Scitech  From “Brother Sharp” to Kody Maxson

Crowd-sourcing identities, on both sides of the Pacific

On the evening of July 3, 2012, a bizarre incident occurred in Loudi, a city of about four million people in the Hunan province of China. On the bank of the Lian Shui river, 27-year-old Deng Jinjie was walking his two large dogs when he noticed a family of three people crying for help from the middle of the Lian Shui’s current. Deng jumped into the water to try to help, with two other people following his example. The two other good Samaritans helped the family out of the water, but Deng himself was not so lucky: when the rescue party and the family reached shore, he was not among them. The family that ostensibly owed their lives to Deng Jinjie immediately left the scene, offering no thanks to the other two rescuers, and displaying no concern for their saviour.

When the story broke on China’s Weibo services – microblogging websites akin to Twitter – it immediately went viral. The rage against the ungrateful family built through internet users’ (netizens) posts about the incident. “Human flesh search them,” cried thousands of netizens.

The expression “human flesh search” has an ugly ring to it in English, but it’s a confusing translation. It refers to the use of crowd-sourcing to find individuals; “human flesh” refers to the searchers, not the target. Often, such as in the case of Deng Jinjie’s drowning, the online masses, fueled by indignation, are seeking a type of vigilante justice. In this case, thousands of Weibo users in the city of Loudi cooperated to identify the family, who were forced to make amends, of a sort. Under police protection they apologized to a portrait of the deceased, kowtowed to Deng’s family, and handed his grieving mother an envelope full of cash. Without the power of the human flesh search, it is highly unlikely that their moral transgression would ever have been found out.

Some human flesh searches have been more philanthropic in nature. In 2010, a user on an amateur photography site posted the picture of a handsome and well-dressed homeless man in the city of Ningbo, which was later re-posted to a Weibo service. The man in question quickly became an explosively popular meme, gaining the name “Brother Sharp,” and began to be harassed on the street by middle-class teenagers wanting to take pictures with him. It was learned that he was seriously mentally ill. Eventually, he was reunited with his family in their village, and offered a social assistance allowance with the intent of reintegrating him into society. Their project now complete, flesh-searching netizens turned their attention to other anonymous pictures.

Another common focus is corrupt local government officials. For instance, netizens have investigated the social network profiles of women who flaunt luxury-brand goods and refer to being mistresses of party functionaries, whose salaries normally wouldn’t cover such extravagance. When this type of flesh search happens, the phenomenon takes on a unique political role. Tim Sedo, professor of Chinese history at Concordia University, characterizes it as “issue-based activism,” the outing of individual examples of corruption to criticize how the system facilitates graft.

This can have surprisingly contradictory effects on China’s authoritarian power structure. The Chinese conception of government, Sedo says, is divided between guo jia, which includes the concept of the nation state as well as the top-level leadership, and zheng fu, which represents the entire breadth of government between the leadership and the average citizen. While human flesh searches are often to the detriment of the zheng fu, they can actually be a legitimizing force for the guo jia. Often, the higher authorities will respond to Weibo-trending cases of corruption by punishing the exposed officials, and Chinese state media will even explicitly mention the role of human flesh searching in bringing such figures to justice.

Although the Chinese internet censors and overseers technically have the power to do such investigations on their own, Sedo explained, they don’t have the will or the need to. Human flesh searches include the people in the judicial process in a way that doesn’t fundamentally threaten the existing power structure. China’s secretive political elite ensures that top level officials are never targeted by netizens. And for many normal citizens, the prospect of being able to out corrupt politicians – even low level officials – is tantalizing.

Would such an ad hoc system of outing corrupt government officials exist in a country with due process? “Probably not,” Sedo says, suggesting that human flesh search is filling in a gap in Chinese society. Netizens can now post evidence of corruption to a Weibo service, and hope that the viral tornado of outrage will pick up the story. It isn’t a particularly reliable process, but it is more appealing than the petition system, the antiquated system of bringing grievances against the authorities that the Communist Party has deliberately neglected. In the absence of a consistent and workable legal system, one that is mostly impervious to the influence of patronage, the collective-powered human flesh search can cut down even well-connected government officials.

Although it is a fascinating process for Westerners to watch, observers on this side of the Pacific have often misunderstood the human flesh search, or have tried to force it into the typical American narrative, which is perpetually concerned with how and when China will “democratize.”

“When human rights advocates look at this stuff and call it nascent democratization, they get it wrong,” Sedo said. China’s young generation is used to running well ahead of the state internet censor – in fact, the Weibo systems host surprisingly open political conversations. But their focus, Sedo said, seems to be on correcting mistakes, not on replacing the Party or the system that supports it. Often, the human flesh searches are not about politics at all, but rather about good or bad expressions of national character, such as in the case of the drowning of Deng Jinjie.

Although the human flesh search has been observed most frequently in China, variants have been practiced occasionally elsewhere in East Asia, and, increasingly, in the West. Anonymous, the nebulous hacktivist group – some call it a subculture – uses ‘doxing,’ a term invented to describe the process of crowd-sourcing individuals’ personal information with the intent of publishing it publicly on the internet. Doxing uses the same mechanism as human flesh search, but has a narrower objective: it has so far only been used to expose people whom Anonymous sees as deserving of punishment. In the past, this has included online pedophiles, racist commenters on online forums, and the suspected bully who elicited compromising photographs from Amanda Todd, a 15-year-old from outside Vancouver who committed suicide on October 10, 2012.

Unfortunately, Anonymous initially released a false dox (as a noun, it refers to a dossier of personal information). Although they got a real name – Kody Maxson, a man with some dubious online history – Maxson wasn’t necessarily the culprit in the Amanda Todd case. Furthermore, the dossier was filled with false information, one piece of which led to an innocent woman’s house in New Westminster, a suburb of Vancouver. She phoned the police after receiving death threats at her address.

Anonymous’ false dox raises serious questions about the effectiveness and the ethical implications of crowd-sourcing private information. Although the innocent woman was never harmed, the false outing demonstrates the limitations of dox and human flesh search, which is a problem shared with much of the internet: a combination of excitement and anonymity encourages people to pass along information they aren’t necessarily sure of, and false leads can go viral well before they are fully investigated. Vice and Jezebel reported Anonymous’ dox as fact, before everyone realized that the phone number, street address, and email addresses were false, and worse, that they could lead would-be vigilantes to the homes and lives of unrelated, innocent people.

To the ardent defenders of individual liberty, being punished by a jury of anonymous, online peers is an ominous prospect.  This form of crowd-sourced justice has already proven itself to be both collectively gratifying but individually dangerous. While it serves myriad purposes in China, where it both challenges and reinforces existing power structures, its use in North America has been more exclusively punitive. Either way, people seem eager to use the internet to collectivize their moral sense and shape society accordingly.