Human-flesh searches highlight what people are willing to fight for: the political issues, polarizing events and contested moral standards that are the fault lines of contemporary China. […]
The prevailing narrative in the West about the Chinese Internet is the story of censorship — Google’s threatened withdrawal from China being only the latest episode. But the reality is that in China, as in the United States, most Internet users are far more interested in finding jobs, dates and porn than in engaging in political discourse. […] The vast majority of what people do on the Internet in China, including most human-flesh-search activity, is ignored by censors and unfettered by government regulation. There are many aspects of life on and off the Internet that the government is unwilling, unable or maybe just uninterested in trying to control.
The focus on censorship also obscures the fact that the Web is not just about free speech. As some human-flesh searches show, an uncontrolled Internet can be menacing as well as liberating.