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Human flesh search engine

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. It is similar to the concept of "doxing", a practice often associated with the social activist group 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,[3] 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.[4]

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.[4]

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 ChinaEdit

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]

In film and televisionEdit

  • Caught in the Web is a film by Chen Kaige which explores fictional instances of use of the human flesh search engine.[10]
  • In the television series Mr. Robot, the mysterious group known as The Dark Army, has elements based on the phenomenon.
  • Law and Order season 20 episode 6 was titled Human Flesh Search Engine
  • A web-based platform designed to pool the knowledge- and collectivise the efforts of internet sleuths is the premise of the CBS programme Wisdom of the Crowd.

Notable examplesEdit

  • Zhang Ya's Earthquake Video: In May 2008, an earthquake with a magnitude of 8.0 swept through Sichuan, China, killing approximately 87,587 people. In response to the quake, a video insulting the victims was published on YouTube by an anonymous female user. After nationwide outrage, The Human Flesh Search Engine identified the girl as Zhang Ya, doxing her and uploading her personal information online.
  • 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.
  • HEWILLNOTDIVIDE.US flag incident: On March 8, 2017, artists LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner placed a 'He Will Not Divide Us' flag in an unknown location, live-streaming the entire event. During the span of March 8 through March 10, the flag was located by a collaboration of 4chan users, who used airplane contrails, celestial navigation, and other techniques to determine that it was located in Greeneville, Tennessee.[11] In the early hours of March 10, 2017, an unknown person took down and stole the flag, replacing it with a red 'Make America Great Again' hat and a Pepe the Frog shirt.[11][12][13]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ 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.
  2. ^ Branigan, Tania (March 24, 2010). "How China's internet generation broke the silence". The Guardian.
  3. ^ Cheong, Pauline Hope; Gong, Jie. "Cyber vigilantism, transmedia collective intelligence, and civic participation". Chinese Journal of Communication. 3 (4): 471–487.
  4. ^ 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. doi:10.1109/MC.2010.216. ISSN 0018-9162.
  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: 601–604. doi:10.1007/s11948-015-9672-y – via EBSCOhost.
  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. ^ 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.
  11. ^ a b "He Will Not Divide Us: Capture The Flag". Get Riced. March 10, 2017. Retrieved March 10, 2017.
  12. ^ "Shia LaBeouf's 'He Will Not Divide Us' Flag Gets Trump Makeover (VIDEO + PHOTO)". TMZ. Retrieved March 10, 2017.
  13. ^ "HEWILLNOTDIVIDE.US - FACT (Foundation for Art and Creative Technology)". FACT. March 21, 2017. Retrieved March 22, 2017.

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