Even in a modern metropolis such as Shanghai, it was only two decades ago that those awaiting execution would first be driven around the city on the back of a truck, with placards hanging around their neck describing the condemned’s offence.
Fast forward to last week, when a young man, believed to be in his early 20’s, was photographed at Nanjing South Railway Station, while inappropriately touching a 10-year-old girl. The photograph became a sensation online and spread throughout Weibo (China’s most popular micro-blogging space), with users reviling the young man and his family for such open harassment of a child.
While initially dissimilar, the two situations in actual fact have much in common.
As a result of the photographs going viral across China, the police have warned of the potential negative impact on the young girl. It has been revealed by authorities that the girl was adopted, and that they are “looking into whether the family are even qualified to have adopted her”. The message being stressed to the public is an awareness of her privacy and of the dangers mass publicity of the case could bring to her.
Vigilant netizens, however, took it upon themselves to “track-down” the young man in the pictures. Unfortunately, they got the wrong guy, who later commented, “More than anything, it has been a hassle to explain myself”, to friends, colleagues, family members and classmates he apparently had not spoken to in years, after becoming aware that he was being blamed.
As noted above, the public shaming of people who have done wrong, throughout history, always been a popular way to bring justice upon wrongdoers. In the modern era, the term “human flesh search engine” (人肉搜索) was described by The Times Online in 2008 as the phenomenon whereby, “netizens become cyber-vigilantes and online communities turn into the world’s largest lynch mobs”.
The practice that could also be described as humans, as opposed to computers, searching for other humans online en masse, has been denounced as just having the purpose of exposing individuals to public humiliation; actions that not only endanger personal privacy but can also interfere with the course of justice. Not only have such manhunts been used to publicly humiliate those whom the Internet deems “wrongdoers”, moreover it has been a tool to expose government corruption, identify hit and run drivers and expose fraud. The People’s Court in Beijing noted it as being an “alarming phenomenon”, on account of “implications of cyber violence and privacy law”.
Somewhat similar to “trial by media”, a phrase popularised in the late 20th Century, which helped people to describe the effects of media and television on criminal proceedings, “human flesh search engine” is our modern understanding of the impact of social media and viral content on today’s society.