Lentis/Human Flesh Search Engine


The term "human flesh search engine" is a literal translation from a Chinese term "人肉搜索". A more idiomatic translation to the term should be "human-powered search engine", as opposed to machine-powered, algorithm-based search engine. Thus, the term defines a widespread network for online justice powered by Internet citizens, or Netizens. Effective because of the wide range of talents present in nearly any mass network, the search engine is commonly used as a research tool for exposing individuals for social offenses.[1] One such social offense involved a 21-year-old woman, Gao Qianhui, who posted an online video complaint about the 3-day mourning period of the Sichuan earthquake victims because the period, which involved shutting down entertainment and games out of respect for the victims, had disrupted her. Although it was not made clear which laws were broken by her online outburst, Chinese police were able to identify and detain Qianhui. [2]

Despite the negative social effects, human flesh engine could also be used as an alternative way to achieve social justice under the context of Chinese cyberspace.

Doxing AnaloguesEdit

The human flesh search engine is analogous to the Western practice of doxing. Doxing refers to the act of searching for and publishing private or identifying information about (a particular individual) on the Internet, typically with malicious intent;[3] however, there are cases in which the practice is used to assist law enforcement in identifying and exposing suspects. [4]

Doxing TechniquesEdit

The most common doxing techniques used by ethical hackers require little effort. Google, social networking websites, reverse cell phone lookups, and Whois searches can yield useful results such as names, email addresses, home addresses, workplaces, phone numbers, and photographs. Since most Internet users are unaware of the security risks on the Internet, they place little importance on securing online privacy. Their social media profiles are virtual goldmines of information. These people are prime virtual targets for doxing.[5]

The Case of Gao QianhuiEdit

The human flesh search engine is a valuable tool for the Internet vigilante, or netilante, to achieve the goal of social justice. The case of 21-year-old Gao Qianhui is a significant illustration of its power. After a three-day mourning period for the 80,000 victims of a southwest China earthquake interfered with her television viewing schedule, Qianhui created a 5-minute criticism video of the situation. "I turn on the TV and see injured people, corpses, rotten bodies... I don’t want to watch these things. I have no choice” said Qianhui. She complained "Come on, how many of you died? Just a few, right? There are so many people in China anyway." Following this post, Qianhui quickly became subject to the power of the human flesh search engine. The mass collaborative effort within the Chinese web unearthed and published details from Qianhui's private life, such as home and work addresses and even her parents' marital status on hundreds of forums and chatrooms. The mass outrage initially cried for Internet citizens, or netizens, to humiliate Qiahhui and ultimately led to police detaining her, although it was not made clear which law she had broken. [6]


Almost all human flesh search engine events start in the context of upholding justice or the maintenance of traditional Chinese virtues, but often end with the violators themselves becoming victims of privacy invasion, violence, and severe psychological pressure. [7] Similarly to doxing, the human flesh search engine searches for private information of individuals. The search affects people’s lives on the internet as well as their real lives. [8]

Privacy IssuesEdit

The human flesh search engine can uncover an individual’s private information such as their identity, marriage history, criminal records, employment, medical records, family members, and social ties without their consent. Once on the internet, removing the private information becomes an almost impossible task. This information made public can not only make a person a target for public humiliation but also render them vulnerable to fraud and many forms of identity theft.[8]

Cyber ViolenceEdit

Targets of human flesh search engine often become targets of massive online and offline harassment. They, their families, and their employers will often receive harassing and threatening calls and emails. Targets could even be verbally and physically assaulted offline. [8]

In 2013, a taxi driver was seen rolling his window down and spitting on an elderly homeless person in the Chinese city of Urumqi. Witnesses recorded the first few letters of the taxi's license plate. The incident was reported in a local radio station until human flesh searcher got a hold of it. A massive search began to locate the taxi driver. Yin Feng, a taxi driver in Urumqi, whose license plate was a partial match was accused. Human flesh searcher were soon able to uncover all of Yin Feng's private information including his phone number, address, ID card number, and even the contact information of his relative. Yin Feng, who maintained he was innocent, received hundreds of harassing calls calling him a "disgrace" and an "animal." Someone even blackmailed to burn his house if he did not pay a large sum of money. [9]

Quality of InformationEdit

Most information reported by the human flesh searchers is later found to be no more than speculations. Often only those close to the targets are able to provide accurate information. This lack of credible information and large amount misinformation could lead to innocent individuals being accused of moral wrongdoings and facing almost certain privacy invasions and harassment.[8]


