Terms like doxxing, and sealioning have come into the cultural lexicon in a post Gamergate world. But these words are inherently western and American; they refer to events and kinds of actions that came into popularity from a Western anti harassment campaign. The actions they describe are fit within a particular social context.
“Doxxing” is the practice of releasing private personal information on the internet, while “sealioning” is the practice of feigning good will to goad someone into a debate, most often online. As practices, they only amount to harassment insofar as they violate an existing cultural norm. Harassment is universal, though, so I wanted to learn how internet users in China and Japan experience, understand and describe harassment.
For three weeks at the end of October and beginning of November, I traveled to Shanghai, Hong Kong, Tokyo and Sydney to interview journalists about online harassment. I interviewed just two dozen writers and reporters. Mine isn’t a wide sample set, and it’s just the beginning of a bigger research project (to which you can contribute: if you are a journalist and want to talk about harassment you’ve experienced, email me: email@example.com). I started my research with a question: what harassment terms are missing from the public discourse?
What a culture considers harassment reflects that cultures norms. Not every culture understands privacy in the same way. Cultures around the world have very different expectations of privacy, for instance, and a home phone number isn’t necessarily “private” everywhere in the world.
Shanghai And Hong Kong
In Hong Kong, the Occupy Hong Kong protests still seemed to hang in the air. Journalists I interviewed in Hong Kong were very concerned about government surveillance. They insisted on moving conversations onto secure networks. The popular WeChat was a no go, and we moved to Signal. But in Shanghai, I used WeChat extensively.
Journalists in Shanghai and Hong Kong described specific and different kinds of harassment, and introduced me to a new vocabulary. In Shanghai, one videographer described the concept of being "invited for tea" by security officials. She explained, “I met [the security officials] at a protest I covered, and I was the only Chinese journalist there. They took me away, and took my [contact] details. They said we will invite you to chat.”
I also learned that some harassment tactics just wouldn’t work in China. In the US harassers will sometimes add their target to a robo-call list. In Hong Kong, anyone with a phone already gets so many unsolicited phone calls that adding more is hardly noticeable.
More generally, in Hong Kong, journalists told me that personal data is so widely accessible that most internet users don’t see or expect “privacy” in the same way that American users do. "The idea of privacy and owning your own information here isn’t as strong as it is in the US…it’s easier to sell the data because, of course, it’s just data,” is how one cartoonist put it.
Social Media Terms from China
In interviews with Chinese journalists and students, I learned about these new terms to describe online harassment on WeChat (which is often described as the What’s App of China) and Sino Weibo which is a Chinese Twitter clone, since social networks like Facebook and Twitter are not accessible within Chinese internet due to the Great Chinese Firewall.
Big V: a Weibo user who is both verified and followed by a large number of users.
Hanging: Gua, 挂，hanging, when a Big V or popular Weibo or Twitter user reposts or quotes a comment made by a regular user, amplifying their post and handle to shame them in front of a much larger audience. Users told me that ‘hanging’ is viewed negatively, even when the Big V is facing harassment, because the Big V is picking on someone with a smaller following. The Western equivalent of ‘hanging’ is Twitter's quote and retweet functions.
Fleshing or meat hooking: 人肉搜索 translates to 'flesh search.' People at computers making a series of searches, aka "Let's flesh him.” Fleshing combines group gossiping with doxxing. The practice amounts to compiling a massive dossier on someone. The issue with fleshing is that it doesn’t look like similar harassment tactics like doxxing, and it’s hard to argue that it is. However, the act of a group of people creating a dossier on someone with random facts they’ve collected in a short and fervent time feels like harassment and a form of surveillance, and it creates a panicked and ‘watched’ feeling from the victim. What are people collecting and why, and what will they do with it and when, where is information about me being stored and who can see it, why do they need to know where I work, will they contact my work? Those questions have nebulous answers but have real, emotional consequences for the victim. It feels awful and it is designed to make someone feel awful.
A WeChat room might spend days mapping out someone’s friends, family, and professional connections, documenting and verifying those connections. Fleshing might start with a group snapshot that includes the user they want to harass. The group starts by identifying everyone else in the photograph and reaching out to them for more insights, facts and information about the individual they are focused on.
Fleshing expands systematically and thoroughly throughout networks. Where doxxing often amounts to circulating disjointed information without any particular focus on verification, fleshing builds out a large base of information that is cross-referenced, verified and footnoted.
What’s important to note about these terms is that a system designed to recognize online harassment terms or specific kinds of interactions would have a hard time proving that fleshing is harassment. Fleshing doesn’t look like a coordinated harassment campaign, because it mimics gossip and groups of people talking about a well known person. What makes this harassment is how large the coordinated effort can be, and what it feels like to be a victim and see people digging for all of your personal information. It feels invasive because it is, and it can be dangerous because groups are actively looking for ‘data’ or fact that is negative about a victim, to build case against that victim. There’s also nothing a user can do to stop this. It’s hard to prove how harmful to a person fleshing can be because a social media celebrity with a large following will have gossip about them. So, proving that fleshing is nefarious act is difficult unless the system or moderators and administrators know what fleshing was and how to discern that from garden variety celebrity news.
This was just the beginning of my own research, but there is room for quite a bit more research on what different regions and cultures do and do not consider harassment. As social media companies write and revise anti-harassment policies, cultural context makes a difference.
If designers are only solving the problems that affect their community, then systems they build only work for a their own community. Social media systems are wide, and all encompassing, and understanding the nuances of different forms of harassment is important when trying to solve harassment.