China’s vir­tual vig­i­lantes bor­der on cy­ber bul­ly­ing

Global Times – Metro Shanghai - - PULSE - By Zhou Ping

Wang Jian never would have imag­ined the reper­cus­sions he was about to en­dure the mo­ment he hit a dog with an iron bar.

Within four hours of the in­ci­dent, the 37-year-old Urumqi man’s en­tire per­sonal life – in­clud­ing his name, phone num­ber, home ad­dress and em­ployer – were up­loaded on­line. Within 24 hours, Wang had been in­un­dated by more than 3,000 calls from an­gry In­ter­net users across the coun­try ac­cus­ing him of an­i­mal cru­elty.

What Wang ex­pe­ri­enced was a vir­tual ver­sion of vig­i­lan­tism, whereby thou­sands of In­ter­net users posse-up to ex­pose those sus­pected of wrong­do­ing. The Chi­nese nomen­cla­ture for this is “hu­man flesh search,” and it can be a dou­ble-edged sword.

Ear­lier this month, a fe­male driver in Chengdu was vi­ciously beaten by an­other driver af­ter cut­ting him off. Ini­tial con­dem­na­tion fell on the man for his “road rage,” but af­ter his own dash­cam footage was shared, ne­ti­zens turned their rage to­ward the woman. A hu­man flesh search re­vealed that she had 20 pre­vi­ous traf­fic vi­o­la­tions for danger­ous driv­ing.

In the old days of vig­i­lan­tism, a posse (Latin for “power of the com­mu­nity”) was of­ten con­scripted to pur­sue out­laws on be­half of au­thor­i­ties. With the ad­vent of tech­nol­ogy, cit­i­zen en­force­ment of com­mon law has tran­si­tioned on­line, with ne­ti­zens be­com­ing the new lynch mobs and so­cial me­dia their ex­e­cu­tion cham­bers. A smart­phone is a rope and a WeChat ac­count a badge in the hu­man flesh search mili­tia.

Party mem­bers are not ex­empt from China’s crowd­pow­ered jus­tice. Last sum­mer in Shang­hai, a man rid­ing Metro Line 9 was caught on video touch­ing the ex­posed thigh of a fe­male uni­ver­sity stu­dent dressed in short-shorts. Af­ter the video went vi­ral, a man­hunt to track down the “metro mo­lester’s” iden­tity ex­posed him as Wang Qikang, a se­nior staff mem­ber at a State-owned com­pany, who was even­tu­ally dis­ci­plined and dis­missed from the Party.

Not un­like the cowl of some hooded ex­e­cu­tioner, the In­ter­net al­lows con­cerned ne­ti­zens to cloak them­selves in anonymity while pur­su­ing trans­gres­sors. But de­spite their ini­tial right­eous in­ten­tions, in ev­ery in­ci­dent there seems to be a point when dox­ing goes too far.

In the in­stance of Wang Qikang, his wife’s in­for­ma­tion was also shared on the in­ter­webs, adding to the grief that she was surely al­ready try­ing to cope with. Even the stu­dent whom Wang fon­dled said she felt even more vi­o­lated by hav­ing been pub­licly rec­og­nized on her cam­pus from the em­bar­rass­ing video.

Some­times an ap­peal on so­cial me­dia for jus­tice can have tragic con­se­quences be­yond what the vig­i­lantes in­tended. In 2013, a Guang­dong cloth­ing ven­dor sus­pected that a cus­tomer had stolen a dress from her shop. She up­loaded a screen­shot from her sur­veil­lance sys­tem and made a hue and cry for ne­ti­zens to as­sist in the “thief’s” ap­pre­hen­sion. The al­leged crim­i­nal turned out to be a se­nior high school stu­dent who, un­able to bear the en­su­ing stig­ma­tism, com­mit­ted sui­cide.

Un­for­tu­nately, as many hu­man flesh searches are in­stances of blind hys­ter­ics as they are blind jus­tice. Be­cause the de­ceased high school girl’s guilt was never determined, the shop owner was sen­tenced to a year in pri­son and had to pay her be­reaved fam­ily 120,000 yuan ($19,340) in com­pen­sa­tion.

And what of Wang Jian, the so-called dog beater? It turns out that he was just pro­tect­ing his young son from a pack of ag­gres­sive street curs. A wit­ness was be­lieved to take of­fence to Wang’s de­fense, cap­tured the beat­ing on his mo­bile and up­loaded it onto WeChat Mo­ments. A po­lice­woman who saw the pic­tures sup­pos­edly used her re­sources to un­cover Wang’s per­sonal in­for­ma­tion, which she shared on her own Weibo, prompt­ing it to go vi­ral.

There’s a fine line be­tween on­line ac­tivism and cy­ber bul­ly­ing, and de­spite the ad­van­tages of so­cial me­dia, the next time you post some­one’s pic­ture on­line along with a call for a hu­man flesh search, you might first give some thought to how it will af­fect that per­son’s life, as well as your own.

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