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China Internet Shaming

The New York Times has a fascinating and frightening article on Internet shaming in China. From the article:

It began with an impassioned, 5,000-word letter on one of the country’s most popular Internet bulletin boards from a husband denouncing a college student he suspected of having an affair with his wife. Immediately, hundreds joined in the attack.

“Let’s use our keyboard and mouse in our hands as weapons,” one person wrote, “to chop off the heads of these adulterers, to pay for the sacrifice of the husband.”

Within days, the hundreds had grown to thousands, and then tens of thousands, with total strangers forming teams that hunted down the student, hounded him out of his university and caused his family to barricade themselves inside their home.

It was just the latest example of a growing phenomenon the Chinese call Internet hunting, in which morality lessons are administered by online throngs and where anonymous Web users come together to investigate others and mete out punishment for offenses real and imagined.

In recent instances, people have scrutinized husbands suspected of cheating on their wives, fraud on Internet auction sites, the secret lives of celebrities and unsolved crimes. One case that drew a huge following involved the poisoning of a Tsinghua University student, an event that dates to 1994 but was revived by curious strangers after word spread that the only suspect in the case had been questioned and released.

Even a recent scandal involving a top Chinese computer scientist dismissed for copying the design of an American processor came to light in part because of Internet hunting, with scores of online commentators raising questions about the project and putting pressure on the scientist’s sponsors to look into the allegations.

While Internet wars can crop up anywhere, these cases have set off alarms in China, where this sort of crowd behavior has led to violence in the past. Many draw disturbing parallels to the Cultural Revolution, whose 40th anniversary is this year, when mobs of students taunted and beat their professors. Mass denunciations and show trials became the order of the day for a decade.

In one incident, a husband caught a college student (using the pseudonym Bronze Mustache) having an affair with his wife. He posted the student’s real name online, and what happened next is startling:

Impassioned people teamed up to uncover the student’s address and telephone number, both of which were then posted online. Soon, people eager to denounce him showed up at his university and at his parents’ house, forcing him to drop out of school and barricade himself with his family in their home.

Others denounced the university for not expelling him, with one poster saying it should be “bombed by Iranian missiles.” Many others said the student should be beaten or beheaded, or that he and the married woman should be put in a “pig cage” and drowned. . . .

At its height, the Bronze Mustache case accounted for huge traffic increases on China’s Internet bulletin boards, including a nearly 10 percent increase in daily traffic on Tianya, the bulletin board with the most users.

Ironically, the husband became so alarmed at the response that he begged the Internet vigilantes to stop.

At the end of the article is an interesting quote by one of the attackers of Bronze Mustache:

But there are obvious drawbacks to unfettered discussion, as the Bronze Mustache case illustrates. “What we Internet users are doing is fulfilling our social obligations,” said one man who posted a lengthy attack on the college student and his alleged affair. “We cannot let our society fall into such a low state.”

Asked how he would react if people began publishing online allegations about his private life, he answered, “I believe strongly in the traditional saying that if you’ve done nothing wrong, you don’t fear the knock on your door at midnight.”

His last quote, “if you’ve done nothing wrong, you don’t fear the knock on your door at midnight,” is perhaps China’s equivalent to the “I’ve got nothing to hide” attitude in the United States. That’s a very misguided quote to be saying when you live in a dictatorship.

Related Posts:

1. Solove, Of Privacy and Poop: Norm Enforcement Via the Blogosphere (June 2005)

2. Solove, Internet Shaming Redux: The Case of the Stolen Cell Phone (August 2005)

3. Solove, Fox News and Vigilante Justice Gone Bad (PrawfsBlawg) (August 2005)

4. Solove, Group Polarization and Internet Shaming (December 2005)

5. Solove, Get High (and Identified) With a Little Help from Your Friends (April 2006)

Originally Posted at Concurring Opinions

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This post was authored by Professor Daniel J. Solove, who through TeachPrivacy develops computer-based privacy training, data security training, HIPAA training, and many other forms of awareness training on privacy and security topics. Professor Solove also posts at his blog at LinkedIn. His blog has more than 1 million followers.

Professor Solove is the organizer, along with Paul Schwartz, of the Privacy + Security Forum and International Privacy + Security Forum, annual events designed for seasoned professionals.

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