keywords: hate speech, internet, cyber violence, social media
Since the development of the Internet, social media has become a significant part of our lives. We have become more reliant on social media to communicate and get information. According to the 51st Statistical Report on China Internet Development by the China Internet Network Information Center ,1.06 billion people in China were internet users as of December 2022, up 35.49 million from the previous year,75.6%of people had access to the Internet.
First, social media gives us an easy way to stay in touch with our parents and friends, even if they are far away. We can share images, content, or experiences with others, which allows us to expand our social life. Second, social media has become an increasingly important source of information for many of us. We can browse the news events or any content we want via the social media application, which is convenient for us to understand various events and trends. At last, social media helps plenty of companies to develop their business. Many companies use social media platforms to promote their products and services, and interacting with potential customers encourages them to build their brand reputation. However, overuse of social media harms people’s mental health and thinking patterns and allows hate speakers to spread hate speech. Issues such as information proliferation, misleading information, and online violence have become the focus of public attention because of the ease of rapid information dissemination and the openness of freedom of expression, which allows users to share their thoughts and experience whenever and wherever. Due to the high internet availability rate, the potential consequence caused by hate speech is unpredictable and uncontrollable.
What is hate speech?
Hate speech is a common and severe problem in our daily life. What is hate speech? According to Curtis (2023), “hate speech, speech or expression that denigrates a person or persons on the basis of (alleged) membership in a social group identified by attributes such as race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, religion, age, physical or mental disability, and others.” Hate speech may produce serious aftermaths, including psychological damage, racism, violence and social exclusion, which can lead to a collapse of community trust.
On the individual aspect, the most prominent effect of hate speech is the vulnerability and instability of one’s psychological state. Due to the depression caused by cyber violence, audiences will feel mental discomfort when they see those bad words, even if they are only bystanders. Excessive posting of public opinions and hateful comments can bring stressful and painful experiences to the target audience. They suffer from the ravages and torture of online hateful speech day and night, making them mentally ill or extremely unconscious. People can be caused to be surrounded in such a hopeless environment for a long time by negative emotions, which can lead to depression and even self-harm or suicide. Moreover, the spread of negative information can result in reputation and money losses, leading to a more serious extent of discrimination and misunderstanding from a greater number of people. However, much of this negative news is not the truth. They are just rumours, the imagination of hate speakers. The stigma, humiliation, anger, and fear caused by these malicious statements and rumours can long-term impact the victim’s self-esteem and mental health. These effects also impact families and work units, affecting the peace of life and work order.
On the other hand, the malicious spread of hate speech can threaten society’s daily operations and disrupt social order. Some people rely on their self-righteous imagination to twist things, but many misunderstand the truth due to disinformation. Such actions exacerbate stereotypes and discrimination against certain groups or individuals, leading to an aggravation of prejudice and incitement of social disharmony. Hate speech intensifies social contradictions and conflicts, leading to social instability and undermining social harmony and unity. Publishing hate speech without verifying the truth amplifies the influence of these evil events on society. These behaviours and speeches are irresponsible and unintentionally cause life and mental distress to many innocent netizens and their moral values. In addition, malicious rumormongering is extremely immoral and can have a terrible impact on society, such as the spread of malicious thinking and an increase in crime rates.
To sum up, hate speech can easily lead to violence, hate crimes, and even demonstrations offline, which cause great harm to individuals and society. Hateful speech threatens freedom of expression and democratic values. It violates basic human rights values, infringes on people’s freedom of expression, and even threatens the stability of democratic institutions.
Different motivations exist among different hate speakers because each person’s situation and background are different. Some people derive pleasure, satisfaction, and a sense of existence from humiliating and degrading others. They may create virtual selves online out of boredom or dissatisfaction with themselves, attempting to play new roles with different character attributes and identities to gain an unreal sense of accomplishment. To alleviate the loneliness of the people who are afraid to interact with others in real life, they are willing to attract more attention from society even though they have antisocial personalities and express hate speech. But there are other purposes for most people. More hate speakers prefer to take the initiative to attack for some purpose instead of the realm of such gratuitous attacks. Some of them fight back because they were provoked. The content that annoys them does not mean to be offensive, but they were touched by a painful point or recalled similar backgrounds or experiences that they have. Others might be purposefully directing public opinion in political or commercial aspects because they can be beneficial from a trend of public voice. Additionally, most people make irresponsible statements for emotional catharsis, but they mean no harm. From the research published on FUDAN DEVELOPMENT INSTITUTE (2014), 44.0% of Internet users feel the pressure of their life. In addition, the stronger sense of stress in life is characterized by the younger generation, who were born in 1990s, up to 57.5%”.
