China is experimenting with a new Internet “tool”: the Human Flesh Search Engine (HFSE) is a “search engine” run by human power where thousands of volunteer cybervigilantes unite to expose the personal details of perceived wrongdoers and publish them online.
Some Chinese netizens have already experienced the transition from anonymous Internet user to national hate figure: the “Kitten Killer of Hangzhou” (aka Wang Jue) uploaded a video of herself crushing a small cat to death under her high heels. She was identified by Chinese netizens who recognized the backdrop to the video and traced the shoes back to a purchase made on eBay.
The Chinese courts are now involved as well: an advertising executive (Wang Fei) who fell victim to HFSE after his wife’s suicide is suing two leading Internet portals that hosted the hunt for his identity as well as an individual for defamation and violating his privacy. In December a Beijing court ruled that Wang Fei’s reputation had been damaged both by the person who posted diary excerpts online and by the internet company that hosted the comments.
The phenomena is even reaching government spheres: China’s transport ministry fired an official for manhandling an 11-year-old girl at a local restaurant, after Internet users posted images and his personal details online.