The “human flesh search engine”

By Toby Manhire In The Internaut

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19th February, 2014 Leave a Comment

They call it the “human flesh search engine”, and it’s about as pleasant as it sounds. It describes the bursts of online vigilantism that emerge from time to time to China.

Explaining the phenomenon for BBC News Online, Celia Hatton relates the example of a taxi driver who was “outed” and hounded online and by phone after being identified by amateur internet sleuths as responsible for spitting on a homeless person.

He had the misfortune of a registration plate a couple of digits out from the driver responsible.

The first cases appeared in 2006, according to the BBC (Know Your Meme, however, traces it back to 2001) and such incidents have since become commonplace, Hatton writes, in a country which has the world’s highest internet connected population, with close to 600 million users.

At its worst, the ghoulishly named ‘flesh-searching’ phenomenon is cyberbullying on an epic scale, sometimes involving hundreds of thousands of anonymous Chinese internet surfers ganging up to uncover the identity of an unsuspecting target. Users band together to uncover a person’s identity – sometimes a suspected adulterer, sometimes an animal abuser.

Recently, authorities have started to clamp down on the practice. That has been widely welcome, though sceptics might point out that this has coincided, says Hatton, with a recent growth in “the flesh-searching phenomenon … targeting members of the Communist party”.

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