Yangtze Briefing

The thin line between online sleuths and vigilantes

Recent pursuit of Shanghai party member accused of sexual assault overstepped mark by drawing in man's wife and daughter

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 19 July, 2014, 3:40am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 17 January, 2018, 12:49pm

The mainland's "human flesh search engine" can be a potent tool to expose corruption and injustice. But the army of web users who ferret out details online about people accused of misdeeds can also cross into vigilantism, overstepping the law in their zeal to name and shame.

This happened recently over an incident on a subway in Shanghai, which another passenger filmed with a smartphone. The half-minute clip shows a man seated near a carriage door touching the thigh of a woman who is facing the other way. He touches her twice and turns back to his mobile phone.

The clip was uploaded onto a major video-sharing website on the mainland, and quickly became a local topic of discussion.

Angry internet users went to work, digging out the man's name, job, mobile phone number and social security number. What's more, the fixed line at his home, his wife's job and mobile phone number and his daughter's school were identified and posted online. Strangers began calling the wife to condemn her husband, Eastday.com reports.

The man was identified as Wang Qikang, a member of the Communist Party, and an employee with Shanghai Jinjiang, one of biggest state-run travel-related enterprises. Jinjiang said in a statement Wang had been expelled from the party and sacked from the company. He had been detained by police for "molesting women in public", the statement said. The woman passenger has also filed a complaint with police.

Wang denies he sexually assaulted her, and told police he had accidentally touched her leg while he was falling asleep on the train.

But internet users pointed out the video clip showed his eyes were open throughout the incident.

It's easy to make baseless accusations when you have the anonymity of the internet

Internet users' zeal was boosted when the man's job was uncovered. He was an official, and therefore all the more likely guilty and deserving of shame.

But the "human flesh search" can go too far. In the Shanghai incident, the wife and daughter bear no responsibility for the man's actions. Although a mob can be powerful, it's also dangerous. It's easy to make baseless accusations when you have the anonymity of the internet, and users, encouraged by a herd mentality, can easily step over the boundaries of personal privacy.

Wang's wife got into a quarrel online with internet users, after they accused her of faking her academic qualifications.

And when the human search engine gets it wrong, the results can be tragic. In December, a middle-school girl in Guangdong drowned herself after the owner of a clothing store in her hometown suspected she had stolen some items and posted a video clip of the girl, asking online users to identify her.

In a country supposedly ruled by law, the "human flesh search" can't be judge, jury and jailor.