Wired posted a story yesterday about how a small riot following the World Series win for the San Francisco Giants sparked what, in China, would be known as a 'human flesh search' for one of the rioters. However, the collaborative detective work led to the wrong guy due to the fact he made a poorly calculated joke on Facebook.
“Human Flesh Search Engine” is often considered to be a phenomenon which only happens in Asia. The phrase is an rough translation of “ren'rou sou'suo,” which means “human-assisted search engine.” Essentially, it is a search online where, instead of relying on relevance or an algorithm, users united by a common cause scour the internet in an investigation to find a particular thing.
More often than not, for whatever reason, the search is for specific people. Thus the phrase Human Flesh Search Engine probably stuck also because of it's resonance with the idea of a manhunt.
According to the Wired article, understandably upset at the destruction of public property witnessed during the #SFRiot, some Reddit users congregated on thread to identify someone photographed hurling a temporary metal railing at the windshield of a bus. Meanwhile, the accused, was in bar where friends joked with him that he bore a resemblance to the guy in the photograph. Making light of it, he changed his profile picture to the same picture and naturally a stream of comments ensued. Just "innocent fun", so to speak.
The problem ensured when a screenshot of the thread with profile picture was posted on Twitter. Ultimately this led to netizens posting his personal details and calls for his arrest. Roberto Baldwin from Wired reports:
A few hours later, the screen grab wound up on the Facebook page of a San Francisco nightclub called Red Devil Lounge, where commenters began posting Lukezic’s phone number, information about what sort of car he drives, and pictures of him and his son. He also started receiving anonymous messages from outraged citizens. “I got text messages like, ‘Man I know who you are, I’m going to get you and your family,’” Lukezic said. ”Anyone who knows me knows I’m not even like that.” Of course, this was all getting out in front of people who don’t know Tony. All they saw was a man destroying city property and then a man that resembled that person boasting about his bus-smashing ways.
In a previous article on the phenomenon of Human Flesh Search Engines in Asia, I noted that, "a person can rise to fame rather than notoriety by the same mechanism." Whilst these types of mob behavior have led to justice in the case of corrupt politicians in China they have also been used towards "positive" goals such as finding a particularly beautiful person.
Nonetheless, what is particularly unnerving, is that the darker side of this phenomenon has rallied the mob around very vulnerable people too, in which opinions they have expressed online and not necessarily in their right mind (in previous reported cases it has been mental illness), have been used as evidence in a kangaroo court against them.
There is a tendency to think that this is a cultural phenomenon restricted to the East and put down to cultural differences. However, much the same thing can happen in the West and did in this case.
The vehemence directed at the individual may depend on the cultural values of the country, but either way, the vengeful mob actively destroys privacy to the extent that any online behavior in the past can come back to haunt you in the present.
Luckily in this instance, friends of the accused were also able to use the same tools to rally evidence from other online sources to clear his name.
So let this be a cautionary tale about what you post on Facebook!