Academic journal article Global Media Journal

Hunt by the Crowd: An Exploratory Qualitative Analysis on Cyber Surveillance in China

Academic journal article Global Media Journal

Hunt by the Crowd: An Exploratory Qualitative Analysis on Cyber Surveillance in China

Article excerpt


This exploratory analysis applied the notion of Participatory Panopticon to examine a particular form of online collaboration in China-unrelated Internet users collaboratively conduct cyber surveillance towards fellow citizens. The study chose the most visited surveillance forum -Human Flesh Search as a primary site. By analyzing the structure and content of the forum, the study examines whether peer-to-peer cyber surveillance serves as a power equalizer and has greater democratic potential. The results suggest that such collective cyber surveillance creates power imbalance between the searchers and the sought, which counters with some scholars' claim that surveillance conducted by regular citizens equalizes power distribution in the digital age.


China secured its first link to the Internet in 1993, and opened the Internet to citizens in 1995 (CNNIC, 1997). With the Internet growing at a rapid pace and becoming accessible to a widespread audience, Internet regulations and surveillance have also become imperative for central governments. Web sites on democracy agendas and other sensitive issues have been frequently blocked. And political speeches online are discouraged and closely monitored by servers out of fear of government sanctions (Collins, 2002). However, China Internet users have still managed to form a variety of online communities based on common interests via bulletin boards, online forums, and web blogs (Tan, 1999; Tisu, 2003; Yang, 2007). Among the diverse forms of online collaboration enabled by the Internet, one form of cyber collaboration has been influential but controversial, which is called Renrou Sousuo in Chinese. Renrou Sousuo refers to an act of searching information about individuals or any subjects through the online collaboration of multiple users.

Renrou Sousuo can be loosely translated to Human Flesh Search (HFS). The term "Human Flesh" does not literally mean human flesh, but refers to human resources the search mechanism is based on. Different from the Google search engine which operates on Internet technology, Human Flesh Search is a collaborative online behavior conducted by numbers of Internet users through responding to an open inquiry. Users' participation and collaboration plays a vital role in such a search ("Human flesh search", 2008).

A search of this kind often starts with an open query for information about any topics, and a query can be initiated out of any motives, such as pure curiosity about a celebrity's academic record in high school, or desire to track down a potential love interest. But for the majority of high-profile search cases in China, these searches have turned to aggressive, vicious manhunts. Often times, subjects of searches were perceived to be wrongdoers and the searches brought unwanted publicity to the sought, sometimes leading to public humiliation both online and in real life. On one hand, the practice has been accused of privacy violation and defamation by victims, concerned intellectuals and sympathetic citizens (Ford, 2008; Wu, 2008). But on the other hand, it has also been supported and applauded by others as a form of citizen empowerment and civil participation, especially when the subjects of such searches were high-rank officials whose power and behavior had never been checked by regular citizens before (Ford, 2008; Wu, 2008).

The debate over the potential of the Internet as power equalizer has been ongoing. Some scholars have expressed enthusiasm for the participatory potential of the Internet in harness collective intelligence (e.g., Jenkins, 2006; Howe, 2008), and some argue that the democratic potential of cyber space has been overestimated due to a lack of consideration of economic, political and cultural limitations (e.g.,, Cammaerts ,2008) . However, there are little empirical data to support the latter claim. Applying the concept of Participatory Panopticon, the study examined numerous cyber surveillance groups through textual analysis of a famous China online forum Human Flesh Search, with the purpose to examine the notion that the Internet works as power equalizer in cyber surveillance conducted by citizens. …

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