Thus, they want to find a mental balance between the online and offline worlds. For instance, some people will think of their personal experiences and life circumstances in real life that have led them to develop psychological problems, such as anxiety, depression, and anger, leading them to engage in hate speech and online violence to vent their emotions online and to balance themselves psychologically. They take advantage of the anonymous nature of the Internet to avoid the moral standards of reality, abandon the daily rules of conduct and management of their words and actions, and vent their dissatisfaction with their lives and situations by making random malicious comments to gain mental relaxation.
The survey shows that about 40% of the respondents said they had encountered online abuse on social media somehow (WHYNOT, 2022). Although It is undeniable that the growth of the Internet has brought many positive changes to our daily life, we can have greater access to information and opportunities for social interaction. However, it has also promoted the development of hate speech and cyber violence. According to WHYNOT (2022), “Nearly 16% (15.7%) of the online abuse targets had suicidal thoughts, and more than 16% had self-harmed or attempted suicide”. Online abuse caused serious anxiety in nearly half of the target respondents.
A case of 23-year-old girl with pink hair, Linghua Zheng, can be an example to explain the above. She shared photos on the Little Red Book Chinese platform of her bedridden grandfather and herself, celebrating the landed offer from her coveted graduate school. She posted some comments under her pictures about her grandfather taking care of her since she was a child, and she hoped that he would be proud of her. But her joy was short-lived. Just a few days after posting this blog, she became the target of cyberbullying. Hate speakers constantly put out malicious comments and fake news, putting her under pressure and pain daily. “How can a hostess be a teacher !”, “A graduate student dyed her hair like a barmaid”, “A barmaid can become a master”, “Chinese people should not dye their hair any other colour, it is treason”, “Look at the photo. Does look like and barmaid, it is not a serious woman”. Some people labelled her a ‘barmaid’,- a ‘flighty woman’ and a ‘red-haired monster’ and so on, because of her pink hair.
（Picture and comments from Linghua Zheng’s Xiaohongshu account)
Some marketing accounts steal her pictures and fabricate fake stories to gain public attention and generate profit. Some other hate speakers even created yellow rumours that an old man was marrying a young lady who had just started graduate school. After that, she started looking for a lawyer to protect and defend her rights to sue these haters. However, after a long period of being insanely abused and attacked by netizens, she suffered from severe depression. She keeps struggling to fight the depression for six months. But eventually, she ended her life due to cyber violence and related school violence.
Why is online violence so hard to be solved? Compared with real-life bullying, cyberspace is an open and free environment. So, it is difficult to regulate netizens’ behaviours online, which makes people easy to escape legal responsibility. In addition, cyberbullying can be spread out in virtual space with higher speed, wider scope, and anonymity, which can be done worldwide without having any geographical restrictions. Therefore, it has a wider impact and is easier to affect more people. Moreover, anonymity on the Internet allows users to hide their real identity and use pseudonyms or anonymous accounts to attack and abuse others, which is hard to track and stop the hater’s actions.
Why are the regulations of laws for online speech imperfect? Because the restriction of laws and rules will also constrict free speech, which guarantees people the freedom to express their opinions and ideas. What is free speech? Free speech is a significant and fundamental right for netizens, allowing people to express their thoughts and opinions freely on various issues, including politics and society. Due to the lack of legal protection and the fact that users are not held accountable for their acts, the freedom of expression on the Internet is easy for users to voice their emotions. Many citizens become irrational and eager to attack other netizens to express their own perspectives and unhappiness when subjected to specific stimulation or self-pressure. Online violence and hate speech have increased because of irresponsible attitude toward online speech.
Although, Free speech is risky in some situations. It is undeniable that relief from a bad mood, such as sadness and anger, is necessary. Netizens can express their inner thoughts that they are afraid to express in real life on online platforms. Some people do not have the confidence to talk with people they meet in real life, so they prefer to speak out their opinions on the Internet to find more supporters. If they do not have the right to present online freely, it will easily cause them to be unable to speak out their views, which will make them keep their thoughts hidden in their hearts. Emotional suppression for a long time may increase the prevalence of depression. When we cannot handle or express our emotions effectively, repressed emotions and negative feelings will accumulate over time. This accumulation of emotions will make people feel extremely dispirited, tired, helpless and hopeless, and gradually progress into depression. Besides, depression of emotions may lead citizens to express some negative moods, such as anger, irritability, anxiety, and depression. These emotions will explode at inopportune times if our moods are constantly suppressed. In that case, people will easily uncontrollably behave inappropriately toward others, like violent behaviour, emotional outbursts, and verbal aggression. It will harm themselves and others but also lead them into more painful emanation and psychological states in this situation. Therefore, the public should realize the correct way to express speech. If the laws and regulations restrict hate speech, they will also restrict free speech, which is not the best solution for both.
