The Human Flesh Search Engine is a recent, unique phenomenon on the Chinese internet. Comprising thousands of forum and entertainment websites and mobilizing the overwhelming number of Chinese internet users, or netizens (网民), the search engine is able to quickly find obscure information and identify seemingly anonymous internet personalities. Through clever investigative work, online vigilantes hunt down an individual's identity with the goal of bringing about "justice" - often getting the individual fired, shamed, or simply punished.
Comprised of thousands of blogs, microblogs, online forums, and Twitter-esque Chinese websites, the Human Flesh Search Engine is a phrase that encompasses the sheer power that the Chinese internet holds, a power that is shaped from the overwhelming number of internet netizens and their ability to use the internet as a means for research to uncover and spread various stories, as well as use the internet as a medium for releasing anger over social injustices that go unnoticed offline and by the Communist government.
The term was first coined in 2001 to describe a search engine-based website that used human collaboration to uncover information rather than machines or computer-based search processes. However, its use became widespread after 2006 when a video of an anonymous woman crushing a kitten with her shoe was posted to a Chinese website. Chinese web users quickly discerned the woman’s identity and used this information to harass the woman, prompting government involvement, leading to the woman's job termination.
The Human Flesh Search Engine brings into question the very issue of anonymity on the internet. On one side of the coin you have the netizens who frequent these forums and do the investigative work that empowers the vigilante search engine. These netizens are anonymous, using forum names and IM accounts that do not require personal verification. On the other side you have the individuals who are being "brought to justice" by these netizens: the Kitten Killer of Hangzhou, ChinaBounder, Grace Wang, etc. These individuals become notorious throughout the Chinese internet community overnight, and their personal information is uncovered and displayed for all to see. Lobsang Gendun's home address, phone number, as well as a satellite images of his neighborhood and an image of his house were posted to a Chinese forum and were used to send threatening phone calls.
In the past anonymity was a driving force that drew people to the internet. Peter Steiner's famous cartoon (depicted below) from the New Yorker (July 5, 1993) comments on this anonymity: that on the internet, you can be whomever you choose, and it's difficult to and often times nearly impossible to discern someone's true identity online. However Chinese netizens have rightfully amended the cartoon's adage to read "on the internet, everybody knows you're a dog," commenting that individuals who bring shame or injustice to themselves or others on the internet can't hide for long.
The purpose of this website is to collate my past and ongoing research into the subject matter into one place. The website will keep readers up to date with advancements in the Human Flesh Search Engine in mainland China as well as critique and share news articles and stories of how the search engine is viewed in western media. I felt a blog was the best way to capture this intent because of the chronological form a blog takes which is a great means to depict evolution of this research matter over time.
My thesis examines cases of the search engine, focusing specifically on the themes of animal abuse, government corruption, and Chinese traitors. Within these contexts I discuss the pervasive issue of anonymity. Those exposed through the search engine lose all anonymity, with personal information displayed to people all over the world. On the other hand, those who seek and reveal this information have the luxury to hide behind aliases. Recently this issue has sparked debate in the Chinese legal system. I make connections to the Cultural Revolution era of Chinese history, and in particular to the movement of big-character posters which like the search engine, mobilized large groups of people from all walks of society. These netizens have even been referred to as modern-day Red Guards for their cyber-vigilantism. As the internet in China continues to expand and become accessible to the population, it is argued that the power of the Human Flesh Search Engine will need to be reined in.