The mass collaboration and wide reach of the human flesh search engine could be used for malicious or commercial purposes. [8]

Control IssuesEdit

The massive scale of people involved in a human flesh search makes the direction it will go really hard to control. In the case of a drunk driver name Qian who beat an elderly man in 2007, the human flesh searchers targeted many innocent people including her daughter. The angry people threatened the daughter and harassed her school, teacher, classmates, and parents of the classmates. [8]

Legal IssuesEdit


Despite China's tight control over internet access and it massive and regular censorship of it, the Internet remains hard to control. It is also quite hard to determine a single perpetrator.[9]

Stance of the People's Republic of ChinaEdit

A top Communist official in charge of China's internet surveillance has said that the government believed the human flesh search engine was "illegal and immoral".[9]

Wang Fei v. Zhang Leyi, Daqi.com and Tianya.comEdit

The Wang Fei v. Zhang Leyi, Daqi.com and Tianya.com is the first significant judicial case in China, where the court has recognized a right to online privacy.[10] In 2008, Wang Fei found himself under attack from the human flesh search engine when it was discovered that his wife, Jiang Yan, had killed herself after finding out Wang Fei had been having an affair. Within days of the discovery, Fei had lost his job and had moved in with his parents to escape angry internet users blaming him of driving his wife to suicide. He, however, was followed, and his parents' house was vandalized with messages calling him a murderer.[9][10] Both the recognition of human flesh search engine and a right to privacy are significant. However, the decision does not form any part of well recognized common law system of judicial precedent. [10]

The Right to PrivacyEdit

The court determined that the "right to privacy is infringed by the disclosure or publication of private information that a person does not want to disclose to others concerning his private life, private areas or domestic tranquility and connected with his interests of his body." The court also outlined a process to determine whether a person's privacy has been infringed upon. [10]

The Right to ReputationEdit

The court determined that "reputation means the objective and comprehensive evaluation on the morality, ability and other qualities." The court also determined that as citizens are entitled to their rights to reputation, damaging another person’s reputation by insulting, libeling and disclosing his privacy is strictly prohibited. [10]


The Chinese Tort Liability Law passed in 2010 provides for tort liabilities in areas including medical negligence, work-related injuries, and product liability. As for privacy infringement, the law imposes liability on both Internet users and ISPs.[10]


As was the case for Wang Fei and many other lawsuit, damages awarded to the plaintiffs have been so minor that it’s hard to imagine lawsuits having much impact on the human-flesh search.[6] In case of Wang Fei, the court reduced the amount of compensation for a number of moral and legal reasons such as the plaintiff's admission to having an extra-marital affair, some of the information had been made public before the incident, and the defendant's effort to remove the information.[10]

Alternative to Social JusticeEdit

China has an incomplete legal system. According to the Worlds Justice Project’s Rule of Law Index of 2016, China has an overall score of 0.48 (with 1 as the highest), ranking as the 80th among the 113 countries surveyed.[11] As a result, citizens sometimes experience difficulties in seeking legal remedy, especially when the case is related to government officials or institutions, and even suffers persecution for their expose of government corruption. Ou Shaokun, or Uncle Ou (as known to local citizens), is an anti-corruption activist who take photographs of official’s abuse of government vehicles and post such pictures online. In March, 2015, Ou was detained in Hunan province for “allegedly soliciting a prostitute”. According to South China Morning Post, the arrest happened moments after Ou posted to his Weibo (a Chinese equivalent of Twitter) account photos of a Toyota SUV, which he claimed was Guangzhou government’s property and was being used for personal purposes by officials in Hunan.[12]

Chinese government also exerts comprehensive censorship over its media outlets. Although the Constitution of People’s Republic of China guarantees freedom of press, newspapers were often reprimanded for publishing stories that “expose state secrets and endanger the country”. [13] During the SARS epidemic of 2003, Southern Metropolis Daily, a newspaper based in Guangzhou, refused to obey orders of publishing a headline claiming that the disease was under control. As a result, the chief editor was demoted and some reporters were expelled from the newspaper. [14] In lack of ways to discover truth and achieve social justice, Chinese citizens have to find on the heavily censored Internet a rare space to speak as they see fit. Human flesh search engine started to take another shape as an alternative to achieve social justice, often through means of collective crowdsourcing and collective investigative journalism.

