Friday, March 27, 2009

Human flesh search invasion

Unlike conventional search engines, human flesh search engine uses internet resources and conventional search engines such as Google and Baidu as databases, whereas thousands of individuals with different specialities are the searching algorithms. One person's result can be the others' keyword: a video posted online can tell the location of the event took place by analyzing the background and its uploading IP address; model of the video that used to take the clip narrows down the target in specific communities... The engine works scary efficiently that most of the cases were concluded within a week.

The human flesh search was stared in 2001 in China when a guy posted a girl's photo alleging that she was his girlfriend. Soon the identity of the girl was dug out and her personal information was publicized as proof that he was lying. Later on, the cat abuse event in 2006, an old guy was beaten up by a drunk in 2007 and a woman committed suicide because of her husband's betrayal in 2008, etc., in every scenario, guilty or innocent, targets were lynched by exposing them to the baleful publicity.

The idea of human flesh search is spreading out and is invading Taiwan, maybe the world, insensibly. Here are the two cases from Taiwan recently:

Case 1: Second hand DSLR
A teacher wanted to sell a second hand DSLR and found a candidate buyer whose occupation is architecture. The trade was concluded after an hour inspection of the item by the architect, they both went home with what they wanted. A few days later, the architect posted an article online in which he accused the teacher of selling him a defective DSLR and had no intention to take responsibility. Based on the article, members of that community embarked a human flesh search and found out the identity of the teacher. Within a day, all personal information of the teacher such as real name, websites, occupation, addresses, phone number and etc. were exposed online. Later, the teacher stood up for his rights and told his version of the story. All of a sudden, the situation was in favor of the teacher and a human flesh search on the architect was conducted rampantly. Bitter words engulfed the architect's websites and flowed to websites that the architect marked as friends after shutting down the comments feature of his websites. The story ended after a series of apologies from the teacher and the architect especially.

Case 2: The ghost island
"Last week, opposition Democratic Progressive Party lawmaker Kuan Bi-ling accused Kuo of having posted articles describing Taiwan as a "ghost island" and native Taiwanese as "redneck" and "Japanese pirates" under the alias of Fan Lan-chin. Kuo denied Fan was his pen name, and the articles were his work"(excerpted from Taiwan News). Cross validation of all factors by netizen indicate that Kuo Kuan-ying is Fan Lan-Chin and Kuo confessed on Mar. 23rd.

The purpose of human flesh search is to dig out the fact and help those vulnerable minority. However, it can be easily misdirected due to the difficulty of validation of information provided in the virtual world. Human flesh search reflects the majority's moral perception on the event (ex: one shouldn't sell a defected item even though it was a second hand), however, morality is easily clouded by emotions from oneself and the crowd. Ironically, in order to restore the justice of morality, human flesh search infringes target's privacy immorally. In the name of justice these vigilantes become lynch mobs, human flesh search is a mean to achieve self-moral satisfaction.

"In the first case involving cyberviolence and a "human flesh search engine" in China, a court has fined a Web site and an Internet user for posting personal and intimate details about an unfaithful husband, his mistress and a spurned wife who committed suicide" (excerpted from International Herald Tribune). In December 2008, The People's Court in Beijing called the human flesh search an alarming phenomenon because it is causing cyberviolence and privacy law violation. The power and influences of human flesh search have caught attentions in China whereas the idea is still digesting here in Taiwan. Privacy infringement was overlooked while netizen in Taiwan felt contributed to a second hand DSLR trading argument; members of DPP celebrated for the triumph of exposing an ineligible KMT diplomat.

If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the article.

It would be good to publish a set of ethical rules for a coordinated human search effort. For example: if a video of abuse of some kind were posted, and then everyone involved in the search found out the details -- i.e. where, when and then forwarded the information to police, but there is a standard understanding and expectation of what will be posted online publicly.

In the same way when some child is lost in the woods, it is good to work together as a community to quickly cover all of the terrain. But once the child is found, the individuals in the search then do not go make decisions to dispense their own brand of justice to whomever (e.g. parents) they deemed was culpable for allowing the child to get lost.

Hanjié said...

In general, a human flesh search is activated in circumstances like animal abuse cases or a driver flees from a drunk-driving car accident and etc. Under such circumstances, often times netizen involved in the search are emotionally provoked (that's one of the reasons why it's so effecitve) and the angry emotion overshadows the original intention of the search. In the end of the search, the majority become lynching afficionado's whereas the minority either succumb to the majority verdict or become the next human search candidate.

Of course, human flesh search is not pure evil, it could be a life saving operation in a kidnapping event. A set of ethical rules for a coordinated human search efforts might be able to contain the privacy infringement but it also might weaken the power of the search.

The bottom line is that as long as "humans" are involved, the idea will remain controversial.