Beware of the Crowd!

In the Chinese public sphere, cyber manhunts have got a lot of attention recently, with western media eagerly following up. This is partly due to the catchy name the chinese are using for the phenomenon. The term Renrou Sousuo (人肉搜索) literally means “Human Flesh Search Engine”, opening up a range of possible misinterpretations. Actually, Renrou Sousuo simply refers to a human-powered ‘smart mob’ research for the factual background of some Internet content, not necessarily of a scandalous nature.

In a report from April 2008 the Chinese-American writer Xujun Eberlein explains the name by pointing to the Chinese netizens’ tendency to coin slightly outrageous terms, like “very violent, very pornographic”, meaning something cool. Eberlein traces the beginning of Renrou Sousuo phenomenon back to the year 2001, when a chinese online community called invited readers to “track down information about movies, books, songs and other trivia”, which were then posted in a forum area with the title Renrou Sousuo.

In the following years, the resources of the Human Flesh Search Engine turned to juicier topics. The most notorious incident took place in February 2006 when a video turned up on chinese online forums showing a woman cruelly killing a kitten with her high heels. The outraged Internet community, taking clues from the background of the video as well as her shoes, quickly identified her as a 41-year old divorced nurse from Heilongjiang province named Wang Jue. She and the person who had taken the video lost their jobs. (Attentive observers of western Internet will remember a similar episode earlier this year, when a video showing a marine soldier throwing a puppy off a rock cliff caused a similar scandal.)

In subsequent months there have been countless other incidents, some of whom received broad media coverage. Most were related to alleged ‘indecent behaviour’, meaning promiscuity, extra-marital affairs and the like. During the Sichuan earthquake in May 2008 a girl provoked moral outrage by making some tactless remarks about the victims on a video uploaded to the Net. During the pre-olympic weeks, when infuriated Chinese netizens turned against the allegedly biased reporting of western media on China topics, some of the campaigns showed Renrou Sousuo characteristics.

Bridge blogger Roland Soong who has closely followed the phenomenon and provided a lot of examples in his blog EastSouthWestNorth describes the general pattern as follows:

“An outrageous event occurs somewhere in China. Someone posts a description of the event at a Chinese Internet forum. A storm of passion is generated as the ‘human search engines’ dig up the personal particulars of the culprits of the event and publish that information. A harassment campaign (e.g. telephone calls, threats, etc) is conducted to insure that ‘justice’ is served. Mind you, the culprits are not necessarily guilty of breaking any law. Usually, it is some alleged moral turpitude or depravity.”

The discussion about Human Flesh Search has recently got new fuel after one of its victims by the name of Wang Fei filed a lawsuit against two forum providers and an individual for infringing his privacy and reputation. Wang’s wife had committed suicide last December. Her diary was posted on the Net, accusing him of adultery. In the following cyber campaign he, his parents and his alleged lover were seriously harrassed. Wang had to resign from his post at Beijing’s branch of Saatchi & Saatchi because of rising pressure on his employer.

Human Flesh Search is not a specifically Chinese phenomenon, the western Internet also knows cyber manhunts. When the German tabloid “Bild Zeitung” asked their readers to become ‘Reader Reporters’ and take pictures of celebrities in the year 2006, the watchblog “BildBlog” invited its readers to take pictures of Bild’s editor-in-chief Kai Diekmann. Weblogs like BoingBoing or Slashdot gleefully report on thieves of notebook computers who are stupid enough to put pictures of themselves to the victim’s flickr account. In March 2008 the online community Digg hunted down a thief who stole an XBOX and other devices and subsequently sent voicemail messages from his XBOX account to the victim.

Apart from these more or less light-hearted attempts there are also more serious endeavours going on. There is for example a whole web community called “Perverted Justice”, dedicated to identifying pedophiles in Internet chatrooms and exposing them.

But compared with its western counterparts, the chinese culture of cyber manhunt is much more powerful and significant. This is mostly due to scale: With more than 250 million users the Chinese Internet population is the biggest in the world. Also the Chinese users are by far more interconnected than their western counterparts. Even the Internet-savvy US netizens pale in comparison with the Chinese Internet community. As CNNIC numbers for the year 2008 show, nearly 40 percent (98 million) of Chinese Internet users regularly contribute to bulletin board systems, more than 40 percent (107 million) have their own blog. Compare this with Germany, where an important survey in 2008 showed that 76 percent of netizens had never heard of weblogs, and only 6 percent are blog users.

So, by simple networking effects, any campaign on the Chinese Internet can quickly gain an incredible momentum. Also by culture and education, moral issues are highly important to the Chinese. Xujun Eberlein refers to the Confucian tradition in Chinese thinking with its emphasis on ethics and righteousness. Another framework for this kind of moralizing behaviour might be found in the more recent, communist past. Both Eberlein and Forbes correspondent Chris O’Brien mention the spectre of the Cultural Revolution with its public criticisms and purges, too long ago for most Chinese netizens to remember, but still strangely formative.

Even withouth explicit reference to this scary historical frame of refence, many Chinese see the Human Flesh Search as a bad thing. In June 2008 China Youth Daily conducted a survey with the result that nearly 80 percent of the participants wanted Renrou Sousuo to be regulated, 20 percent feared to become a target. The high-profile Wang Fei lawsuit triggered discussion about the bad privacy protection provided by current chinese law. The Chinese academic community is also dealing with the phenomenon. A conference about new media at People’s University in Beijing this November had three talks dealing with Renrou Sousuo.

But even considering the excesses of the cyber vigilantes, there are voices emphasizing the more positive aspects of Human Flesh Search. In a country where civil rights and legal protection of the citizens is yet underdeveloped, and the professional media can still not be relied upon to fulfill their role as public watchdog, the Net community has the potential to become a powerful corrective. Xujun Eberlein refers to an article on the daily newspaper The First expressing the hope that after dealing with entertainment and sexual scandals, the community will turn their attention to topics like government corruption in the future. And David Bandurski of Hongkong University’s China Media Project gives the english translation of an article by a government prosecutor from Jiangxi province, who points to already existing legal provisions against Human Flesh Search excesses and then argues as follows:

“If we view ‘human flesh searches’ themselves as having ‘original sin’, and if we seek to directly regulate such behavior as a crime, well then, I must regrettably point out that this will be a major blow to the efforts of ordinary people to seek justice. […] Making ‘human flesh searches’ a crime should be rejected from a value standpoint. Like the proposed ‘real-name registration system for the Web’ (网络实名制) that met with the disapproval of the vast majority of people, making ‘human flesh searches’ a crime is unrealistic and impracticable. Concerning ‘human flesh search engines’, these double-edged swords, we can only ‘choose the lesser of two evils’ and remain tolerant of their existence.”