South China Tiger IncidentEdit

The South China tiger (Panthera tigris amoyensis) is a subspecies of tiger indigenous to southern China. Since its last confirmed sightings of more than two decades ago, no one has seen an adult South China tiger in the wild. [15]

However, on Octorber 12th, 2007, the Department of Forestry of Shanxi hosted a press conference and confirmed the sighting of an adult South China tiger. On the press conference, two photos of the sighted tiger, taken by Zhenglong Zhou, a local farmer, was exhibited. The authenticity of the photos was hotly debated both online and in the academic community. [16] [17] [18]

The debate over the authenticity of the photos came to a halt when a picture of a stock painting surfaced online. A netizen from Sichuan posted picture of the painting on the wall of his apartment. In the painting was a tiger with almost the exact size, look and posture as the one on the photos of the sighting. A side-by-side comparison illustrates that the tiger in the photos of the sighting is clearly cropped and pasted from the painting.[19]

Some conservationists argue that the local government staged the sighting to attract fundings in order to set up a natural reserve for the tiger. [20]

In June 2008, the local government confirmed that the photos were forged. Zhenglong Zhou was arrested for suspicion of fraud. More than a dozen local government officials were implicated. Among the officials are the deputy head of the Forestry Department of Shanxi and the official responsible for wildlife preservation. [21]

Generalization and Further ResearchEdit

It is obvious that Human Flesh Search Engine was utilized as a way of discovering the truth, whatever the purpose and however the approach. But it is interesting to see how truth is sometimes “generated” rather than discovered during the process. In the case of fake South China tiger photos, truth was ultimately discovered through collective effort. However, in the case of the crusade against the cab driver, personal information of the driver were found and, without further validation, netizens presumed that the cab driver was guilty of spitting on the homeless. Although such phenomenon could be partly attributed to the lack of trust towards the government in the Chinese society, it is universal in the cyberspace of today.

For example, Wikipedia’s core sourcing policy is “verifiability, not truth”. In other words, sources used in Wikipedia entries must be verifiable and dependable, regardless of what the editor think is the truth. This policy is meant to safeguard Wikipedia against editors who claim to know “the truth” but do not and include multiple points of view, even though published sources are not infallible. However, ordinary readers of Wikipedia may not understand such caveat and treat Wikipedia entries as facts. Such problem is exacerbated by the irresponsible news sources across the cyberspace.

Although Internet provides a space for different people to express their opinions, algorithm filtering and personalization can create a filter bubble in which people of different views rarely sees the argument on the other side.[22] It is more likely for a rumor to be transmitted in a crowd where homogeneity of opinions exists.[23]

To understand how rumor spreads within a group and how a crowd accepts certain notions as facts or truths, further research is needed in the field of group psychology. More particularly, one could look into collective intelligence. A successful group would have higher Group-IQ as opposed to unsuccessful groups, therefore hopefully more impervious towards false claims and rumors.


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  2. Lemon, Summer (May 22, 2008). "Chinese Police Detain Woman Over Quake Video". PC World (PC World). http://www.pcworld.com/article/146171/article.html. 
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  4. Bright, Peter (2012-03-07). "Doxed: how Sabu was outed by former Anons long before his arrest". Ars Technica. http://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/news/2012/03/doxed-how-sabu-was-outed-by-former-anons-long-before-his-arrest.ars. Retrieved 2012-10-23. 
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  7. Zhang, Y. & Gao, H. Sci Eng Ethics (2016) 22: 601. doi:10.1007/s11948-015-9672-y
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  9. a b c d Hatton, C. (2014). China's internet vigilantes and the 'human flesh search engine' Retrieved December 12, 2016, from http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-25913472
  10. a b c d e f g Ong, R. (2012). Online vigilante justice Chinese style and privacy in China. Information & Communications Technology Law21(2), 127-145. doi:10.1080/13600834.2012.678653
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  12. Zhou, Laura. "Anti-graft activist Ou Shaokun 'caught with prostitute' in Hunan raid". South China Morning Post. http://www.scmp.com/news/china/article/1750560/anti-graft-activist-ou-shaokun-caught-prostitute-hunan-raid. Retrieved December 12, 2016. 
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  17. "绝迹24年华南虎重现陕西 村民冒险拍下照片". 新华网. http://news.xinhuanet.com/newscenter/2007-10/13/content_6873252.htm. Retrieved December 12, 2016. 
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  20. Simons, Craig. "Hoax highlights the plight of the South China tiger". Chicago Tribune. http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2008-02-06/features/0802040238_1_south-china-tiger-shaanxi-chinese-officials. Retrieved December 12, 2016. 
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Further ReadingEdit