HUNTED BY THE CROWD: A QUALITATIVE ANALYSIS OF COLLABORATIVE INFORMATION SEARCHING IN CHINA
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This study explores a particular form of cyber surveillance in China known as "human flesh search," in which unrelated Internet users collaboratively conduct surveillance on fellow citizens. Its theoretical framework draws up the notion of panoptic model, first articulated in the early 1800s by Jeremy Bentham and then developed by the French social theorist and philosopher Michel Foucault. Unlike some previous studies on human flesh searching, which focus on highly publicized search incidents, this study examines cyber surveillance in its daily practice, and probes how and why collaborative searches occur in China. It also explores structural constraints and empowerment experienced by search participants through the lens of power, in order to understand such a controversial activity. The study involved content analysis of a Chinese leading search forum--MOP Human Flesh Search Forum; an online survey with 158 search participants; and in-depth interviews with 9 search participants. The study found that Chinese human flesh search often took the forms of coveillance (peer-to-peer surveillance) and sousveillance (bottom-up surveillance). Fun-seeking was the primary motive for participants, who are mainly male youths; being helpful is the next. Privacy invasions and power abuses have complicated or even undermined search practices, limiting the potential of this activity to contribute to civil governance. In terms of empowerment, participating in the human flesh search seemed to give individual searchers a sense of empowerment, but such effects vary greatly depending on individuals' knowledge, social resources and search experiences. Privacy invasions and power abuses were consistently evident in searching practices, limiting the potential of this crowd-based searching, even when this is said to promote justice, to contribute to civil governance. The study also found that the panoptic model is still highly relevant and useful in understanding collaborative online surveillance, especially the function and effects of "gaze." Once conducted in a collective manner, the gaze of fellow citizens can be greatly extended in its reach and intensified by massive participation. The human flesh search mechanism studied here has great potential to profoundly change China's media landscape, but such potential is limited by current media censorship and the lack of accountability of search participants. Although the study examines searching phenomenon only in Chinese cyber space, the findings may shed light on similar surveillance practices which have emerged elsewhere in recent years. The whole question of citizen participation might benefit from the explication of the role of participation in this form of surveillance.