Crowdsourced justice, or just Vigilantism2.0?

Anonymous vigilantism against Kenny GlennThere’s been a steadily increasing number of stories about “crowdsourced justice” of late, a phenomenon that arguably started in China but which is spreading across the world to anywhere that has a population with ready access to the internet.

For example, you may have heard about the 4chan crusade against one Kenny Glenn, a teenager foolish enough to post videos of himself abusing a kitten; Anonymous doesn’t respect many things, but it sure loves cats, and swiftly unearthed enough information about Kenny to land him in very hot water (and to get the cats rescued, natch).

An article at H+ Magazine takes an in-depth look at the phenomenon, which the Chinese refer to as the “human flesh search engine”:

Fortunately, human flesh search engines don’t end the lives of their victims, like the witch-hunts or lynching of the past.

(Erm… they don’t yet.)

We will not know for some time how these cyber-hunts will shape the future of our privacy, freedom of speech and sense of justice and security. But there is no doubt that these cases are just the beginning a vast social change taking place right now. What we can see from these incidents is that the flow of information will no longer be controlled and that the power of public outrage will not easily be quelled.

Kitten Killer of Hangzhou and her cameraman will walk away from their brutal act.. An apology is hardly appropriate recompense for the death of the tiny tortured feline. But these small stories will remain a part of our collective human memory and help guide the decisions of future societies, because the Internet does not forget, does not forgive and cannot be stopped. Ever.

While containing more than a mote of hyperbole, that final sentence is very telling – not because it is de facto true, but because many people believe it to be true. It’s that motivation combined with the ease of acting upon it en masse that gives human flesh search engines their power. [image sourced from Anonymous’ Kenny Glenn site]

And via SlashDot we find that it’s not just animal abusers who can become the focus of public ire, even in censorship-ridden China: the China Digital Times has a report regarding the dissemination of personal information about one Chen Hua, a deputy director of the Beijing Internet Propaganda Office who was foolish enough to boast of his own corrupt practices to a girl he was seeing “in a personal capacity”. Whether the story is true or not is irrelevant; word got out, the human flesh search engines dug up a lot of Chen’s personal details, and Beijing is now trying to contain the viral spread of said information… which makes me wonder yet again about how effective the blackout on the Tiananmen massacre really is.

Much as with any other technology, the uses to which the internet can be put are decided by the people with access to it; most of these cases could be argued to be ethically justified to a greater or lesser degree (though the lines are as fuzzy as ever), but that may not always be the case. The lord of the flies tends to follow us wherever we go, and I can’t see the transition to the digital world slowing him down too much.