Earlier this week, a senior Chinese official called for the government to persist in stamping the so-called “human flesh search.” This practice usually involves an internet user posting a photograph of an unknown person suspected of some illegal or immoral action. From there, the online community can rapidly dig up not only the person’s name, but his or her employer, address, phone number, and other personal details.
In an interview with Global Times (reprinted by People’s Daily), Liu Zhengrong, a senior official at China’s State Internet Information Office, spoke out against human flesh searching. Liu cited the recent case of a young girl who was accused of stealing and targeted by online vigilantes. After having her personal information exposed online, the girl drowned herself. Citing this example, Liu argued that human flesh searches are both immoral and illegal. He called on websites to take responsibility for self-management in order to discover similar activities and shut them down. Liu promised that the government will be vigilant in controlling human flesh searches and other “violent online activities.”
Liu has also made very similar comments regarding the government crackdown on online rumors. In an interview with the Global Times, Liu insisted that the internet cannot be a lawless space — the exact same phrase he used when discussing the need to prevent human flesh searches. He also described online rumors as both illegal and immoral, thus justifying the government’s intervention to prevent them. Finally, in Liu’s estimation, both human flesh searches and online rumors cause two great harms: they infringe upon citizen’s legal rights (including the right to privacy), and they disrupt social order.
China’s internet management is a subject of much debate in Western media. Generally, the focus is on China’s censorship policies, which mandate that online companies (especially those hosting microblogs) employ small armies of censors to comb through and delete improper postings. However, Liu does have a point when he argues that some internet activity is actively harmful and illegal. Human flesh searches are most famous in Western media for their use in identifying and criticizing corrupt Chinese government officials, which gives these activities a veneer of heroism. Yet this sort of vigilante justice can be exceedingly dangerous.
In the U.S., for example, in the aftermath of the Boston bombings, social media was used to falsely accuse Brown student Sunil Tripathi of being behind the attack. Alexis Madrigal at The Atlantic explored the mistake, calling it a “misinformation disaster.” Two other men who were identified as suspicious by social media commentators found their picture on the front page of the New York Post. In the aftermath, Western media such as the BBC began to explore the role of “crowd sourced investigations,” where internet vigilantes identify suspects and accuse them of crimes. While many experts disapprove of these actions, “there’s nothing you can do about it,” one expert told the BBC. “You can’t lock down the internet.”
China, of course, is trying to do just that. Last year, speaking with China Daily, Liu Zhengrong bragged that in its efforts to crack down on online rumors, the government had removed 210,000 posts and shut down 42 websites from mid-March to mid-April alone. The problem with China’s system that the government has carte blanche to decide what qualifies as a harmful rumor. When asked how officials could tell if someone was intentionally spreading false information, Liu told the Global Times that it is obvious — when someone passes along information that is contrary to common sense, they must have malicious intentions. The Party alone decides what information violates common sense, whether it’s a single candle emoticon posted on the anniversary of the Tiananmen incident or a posting that iodized salt can help prevent radiation poisoning (which caused a run on salt in the aftermath of the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan).
For all China’s attempts to control internet activity, human flesh searches and online rumors aren’t going anywhere. Back in September, Chinese officials arrested a 16-year-old student for spreading rumors online. In retaliation, netizens began digging into the lives of local government and police officials. As a result, police chief Bai Yongqiang was reportedly suspended after the online community unearthed an old court document accusing him of bribery. The teenager was released after a week in custody. A teenager accused of spreading rumors being defended by an online human flesh search campaign — that must have really given Liu a headache.
In China, as in the West, there is a wealth of harmful internet activities. Human flesh search engines or crowd-sourced investigations can target and destroy innocent lives. Online rumors can spread like wildfire and be extremely hurtful. Still, Liu’s double emphasis on protecting people’s legal rights and upholding social stability shows the Chinese government’s twin concerns: preventing harm to private citizens, but also preventing online activities from destabilizing China’s government. These two goals, blended together, undermine the government’s credibility on internet management. Netizens can never be sure which taboo their posts have violated.