"Human flesh search engine": an Internet lynching?
www.chinaview.cn 2008-07-04 17:32:17   Print

Two netizens browse online through the wireless broadband Internet access service in Beijing, June 25, 2008. (Xinhua)
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 By Xinhua Writers Bai Xu and Ji Shaoting     

    BEIJING, July 4 (Xinhua) -- Behave yourself in China, or you may find yourself up before a kangaroo court of angry netizens and receive a virtual lynching.

    Those whose behavior is deemed wanting by enraged netizens have found their name, birthday, mobile phone number and home address researched and exposed, available for 160 million netizens who might drop you a surprising call.

    When farmer Zhou Zhenglong finished faking his South China tiger photo, he never expected that netizens would find the old Lunar New Year commemorative poster he lifted the original picture from just 35 days later and expose him. After a long drawn out saga, the authorities finally came clean and admitted that the picture was a fake. Zhou was arrested.

    "In finding out truth of the 'paper tiger' event, our Renrou search engine played an important role," said an Internet staffer nicknamed Yule on the Mop entertainment website.

    Renrou literally means human flesh, and 'Renrou search engine', the 'human flesh search engine' is not the search engine familiar from Baidu and Google, but the idea of a search engine employing thousands of individuals all mobilized with one aim, to dig out facts and expose them to the baleful glare of publicity. To do this they use the Internet and conventional search engines.

    The model has some similarities with Wikipedia and Baidu Knowledge, which both attract 10 million clicks every day, and which pool answers from netizens to a question.

    By its narrow meaning, Renrou search started in 2001, when a netizen posted the photo on Mop of a girl, saying she was his girlfriend. Some others soon found out that the beauty turned out to be Microsoft's model Chen Ziyao and publicized her personal information as proof that he was lying.

    The term became a catchword in 2006, when in February, video ofa woman stabbing a kitten in the eyes with her high heels and crushing its head stirred rage of netizens.

    People analyzed the background of the video, and someone soon located the place as in a county of northeastern Heilongjiang Province. Less than a week later, information about the woman, including her real name -- Wang Jue, a 41-year-old nurse, and the fact that she divorced was dug out. Wang was later suspended from her job.

    The year 2008 has seen a peak of Renrou searching, when a husband whose wife committed suicide because of his betrayal, a man who disrupted torch relay in Paris and a girl from northeastern China who dared to criticize those affected by the massive earthquake became targets.

    "Those who mistreated the vulnerable are likely to incur the hatred of netizens," said an online freelancer nicknamed Ayawawa who herself was involved in a search for a disloyal husband.

    "I just want them to be punished," she said, adding that according to Chinese law, such behavior, although immoral, invite no legal punishment.

    After the May 12 earthquake, a girl from a college in Chongqing municipality nicknamed Diebao said on the Internet that the earthquake was "interesting". "I wonder why wasn't it more vehement?" she said.

    Her mother and teacher received cursing and threatening phone calls from angry netizens, forcing the girl to suspend her schooling.

    In comparison, the punishment of Wang Fei seemed more severe. His wife Jiang Yan jumped from 24th floor on December 27 last year after learning of Wang's adultery, leaving a blog diary to recall her despair over the previous two months.

    People not only wrote characters with paint on the door of Wang's parents accusing them of killing Jiang, but contacted Saatchi & Saatchi, the company where Wang and his mistress worked. Later the company suspended them, and the pair later resigned.

    Wang sued the Tianya and Daqi websites in April for infringing his privacy and reputation, which was recognized as the first lawsuit against a Renrou search.

    "It has seriously hampered my normal life," Wang said, noting that he had received many mails and his parents were frequently harassed.

    "This is online violence," said a friend of Wang who only identified his surnamed as Jia, "netizens could blame him, but exposing his personal information is not right. After all he is not really a bad person, and most, if not all, of the netizens didn't really know what happened between the couple."

    A survey by the China Youth Daily last week showed that 79.9 percent of the 2,491 netizens polled believed that Renrou search should be regulated, 65.5 percent thought it might become a new way of venting anger and revenge, 64.6 percent said it infringing privacy, and 20.1 percent feared that they would become a target.

    Ayawawa also agreed that some targets were just scapegoats for netizens to vent their anger in daily life.

    "For instance, we see many disloyal husbands and adultery happens every day. Wang Fei's case gave us an occasion to attack those immoral," she said.

    Internet gave people a disguise, and power without the responsibility that should come with power. Nobody knows who you are and people don't have responsibility for their conducts, said an Internet professional, who declined to be name for fear that hemight suffer a roasting at the hands of the 'human flesh search engine'..

    "I am sure that many of the attackers of Wang Fei are his colleagues or even friends, who have access to Wang's personal information," he said, admitting that to achieving high clicking rates, some websites deliberately fanned people's fury and fueled their desire to search.

    "Netizens should be cautious online, especially when registering, don't give out your personal information," he added.

    According to the survey by China Youth Daily, 24.8 percent of those polled supported legislation to restrict Renrou searches.

    However, Chai Rong, a law professor with the Beijing Normal University (BNU), said that even if the law was drafted, it would be hard to enact.

    "Take Wang Fei's case, you can't decide who played a more important role in ferreting out his information. In fact, every netizen contributed to the result. As for the girl condemning the earthquake victims, her behavior deviated from social ethics and she would be accused anyway."

    Xia Yang, associate professor with the law school of BNU, suggested that real names be required when surfing on the Internet.

    "Currently we have no legislation protecting people's privacy in China," he said. "On the other hand, Chinese netizens are not mature enough to control their own online behavior."

    He pointed out that Renrou search nonetheless played an important role nowadays. For instance, after the earthquake, many anxious people contacted their relatives in Sichuan, where the epicenter was, in this way.

    "In Chinese we say 'more helpers make the job easier'. More people could help resolve the conundrum that no single person could handle," said Xia. "Actually Renrou search reflects development of society and the popularization of the Internet," said Xia.

    In a way, Renrou search could be a way of monitoring which brings to light some blind spots that governments and media might miss, like in the case of the "paper tiger", he said.

    Meanwhile, it could remind people to behave themselves all the time, if they don't want their personal information revealed in broad daylight, said Ayawawa.

    Mop is founding its union for Renrou search.

    "We started recruiting talents and rewarding them with virtual currency in May," said Yule with Mop. To date, more than 100 people have been selected for the activity. Standards for selection are capability and morality.

    Yule also revealed that they are drafting a Renrou search pact, which would be amended by legal experts.

    "It is our honor to help others seek happiness and our shame to leak out their privacy," he said.


Editor: Pliny Han
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