12:06pm May 2, 2013

Reddit, the Human Search Engine & Bullying People Online in China


This post originally appeared in Más Wired.

An interesting cultural development on the Internet in China is the “human-flesh search engine.” It’s a site notorious for ripping apart people, spreading gossip, and being part of the nature of the Internet. However, is the human search engine ever going to come to the United States and other regions of the Internet?

This isn’t Google-powered by corpses or anything as grotesque as it sounds. The engine is merely crowd-sourcing to acquire and disseminate information. Its functions have been numerous, with strong repercussions in the real world. Pop star Edison Chen’s sex photos went viral almost overnight, tarnishing his, and the careers of numerous girls in the photographs. Levitating Chinese government officials become memes, and people have been attacked for being “race traitors” through the machine. It’s an interesting phenomenon in China, but is it entirely foreign outside the country?

Hunting down and “doxxing” people on there Internet is not new; it’s been done plenty of times before to threaten people or force them to bargain for the private information back. Readers might recall Jessi Slaughter, the pre-teen girl who was hunted to the corners of the Internet after making a series of YouTube videos which were brought to the attention of the 4Chan community. However, a recent “doxxing” by Reddit has gotten the attention of many — and is comparable to human flesh engine hunts, but it is debatable as to whether the phenomena has escaped China, as well as whether or not this machine is too aggressive for its own good.

meme post, “Confession Bear,” where a Reddit user posted a confession to supposedly murdering his sister’s drug-addicted boyfriend sparked something into motion among Reddit’s community. The guy was then traced down through information mentioned by his Reddit account, allowing Internet users to find out his birthday, previous jobs, military rank, and Facebook profile. He deleted the profile and Reddit account in an effort to get people off of his back, but the story spread to mainstream Internet news, and seems to be an example of the “flesh engine” coming to the States. But it’s different than the Chinese engine; the netizen-crafted search machine in China, this was a community effort on a smaller scale, with little if any evidence that this man actually did what he says he did to his sister’s boyfriend.

Both the Chinese engine and Reddit’s users share multiple characteristics – of most importance and interest though, is a protective attitude toward the entity from which they live. The majority of Reddit is very protective of its own culture, as is the Chinese engine. Both love their “flagship.” The leadership and discourse against the norm in said culture, though, are equally up for attack. Alexis Ohanian, Reddit co-founder, recently spoke out against the culture that he noticed on Reddit and other Internet sites – and was chewed out across Reddit. Readers might also recall the ViolentAcrez debacle; Reddit was, generally, protective of this man. There was discourse against him, but the majority of the site and indeed it’s leadership seemed to be okay with him.

The exact same phenomena occur in the Chinese engine. There is no hesitation to reveal and attack people who harm Chinese society, and even the elites are fair game for targets. However, turning against the culture of China may invoke the wrath of angry netizens.

So, has the Chinese engine culture left China and gone West?

No, not necessisarily. As noted above, the 4Chan communities are notorious for doing this kind of stuff, at least in the past, and Reddit does it as well. Whether or not their efforts are for the good of something or not is debatable, and varies on a case by case basis. Kenny Glenn was hunted down by the Internet after posting up videos of himself abusing his family cats – the efforts of “/b/tards” liberated the cat, tracked Kenny and his family down, and harassed the kid pretty well. A testament to the effort of the Internet to ring justice on the abuser still stands here. However, it seems that the Reddit engine’s anger came about with no solid evidence that this Confession Bear is, indeed, a confession to a crime. There has been no evidence otherwise that this individual did commit a crime. Indeed, the Reddit engine has hunted down the wrong person previously.

Reddit also has had plenty of confession threads posted in the past where users have admitted to rape and other criminal activities, but it has never gone after users like this before. Human-powered search seem to be very limited in scope, region (in reference to a website. Eg: 4chan’s human engine, Reddit’s human engine), and in targets. The Chinese machine does not restrict itself to one website – and is much more volatile. That said, though, all of these engines, be they website-scale or state-scale seem to be very defensive of their culture.

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