The XX Factor

The Unbelievable Human-Flesh Search Engine

Tom Downey has an equally fascinating and terrifying article in this weekend’s New York Times Magazine about the intersection of the Internet and vigilante justice in China. It begins:

The short video made its way around China’s Web in early 2006, passed on through file sharing and recommended in chat rooms. It opens with a middle-aged Asian woman dressed in a leopard-print blouse, knee-length black skirt, stockings and silver stilettos standing next to a riverbank. She smiles, holding a small brown and white kitten in her hands. She gently places the cat on the tiled pavement and proceeds to stomp it to death with the sharp point of her high heel. “This is not a human,” wrote BrokenGlasses, a user on Mop, a Chinese online forum. “I have no interest in spreading this video nor can I remain silent. I just hope justice can be done.” That first post elicited thousands of responses. “Find her and kick her to death like she did to the kitten,” one user wrote. Then the inquiries started to become more practical: “Is there a front-facing photo so we can see her more clearly?” The human-flesh search had begun.

You’ve probably experienced a strong reaction to an Internet video before. A few years ago, there was a clip circulating that captured an Iraqi soldier mercilessly dropping a puppy off a cliff. Not surprisingly, the video ignited massive cries of violence against the soldier in the comments section, on forums, and on blogs. The difference is that in China, the virtual masses go through with their threats.

Downey delves into this phenomenon, called-most terrifyingly-the human-flesh search engine, with a number of poignant examples. Wang Fei, an architect who left his wife for a mistress, and whose wife later killed herself, had to move out of Beijing after his personal information was posted all over the Internet, and his firm fired him. Grace Chang became a target of the human-flesh seekers after she tried to alleviate tension between pro-China and pro-Tibet protesters. She’s now too frightened to return to China. Internet harassment is commonplace, but the law is still racing to civilize the virtual world (we still don’t quite know how to deal with trolls, or even sexual harassment in places like Second Life), an effort complicated by the notion that the Web is, in essence, locationless. How ironic that a truly modern technological development can so easily be used to enact an archaic form of justice.