What Drives China’s ‘Digital Vigilantes’?
In 2006, a video clip of a woman crushing a kitten’s skull with her high heels spread like wildfire across the Chinese internet. On the popular site Mop Forum, users organized a massive dragnet to expose the perpetrator. Within a week, the woman’s personal details — including her name, job, address, and phone number — were published online.
The case is generally seen as the first instance of a “human flesh search engine,” or renrou sousuo, on the Chinese internet. Sometimes likened to doxxing, I prefer “digital vigilantism,” a broader term coined by media scholar Daniel Trottier that highlights one of the most important aspects of this phenomenon: a desire to expose and punish individuals for transgressing certain legal or moral boundaries.
But while digital vigilantism has been a de facto part of life online for 16 years now, the practice has not remained static. After years in which they focused on cutting the powerful down to size, social, political, and cultural shifts have increasingly diverted digital vigilantes’ attention onto their fellow citizens, many of whom are guilty of no sin greater than bad behavior.
Prior to 2012, the most prominent targets of China’s digital vigilantes were corrupt, arrogant, or lascivious government officials. In one of the most famous incidents, “Brother Wristwatch” Yang Dacai was removed from his post and eventually sentenced to 14 years in prison after social media users dug up news photos showing he owned at least 11 different luxury watches. Another official fell after mistaking microblogging platform Weibo for a private messaging app and using it to contact his mistress.
Public scrutiny of officials hasn’t vanished — in a rare instance of a post-2012 digital vigilante campaign against an official from earlier this year, social media users attacked a female cadre from the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region who showed up to a press conference wearing expensive-looking earrings — but changes in Chinese political institutions have led to a significant decline in anti-official digital vigilantism since 2012.
That year marked the start of the still ongoing official anti-corruption campaign which, by institutionalizing anti-corruption activities to maintain the legitimacy of the Communist Party, helped resolve one of the biggest sources of public anger: obvious corruption among government officials. This, paired with tightened control over the internet, means that most corruption cases are now dealt with internally, instead of through exposure by social media users and investigative reporters.
As officials have slid out of the crosshairs of contemporary digital vigilantism, they’ve been replaced by ordinary Chinese. These incidents can be broken into four main categories. In the first, digital vigilantes exact a kind of mob justice on behalf of socially marginalized groups, such as the elderly, couriers, or service staff, who have suffered verbal or physical abuse. In one 2016 case, a middle-aged man was doxxed and harassed for slapping a courier after a minor crash.
Bad behavior does not always have to rise to the level of assault to incite a digital vigilante campaign. Growing numbers of online mobs have been triggered by behavior they deem “uncivilized,” such as eating smelly food on the subway or interrupting the normal operations of public transportation — think a more aggressive version of the anti-manspreading campaign waged in some cities around the world.
The third category, involving gender issues or the breach of sexual mores, has also generally been on the rise since 2009. Prior to 2013, these cases tended to concentrate on corrupt officials’ scandalous sexual behavior. In more recent years, they are often initiated by or on the behalf of Chinese women in an effort to protect women’s rights, whether from serial harassers, overzealous subway staff, or even the police.
The fourth and final major category I identified in my research involves digital vigilantism targeted at anyone deemed insufficiently patriotic.
As nationalist sentiment has risen in China over the past decade, online spaces have been inundated with accusations of behavior that is “unpatriotic” or “insulting to China.” This can take many forms, from wearing inappropriate attire at historic sites to simply being outside the country. During the pandemic, a specific group of Chinese citizens — overseas students — were routinely named and shamed on social media, with critics dismissing their views and accusing them of betraying their homeland. “You run away when our country needs your contribution, but you come back to spread the virus,” was a common refrain in the early days of COVID-19.
All four categories reflect shifts in Chinese public discourse over the past decade, from the growing sense of grievance surrounding the gaps between rich and poor, or rural and urban areas, to the seemingly endless skirmishes between sexual moralizers and women’s rights advocates. The key difference lies in how platforms regulate these vigilante campaigns. In cases of incivility, violence against marginalized groups, or patriotic breaches, online mobs are usually left alone by platforms to run their course, and their harassment campaigns often culminate with local police issuing an official notice on social media declaring they have caught and punished the perpetrator. “Justice” having been served, the clamor generally dies down quickly.
Cases involving sex and sexuality are far more contentious, however. A legal case involving a popular Chinese TV host might vanish from the “trending topics” page of Sina Weibo, while a post exposing a groper on the subway sets off fewer alarm bells within platforms and the government.
If there’s any lesson I’ve drawn from my research into Chinese digital vigilantism cases, it’s that, for as uncontrollable as they may seem, digital vigilantes are limited and shaped by the realities of power relations in China.
The most obvious example of this is in cases involving women, who generally suffer harsher online shaming and harassment, often tinged with traditional gender-based vitriol. When women are the targets, their supposed crimes become all-encompassing. They are attacked, not just for their initial transgression, but for their perceived low morality, ugly appearance, or inadequate performance of their duties as a mother or wife. In a recent case from the southwestern city of Chengdu, a woman who tested positive for COVID-19 after visiting several clubs had her information leaked and was attacked online.
Ultimately, even the angriest of online mobs knows where the real power lies, and they have adapted their tactics accordingly. Where once they may have sought media coverage, today’s digital vigilantes cut straight to the chase, tagging official social media accounts belonging to the state or other public institutions.
All this week, Sixth Tone is taking a closer look at online harrassment, digital trolls, and cyberbullying on the Chinese internet. Part one, on a journalist’s search for online trolls, can be found here.
Editors: Cai Yineng and Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Wang Zhenhao.
(Header image: DrAfter123/VCG)