Cyber cannibalism

Updated: 2012-01-02 09:01

By Duan Yan and Cao Yin (China Daily)

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It's called "human flesh search", a cyber-bullying tool that can destroy a person's privacy within hours. It happens most often in the dream merchandising industry of entertainment. Duan Yan and Cao Yin step into the world of micro-blogging celebrities and their voracious fans.

Celebrity gossip may be pleasant fodder for lunchtime conversations, but it can turn amazingly ferocious within the cyber world. The micro blog, or weibo, is China's most popular social media network. It is also a tool for entertainment industry movers and shakers, celebrities and stars when they want to fan up ratings. But, sometimes, it can churn up a backlash of viral animosity.

Cyber cannibalism
Wang Jieyu, a director with a Beijing television station, was publicly berated by two young women who recognized him in a restaurant. Wang left the scene immediately and now wears a mask in public to avoid future confrontations.

His crime? He had commented on his micro blog that a photo of a wanted criminal bore some resemblance to Shang Wenjie, a singer and former Super Girl champion. Shang angrily replied with "Look like your uncle!" and forwarded the reply on her blog.

That was her declaration of war.

The next day, Wang received more than 20,000 harsh postings on his blog from Shang's protective fans. But the worse was yet to come.

New accounts were set up overnight, broadcasting his personal photographs all over the Internet. His mobile phone number went viral and for the next weeks, calls came in the middle of the night and his e-mail box was filled with threatening messages.

This was a classic case of "human flesh search" a cyber manhunt that ferrets out a person's most intimate details and broadcasts them. It was originally a weapon mooted against corrupt officials and animal abusers, but it now seems to have taken on a new life after celebrity fans adopted the method as retaliation against any negative remarks aimed at their idols.

With more than 300 million micro blog subscribers in China, the speed of such searches has never been faster, and it has become a very effective cyber-bullying tool against those who have consciously or unconsciously offended.

"In the age of the micro blog, the 'human flesh search' will become more prevalent," says Sheng Yang, a professor at the School of Computer Science and Information Management at Wuhan University.

One reason is because its mechanism dovetails so well into the micro blog's forwarding functions. With its quick and broad reach, it has never been simpler to expose a person's intimate details through the network.

Television director Wang had been amused at first when Shang Wenjie actually replied to his post, but now he is angry after having been relentlessly attacked for days.

"These young fans may not know better, but Shang is a public figure and she shouldn't incite her fans to attack others like that." Wang says.

Nie Xingyuan, Shang's agent, told China Daily that fans are expected to exercise discretion and treat the remarks objectively, but "if the comments are below the belt, morally, then we encourage fans to communicate in a civil way. Malicious attacks are not necessary."

That may be so, but when even the celebrity's agents are not above attacks, things can get out of control.

"Even our own staff gets phone calls and faxes if fans dislike our decisions."

Shang's fans seem particularly adept at warding off criticism with these tactics. Nie admits that at least four or five people had contacted him to seek mediation and beg the fans to ease off the cyber attacks.

Chen, a 15-year-old student from Chengdu who would only give her surname, says anyone who denounced her idol Shang Wenjie should be punished.

"I attack them because I don't like what they say. We are very united when it comes to protecting our idol."

Sadly, this misplaced loyalty is not an isolated case, but part of an ugly and prevalent trend. Sometimes, attacks can be spurred by just a thoughtless comment.

Selina Jen, a third of the Taiwan girl band SHE, was badly scarred after being burnt in an accident while filming last year. As part of her recovery, she keeps in touch with fans on her micro blog.

This June, a woman in Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region with the user name "Jiaren Zhuzhi" left a comment on the singer's micro blog.

"I used to like Selina, but now I feel she is so fake. There are many people in this world who suffer more pain than you. You just keep whining. You should consider how others feel while you are begging for sympathy."

Selina replied saying: "There are more people in this world who need encouragement, but you absolutely cannot understand my pain. I do not think I'm whining. Writing the micro blog used to make me feel so warm, but now you have made me regret it for the first time."

The singer's reply triggered a wave of vicious reaction from fans. Some called the Guangxi woman up with death threats, and some threatened to burn her house down. She had become another victim of "human flesh search".

Before long, the woman begged for forgiveness. Selina apologized, saying she did not mean to incite fans to the attacks online. But the phone calls continued.

