Human Flesh Search Engines: The Most Dangerous GameAugust 30th, 2010 by Tommaso De Benetti
Like a wolf in sheep’s clothing, evil is most frightening when in disguise. The scariest movies – the ones that send shivers up your spine and keep you awake at night – are those where evil manifests in an innocent form. As anyone who has seen The Exorcist, The Omen or The Ring (or looked after a two year old) knows, nothing is scarier than cute kids.
The Human Flesh Search Engine (HFS) sounds awfully sinister. But far from being a deadly disease or a machine from the Saw series, it is simply a term used to describe searches that are conducted with the help of humans (as opposed to the ones carried out through a search engine like Google).
A tiger in the grass?
A good demonstration of the power of HFS is now known as the South China Tiger Event. In 2007 a tiger species considered long-extinct in the wild was spotted and photographed by a hunter in the Shaanxi province of China. After the pictures were published in Science magazine, skeptical Chinese internet users started a challenge to establish whether they were authentic.
The human searchers who took up the challenge included professionals with backgrounds in zoology and botany, photography and geometry. In the end, however, the key was much simpler. One of the volunteers recognized an all too striking similarity between the pictures and a painting in a calendar, exposing them as a scam.
Just as in this example, HFS events generally involve both an offline element (such as checking photos from old calendars) and voluntary crowdsourcing.
Typically an event will start with the formation of a small seed community, which issues a task with a defined goal. Most appear first on an online forum, enabling searching by broadcasting requests and action plans, sharing online and offline search results, or offering specific rewards. Some can also be triggered – or widely publicized – by the mass media.
The taste for human flesh
Unfortunately, as anyone who has heard of the phenomena before will know (don’t feel bad if you haven’t, as HFS is mainly a Chinese thing), the applications of HFS are sometimes just as sinister as the name suggests. In 2008, for example, a young man started an HFS claiming he was sick and looking for help to fulfill his last wish: to see the woman he loved one more time (cue romantic sighs from the crowd).
Aided by the community, the man managed to trace his lost love. The problem was, his sickness was actually more mental than physical, a fact well known by his ex-girlfriend who had been hiding from him (cue violins from the shower scene in Psycho). After trying without success to win her back, he killed her with a knife.
As a result of this accident and other minor abuses, the HFS community started to self-regulate, carrying out background research checks on those who initiate searches. But while the case was unusual in some respects, much of what is wrong with this scenario is typical to HFS, and not addressed by the regulations. The reason why the name Human Flesh Search Engine is so apt is not just because people are involved in the search, but because most events involve hunting down people that the online community want to punish for some reason. This led The New York Times, to call it online vigilante justice.
But HFS need not be synonymous with petty vigilante justice and tragedy. By combining the wisdom of crowdsourced human intelligence and the speed of algorithms, these hybrid searches have enormous potential.
What is needed is a system which inspires people to work together for the greater good, instead of the current Hollywood style do-it-yourselves justice league. The question is, are we up to the task? Or will HFS remain the most dangerous game?