Suggestion for Solution
Based on the above analysis, while free speech is a fundamental right for citizens, hate speech is not protected under the laws in many counties. Raising public awareness of hate speech may be a better solution to dealing with hate speech. We interpret hate speech not as speech that causes offence or hurt feelings but rather as speech that has the potential to cause immediate and long-term harm (Sinpeng et al., 2021).
As individuals, we can better understand and respect other views via learning from the perspectives and experiences of different cultures and groups, which can help us to establish better communication to speak out our inner thoughts with people from different backgrounds and cultures. For society, social media platforms can create some social issue campaign about hate speech, letting citizens know that hate speech harms and understand how the target audience feel. For the government, they can use various online platforms to enhance publicity and education, which can help us to get depth understanding of hate speech and how to avoid and oppose this speech.
On the other hand, learning to deal with negative emotions correctly is another important solution. When we feel emotionally unstable, we should immediately stop what we are doing. Trying to find something else to divert our attention and calm ourselves down to relax, such as listening to music, exercising, or talking to friends. At the same time, it is also recommended to seek help from a professional psychological counsellor or doctor, which can help us relieve emotions and improve our mental health and quality of life. In addition, the government can set up a safe and fair platform for us to speak out our thinking and thoughts, which can help us to understand and respect diverse views and cultures by communicating and debating with others. Therefore, raising public awareness and releasing pressure is currently the best way to restrict hate speech and its harmful effects.
In conclusion, the ubiquity of social media not only changes our lives but also provides a platform for spreading hate speech. Nowadays, hate speech has become a severe problem increasingly, leading to unimaginable consequences, including psychological harm, social exclusion, and destruction of social stability. Although, different haters have different intentions to speak out about hate speech, which pushed the extension of harmful and discriminatory messages. Instead of imposing restrictions on free speech, perhaps raising the awareness of empathy and channelling emotions among the public would be the better solution to decrease the number of hate speech. At the same time, it might probably reduce the extent of generating the rebellious psychology of hate speakers. We should all increase our sense of empathy and put ourselves in others’ shoes to vent and address our mood to reduce unquestionable aggression and conflict. More importantly, being empathetic is also the easiest way to preserve ourselves from being offended by hate words on the contrary. Knowing both our adversary and ourselves is one of the most direct ways to make us more powerful, since at least we will firmly believe in ourselves and trust that we have done nothing wrong, but some boring or pathetic people need expressing, which are worth ignoring. So, try to tell ourselves, “It’s hate speech. It’s annoying. But it doesn’t mean anything”.
China Internet Network Information Center (2023, March 2). The 51st Statistical Report on China’s Internet Development. https://www.cnnic.net.cn/n4/2023/0302/c199-10755.html
Encyclopedia Britannica. (n.d.). Hate speech. In Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved April 8, 2023, from https://www.britannica.com/topic/hate-speech
FUDAN DEVELOPMENT INSTITUTE. (2014, October 21). 中国网络社会心态报告(社会情绪篇). https://fddi.fudan.edu.cn/d4/ec/c19104a185580/page.htm
Sinpeng, A., Martin, F., Gelber, K., & Shields, K. (2021, July 5). Facebook: Regulating hate speech in the Asia Pacific. Final Report to Facebook under the auspices of its Content Policy Research on Social Media Platforms Award. Dept of Media and Communication, University of Sydney and School of Political Science and International Studies, University of Queensland. https://r2pasiapacific.org/files/7099/2021_Facebook_hate_speech_Asia_report.pdf
Suicide of Pink-Haired Girl. (2022, January 10). Suicide of Pink-Haired Girl: CCP Exploited Tragedy. Bitter Winter. https://bitterwinter.org/suicide-of-pink-haired-girl-ccp-exploited-tragedy/
WHYNOT. (2022, April). Online Abuse in China: A Survey of Young Social Users. https://s3cdn.wainao.me/s3fs-public/2022-04/online-abuse-survey-rpt-EN.pdf
Pictures collage by Yingying Zheng using Canva to make