"I still feel very insecure when I think of what happened six month ago," "Jiaren Zhuzhi" said when she replied to our reporter's message. She declined an interview.

Savvy Internet users soon realize there are some singers or actors that you cannot touch. These "untouchables" have fans who stop at nothing to retaliate against those critical of their favorite celebrities.

"Never post negative comments about those Super Girls and Happy Boys. Their fans are very aggressive," says Ma Xiaote, a director of Internet marketing at a Beijing based public relation firm. He was referring to the winners of singing contests held by Hunan Satellite TV in Changsha, capital of Hunan province.

He opted to use his screen name when speaking to us, to avoid falling prey to "human flesh searches".

Nie, Super Girl Shang Wenjie's agent, disagrees.

"South Korean celebrities and Hong Kong and Taiwan bands have far more aggressive fans who are experts at attacking those who dislike their idols."

Nie says compared to them, Shang's fans are mere novices.

Having that said, Ma, too, admits he has been a cyber bully.

"We have a group of about a dozen friends online, and cyber bullying one of those Internet celebrities is part of the fun when we are bored."

The computer science graduate and online veteran holds up to 200,000 pseudonym accounts on Sina weibo alone, which he uses for online marketing promotions.

Occasionally, they are used for the darker purposes. Some online crusaders, he says, think they are "denouncing evil" but more often than not, they may have been misled.

An even darker note surfaces when you realize that some of the "fans" are paid.

On Baidu Tieba, the largest online Chinese forum, many young students leave their QQ numbers and wait for opportunities to become employed as professional fans.

"I'm a student, good at writing, and I spend a lot of time online," one posting advertised.

If this sounds very much like the wild, wild west, it is. The frontier land of the Chinese Internet is still very much ungoverned when it comes to safeguarding privacy.

It is still in its infancy, in theory, in legislation and in judicial phases.

The Personal Information Protection Law has been proposed but is still under legal process. Recently, government agencies in Beijing, Guangzhou and Shenzhen required users to use true identities for micro blog accounts, a move designed to purge fake IDs and enhance account credibility.

Guangdong's real-name requirement came shortly after Beijing announced new rules.

All new account holders will now have to furnish true identities with verification.

All existing micro blog accounts will have to be tied to true identity verification by March this year.

Tong Liqiang, deputy director of Beijing's Internet information office, says there is an urgent need to manage and regulate the micro blogging environment with its prevalent rumor-mongering, false information and libelous environment.

Currently, Sina, the Internet company with the largest number of micro-bloggers in the country, has come up with many ways to verify users' true identities, such as tagging a letter V to the names of those who are willing to supply real names for verification.

Sina also awards them a medal if they use real identity card numbers, according to Tong.

Liu Honghui, is a Beijing-based lawyer specializing in online litigation. He welcomes the real-name registration system, saying it will reduce infringements.

"Someone who criticizes with bad intention, abuses or libels others through Weibo infringes the victims' rights. The behavior is illegal," he says. "While someone or a fan group attacks another celebrity's micro blog or broadcasts unhealthy or fake postings, this also amounts to disturbing public order."

Many hide behind the current anonymity and carry out illegal trade or scams such as the buying of "fans'.

"Many victims could not find justice, because the virtual world is difficult to navigate and information online changes so fast," Liu says.

If real names were needed for registration, online miscreants will be easier to identify and punish.

But there are voices raised that caution against too much exuberance in the control.

"Weibo needs the freedom of speech," says Qiao Mu, director at the International Communication Research Center of the Beijing Foreign Studies University.

Excessive government interference will be harmful and he argues that the micro blog must be allowed to find its own level.

"Some users may no longer post opinions or may even give up this social communicating tool. Netizens have the ability to distinguish truth from falsehood, so it's not necessary for the government to regulate."

In his opinion, natural competition is the best regulator.

"If a website's micro blog is cluttered with false information, users will abandon it naturally."

Currently, public security departments identify online criminals through monitoring IP addresses and capturing them with cross-regional cooperation, he argues, so the real name registration is redundant.

Finally, Qiao says getting all the micro bloggers to register within three months is an impossible task, and the authorities will never play catch-up with the monumental number of new users increasing each month.

It will simply be too much work.