In China, the Internet has provided a new kind of medium for vigilantes to work together to dole out punishments to perceived offenders. This “human-flesh search engine”, as an article in the New York Times calls it, doesn’t work like a conventional Internet search. Instead, it is a vast network of online users who work together to reveal the location and personal details of people who the users feel have violated a norm. In one example, Internet users from all over China worked together to collect the personal data of a woman who posted a video on the internet of her stomping a kitten to death under her spiked heels. After discovering her location, the vast network of users encouraged everyone who came in contact to her to assist in driving her out-of-town, ruining her business, and destroying her life. The article describes a number of examples of offenders (accused of committing a wide variety of perceived “crimes”) all being punished severely through this network and often being unable to return to work, their homes, or normal life after the “search engine” finds “justice”.
Although this type of mass justice seeking behaviour is relatively unstudied, it has interesting implications for a number of research areas like social identity, bullying behavior, collective action, social rejection, and anger and aggression. When people witness behavior that violates norms and invokes moral outrage, they often desire justice. According to social psychologists, there are different types of justice people can seek when they witness a crime, they include retributive justice (punishment for the offender) and compensatory justice (compensation – money and apology etc. for the victim). Interestingly, in this Chinese human network, the justice form doled out by online avengers is always a harsh punishment for the offender. Nobody in the network is encouraging others to seek compensation for the victims.
In line with this, one set of studies found that when people “observe” a crime, but are not close to the victim, they prefer a retributive type of justice to a compensatory type. The less close the bystander is to the victim, the more they prefer punishment to compensation. When you are dealing with an online network of avengers who likely don’t even know each other, much less the victim, its easy to see how this punishment response could escalate as the networks extends to more distant users. Furthermore, given that it’s all online, there is an added sense of anonymity for the justice seekers. All of these aspects make the “human search engine” an interesting phenomenon for social psychologists to unravel.