Search (and Destroy) Engines
Wang Jue was going through a difficult time in her life, feeling distraught and powerless. She connected with cameraman Li Yuejun and together they committed an extremely sadistic act, unforgivable and senselessly violent. William Gibson says the "The street has its own use for things." The Internet decided that Yuejun and Jue would pay.
There is a new movement being fueled by emotions ranging from revulsion to rage pulsing through the veins of the internet. It’s a 21st century update to the old school lynch mobs. Thousands have joined in and believe it’s an efficient way to make criminals answer to the netizens. With three billion Internet users, attempts to hide will only add thrill to the chase. With all eyes fixed to computer screens, people all over the world watch in fascination as this force continues to define itself. It is called "ren rou sou suo". The phrase is Chinese and can be translated directly as "human flesh hunting" or "human flesh search engine". It simply means an Internet search that is being powered by people with retribution and people’s justice on their minds.
The case involving Li Yuejun and Wang Jue is the best known example of this phenomenon to date. In a video that was widely distributed in February of 2006, Wang Jue holds a tiny grey kitten in her hands as she gazes at it lovingly. The cat makes soft meowing noises as she places it on the ground and with her gold tone high heels she impales the kitten’s head through the eye socket. The kitten cries out in pain. The scene continues until the skull is stomped and the kitten is silenced with death in a pool of blood.
China doesn’t have clear laws against animal cruelty. But the netizens of China didn’t need any laws to support them when they condemned the women, now named "Kitten Killer of Hangzhou."
Shortly after the video was uploaded, enraged masses mobilized online to find her. Traditional media was then alerted and joined in the hunt. Less than a week later, volunteer cyber sleuths were able to discover her location by analyzing the background of the video. Then they matched the shoes worn in the video to an online purchase. With this information they uncovered her identity and address. These details were posted online and she was attacked with thousands of phone calls and threats. She was mercilessly shamed, lost her job, and was forced to post a video apology online where she acknowledged her actions and asked for forgiveness.
There have been several other incidents in China where the human flesh search engines have had a major impact on the lives of their target, raising new questions about our rights as individuals.
A foul-mouthed girl called Gao Qianhui posted a video blog (vlog) of a rant in which she mocked the suffering of Sichuan earthquake victims even as over a billion fellow Chinese citizens mourned. The vlog was posted on almost all major Chinese discussion forums.. Almost instantly, Gao became hunted. Her personal details were discovered and after they were made public, one netizen ordered "Now humiliate her!" She was held in police custody for three days on charges of endangering public stability.
In August of 2008, a man named Wang Fei was cheating on his wife, Jiang Yan. While her husband vacationed with his mistress, she blogged about her emotional pain and then leapt 24 stories to her death. The entries were then circulated and the netizens decided that Jiang Wang should be avenged. The human flesh search engine again assembled and combined efforts to find out Wang Fei’s personal details. He was bombarded with calls to his home and office and received hundreds of threats. Slogans were painted on his door such as "Blood must be repaid with blood." He was forced to resign from his position as a high profile executive at the Saatchi & Saatchi advertising agency in Beijing.
It has been suggested that this recent rise in online vigilantism was unique to China, partially because so many involved are educated but underemployed. For thousands of years, China was the source of social innovations, and with the world’s biggest crowds and a new focus on crowdsourcing "justice"; China may again have generated a civilization-wide advance in governance. It is becoming apparent that the idea virus has scaled the Chinese Wall to move, pitchforks and torches held aloft, across the oceans to infect other netizens, including those in the United States.
Dusty is a short hair cat from Lawton, Oklahoma. On February 15, 2009, he was picked up by a boy in a mask and repeatedly slammed against the wall. As Dusty caterwauled, the boy shouted, "I hate you and you hate me!" while his brother recorded it all on video. The video was posted online. The response was fierce and furious. Thousands posted about it on bulletin boards and spread the disturbing footage. By carefully observing the background details in the video, the footage was linked to a boy named Kenny Glenn.
The uproar grew online and reached into Kenny’s town, school and home. Dusty was rescued and the boys were taken into custody. Other videos of animal abuse were discovered in their home.
It was less than 24 hours from the time the video was uploaded to the time the boys were in custody. Netizens are the new Jack Bauer.
For these particular animals, the ordeal has ended and they can be thankful to the netizens. But for the boys responsible for their abuse, this is just the beginning. Comanche County Sheriff Kenny Stradley says the boys will face criminal charges. And here’s the shocker: It was less than 24 hours from the time the video was uploaded to the time the boys were in custody. Netizens are the new Jack Bauer.
Human flesh search engines are painting digital bull’s-eyes on the backs of increasingly powerful people. Even government officials like Chen Hua, Deputy Director of the Internet News Management Department of the Beijing Internet Propaganda Management Office, are targets. An anonymous author posted an article in January of 2009. He said that his daughter is a personal associate of Mr. Chen. According to the author, Chen told her, "The netizens’ freedom of expression is given by me [Chen Hua]. I give them as much as I please." This news has been widely distributed and China’s netizens are clearly outraged. The article has been spread, linked, blogged about and widely discussed. The human flesh search engine discovered his personal information and offered it up to the masses to do with it what they please. The attacks continue even now.
Inside of China, many posts regarding Mr. Chen have been removed and searches that include his name and position are being blocked. However, none of the efforts to silence the news have been successful. Netizens quickly redirected their information via Twitter, social networking sites, private email and chat programs. It’s become a new Internet arms race, search and destroy engines vs. senior officials. If Mr. Chen goes down, few will feel comfortable taking his job. The search and destroy playbook will have been written.
Let’s hope that human flesh search engines will have a collective intelligence that doesn’t too much resemble the witch burnings and mob lynchings of the past. Gao Qianhui was attacked for expressing her point of view — however reprehensible it may be. Her life will be changed forever by this incident.
On the other hand, Chen Hua was targeted for trying to limit freedom of expression. Fortunately, human flesh search engines don’t end the lives of their victims, like the witch-hunts or lynching of the past. We will not know for some time how these cyber-hunts will shape the future of our privacy, freedom of speech and sense of justice and security. But 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.
Kitten Killer of Hangzhou and her cameraman will walk away from their brutal act.. An apology is hardly appropriate recompense for the death of the tiny tortured feline. But these small stories will remain a part of our collective human memory and help guide the decisions of future societies, because the Internet does not forget, does not forgive and cannot be stopped. Ever.