Thursday, June 01, 2006

Internet vigilantes in China

Further to my post earlier this evening about China's legal system as depicted in The Story of Qiu Ju (秋菊打官司), I saw a Slashdot comment thread about a New York Times/International Herald Tribune article by Howard French, entitled "Mob rule on China's Internet: The keyboard as weapon."

It's about "Internet hunting" (not sure of the Chinese), a form of mob vigilanteism spurred by Internet bulletin boards and anger over criminal acts or bad behavior. From the article:
"[It's a] growing phenomenon the Chinese call Internet hunting, in which morality lessons are administered by online throngs and where anonymous Web users come together to investigate others and mete out punishment for offenses real and imagined.

In recent cases, people have scrutinized husbands suspected of cheating on their wives, fraud on Internet auction sites, the secret lives of celebrities and unsolved crimes. One case that drew a huge following involved the poisoning of a Tsinghua University student - an event that dates to 1994, but was revived by curious strangers after word spread on the Internet that the only suspect in the case had been questioned and released."
The IHT article touches upon the fact that the Internet is perhaps the only mass communication forum in which Chinese can speak, or attempt to speak, what's on their mind. However, the article doesn't explore the possibility that certain cases of "Internet hunting" (such as that involving the Tsinghua University student) may be sparked by frustrations with the legal system. "Internet hunting" must make those involved feel unusually empowered, in my opinion.

One other issue that the article neglects to mention is that a form of "Internet hunting" takes place in the West, too, usually involving online mobs hounding a single person who has committed an Internet-based crime, or some other type of online gaffe. The Register publicized a case this week about a man in England named Amir Tofangsazan becoming the victim of an online mob after allegedly pulling an online bait-and-switch for a used laptop. There was also a case in the United States a few years back involving Bernard Shifman, a computer consultant whose efforts to electronically send his C.V. out to a lot of people resulted in an online torch-wielding mob tearing his reputation to shreds.

Related Posts:

Harvard Extended: Shanghai, Sex, and Shades of History

Nicholas Carr: Open-Source Policing

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