Human flesh search engine

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Human flesh search engine (Chinese : 人肉搜索 ; pinyin :Rénròu Sōusuǒ) is a Chinese term for the phenomenon of distributed researching using Internet media such as blogs and forums. Internet media, namely dedicated websites and Internet forums, are in fact platforms that enable the broadcast of request and action plans concerning human flesh search and that allow the sharing of online and offline search results. Human flesh search has two eminent characteristics. First, it involves strong offline elements including information acquisition through offline channels and other types of offline activism. Second, it always relies on voluntary crowd sourcing: Web users gather together to share information, conduct investigations, and perform other actions concerning people or events of common interest. [1]


Human flesh search engine is similar to the concept of "doxing". 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. [2] [3] More recent analyses, however, have shown that it is also used for a number of other reasons, including exposing government corruption, [4] 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 Society paper A Study of the Human Flesh Search Engine: Crowd-Powered Expansion of Online Knowledge. [1]

The system is based on massive human collaboration. The name refers both to the use of knowledge contributed by human beings through social networking, and to 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. [5] 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 on 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. [6] [7]


An early human flesh search dated back to March 2006, when netizens on Tianya Club collaborated to identify an Internet celebrity named "Poison" (simplified Chinese:毒药; traditional Chinese:毒藥; pinyin: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. [1]

Over the years, the human flesh search was repeatedly deployed, sometimes fueling moral crusades against socially unacceptable behaviors, such as political corruption, extramarital affairs, animal cruelties or perceived betrayal/hostilities towards the Chinese nation. Individuals on the receiving end often have their real-life identities or private information made public, and can be subjected to harassment such as hate mails/calls, death threats, graffiti and social humiliation. Organizations can be subjected to coordinated 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." [8]

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. [9]

On the one hand, human flesh search by netizens is a manifestation of freedom of speech. It is also the supervisory right given by Article 41 of the Chinese Constitution. On the other hand, human flesh search leads to the disclosure of ordinary people's names, identities, family addresses and other personal data. The Chinese government has an official stance on it – human flesh search engines violate privacy laws.

Some local governments have made human flesh search engines illegal by stating that posting the private information of another will result in a fine of 5000RMB. [10] But all in all, the Chinese government does little to punish such cases; some might even say the government encourages it by allowing such widespread behavior to go unchecked.

From March 1, 2020, the People’s Republic of China’s "Regulations on the Ecological Governance of Online Information Content" has been implemented, clarifying that users and producers of online information content services and platforms must not engage in online violence, doxing, deep forgery, data fraud, account manipulation and other Illegal activities [11]

In film and television

Notable examples

See also

Related Research Articles

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Internet privacy

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Little Fatty

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<i>Caught in the Web</i> 2012 film

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  1. 1 2 3 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. 43 (8): 45–53. doi:10.1109/MC.2010.216. ISSN   0018-9162.
  2. Fletcher, Hannah (June 25, 2008). "Human flesh search engines: Chinese vigilantes that hunt victims on the web". The Times . Archived from the original on March 4, 2009.
  3. Branigan, Tania (March 24, 2010). "How China's internet generation broke the silence". The Guardian.
  4. Cheong, Pauline Hope; Gong, Jie (2010). "Cyber vigilantism, transmedia collective intelligence, and civic participation". Chinese Journal of Communication. 3 (4): 471–487. doi:10.1080/17544750.2010.516580.
  5. Downey, Tom (March 3, 2010). "China's Cyberposse". The New York Times.
  6. Sterling, Bruce (March 7, 2010). "Human-flesh search engines — renrou sousuo yinqing". Wired.
  7. Zhang, Yang; Gao, Hong (April 2016). "Human Flesh Search Engine and Online Privacy". Science and Engineering Ethics. 22 (2): 601–604. doi:10.1007/s11948-015-9672-y. PMID   26115757.
  8. Lagerkvist, p. 60-61.
  9. McDonald, Mark (December 19, 2008). "Chinese court fines Web user in 'cyber-violence' case". The New York Times.
  10. "Xuzhou legislation explicitly prohibits human flesh search. The maximum fine is 5,000 RMB". January 19, 2009.
  11. "《网络信息内容生态治理规定》明确不得开展人肉搜索、流量造假等违法活动". 中国政府网. 新华社. 2019-12-21. Archived from the original on 2020-11-23. Retrieved 2020-02-29.
  12. 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.
  13. Hatton, Celia (January 28, 2014). "China's Internet Vigilantes and the 'Human Flesh Search Engine'". BBC.

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