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Human flesh search engine

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Title: Human flesh search engine  
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Subject: Internet vigilantism, Li Gang incident, Search aggregator, Internet in China, Protest and dissent in China
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Human flesh search engine

Human flesh search engine (Chinese: 人肉搜索; pinyin: Rénròu Sōusuǒ) is the Chinese terminology for the phenomenon of distributed researching using Internet media such as blogs and forums. It is similar to the concept of "doxing", a practice often associated with Anonymous. Both human flesh search engine and doxing have generally been stigmatized as being for the purpose of identifying and exposing individuals to public humiliation, sometimes out of vigilantism, nationalist or patriotic sentiments, or to break the Internet censorship in the People's Republic of China.[1][2] More recent analyses, however, have shown that it is also used for a number of other reasons, including exposing government corruption, identifying hit and run drivers, and exposing scientific fraud, as well as for more "entertainment" related items such as identifying people seen in pictures. A categorization of hundreds of Human flesh search (HFS) episodes can be found in the 2010 IEEE Computer paper A Study of the Human Flesh Search Engine: Crowd-Powered Expansion of Online Knowledge.[3]

The system is based on massive human collaboration. The name refers both to the use of knowledge contributed by human beings through social networking, as well as the fact that the searches are usually dedicated to finding the identity of a human being who has committed some sort of offense or social breach online.[4] People conducting such research are commonly referred to collectively as "Human Flesh Search Engines".

Because of the convenient and efficient nature of information sharing in cyberspace, the Human Flesh Search is often used to acquire information usually difficult or impossible to find by other conventional means (such as a library or web search engines). Such information, once available, can be rapidly distributed to hundreds of websites, making it an extremely powerful mass medium. The purposes of human flesh search vary from providing technical/professional Q&A support, to revealing private/classified information about specific individuals or organizations (therefore breaching the internet confidentiality and anonymity). Because personal knowledge or unofficial (sometimes illegal) access are frequently depended upon to acquire this information, the reliability and accuracy of such searches often vary.


The term originated from the Mop forums in 2001, coined by Mop to describe "a search that was human-powered rather than computer-driven". The original human flesh search engine was a subforum on Mop similar to a question-and-answer (Q&A) site, focusing on entertainment related questions. Gradually, the definition of the term evolved from not just a search by humans, but also a search of humans.[5]


An early human flesh search dated back to March 2006, when netizens on Tianya Club collaborated to identify an Internet celebrity named "Poison" (S: 毒药, T: 毒藥, P: dúyào). The man was found out to be a high-level government official.

However, Fei-Yue Wang et al. state that the earliest HFS search was in 2001, "when a user posted a photo of a young woman on a Chinese online forum..., and claimed she was his girlfriend." She was eventually identified as a minor celebrity and the initial claim was discredited.[3]

Over the years, the human flesh search was repeatedly deployed, sometimes fueling cyber-attacks.

The human flesh search engine has also been deployed for amusement. Johan Lagerkvist, author of After the Internet, Before Democracy: Competing Norms in Chinese Media and Society, said that the Little Fatty meme, in which pictures of a teenager were photoshopped on film posters without the boy's permission, demonstrated that the human flesh search engine "can also be directed against society's subaltern and the powerless" and that "[t]his raises important issues of the legitimate right to privacy, defamation, and slander."[6]

The Baojia system of community rule-of-law in ancient China bears strong similarities with human flesh search. Both are based on some form of vigilantism.

Stance of the People's Republic of China

In December 2008, The People's Court in Beijing called it an alarming phenomenon because of its implications in "cyberviolence" and violations of privacy law.[7]

In film

Caught in the Web is a film by Chen Kaige which explores fictional instances of use of the human flesh search engine.[8]

Notable examples

  • Li Gang incident: On October 16, 2010, a drunk-driving student hit a pair of university students while driving inside Hebei University, with one fatality, and was reported to have shouted “Sue me if you dare, my dad is Li Gang!” when apprehended. Following the spread of the news on Chinese internet forums, the driver's identity was revealed as Li Qiming, the son of the deputy director of the local public security bureau.

See also


  1. ^ Fletcher, Hannah (June 25, 2008). "Human flesh search engines: Chinese vigilantes that hunt victims on the web".  
  2. ^ Branigan, Tania (March 24, 2010). "How China's internet generation broke the silence".  
  3. ^ a b Wang, Fei-Yue; Zeng, Daniel; Hendler, James A.; Zhang, Qingpeng; Feng, Zhuo; Gao, Yanqing; Wang, Hui; Lai, Guanpi (August 2010). "A Study of the Human Flesh Search Engine: Crowd-Powered Expansion of Online Knowledge". Computer (IEEE Computer Society) 43 (8): 45–53.  
  4. ^ Downey, Tom (March 3, 2010). "China's Cyberposse". The New York Times. 
  5. ^ Sterling, Bruce (March 7, 2010). "Human-flesh search engines — renrou sousuo yinqing". Wired. 
  6. ^ Lagerkvist, p. 60-61.
  7. ^ McDonald, Mark (December 19, 2008). "Chinese court fines Web user in 'cyber-violence' case". The New York Times. 
  8. ^ Clare Pennington (September 14, 2012). "China, Framed by the Cinema and the Web: ‘Caught in the Web,’ on Web Searches in China". The New York Times. Retrieved September 18, 2012. 

Further reading

  • Bing Wang, Bonan Hou, Yiping Yao, Laibin Yan. Human Flesh Search Model Incorporating Network Expansion and GOSSIP with Feedback. 2009 13th IEEE/ACM International Symposium on Distributed Simulation and Real Time Applications (DS-RT 2009): 82-88.
  • MacKinnon, Rebecca (February 26, 2009). "From Red Guards to Cyber-vigilantism to where next?". RConversation. 
  • Capone, Vincent. The Human Flesh Search Engine: Democracy, Censorship, and Political Participation in Twenty-First Century China. ScholarWorks University of Massachusetts Boston. 2010.
  • Levine, Jessi. [1]. What Is a 'Human Flesh Search,' and How Is It Changing China? The Atlantic. 2012.

External links

  • Google Human Flesh Search (April Fools Joke) (Chinese)
  • 'Human Flesh Search' a crime? China Daily, August 27, 2008
  • 'From flash mob to lynch mob' CNN, June 5, 2007
  • 'Human Flesh Search Engines’ Set Their Sights on Official Misbehavior Sky Canaves, The Wall Street Journal, December 29, 2008
  • TVO's Search Engine podcast on The Human Flesh Search Engine In the absence of a fair and open judicial system, Chinese Netizens have become digital vigilantes. August 11, 2009
  • Human Flesh Search Engine Research Blog
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