Online harm is a tragedy, will you be the next protagonist?

Hate speech and online harms

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Since the development of new media, it can be said that people’s lifestyles are constantly changing, especially the way of self-expression, from the initial population to the use of paper, such as newspapers and magazines to exhibit their opinions, and then to the emergence of the Internet, the diversification of digital platforms, and the development of technology- mobile phones, TVs, computers, tablets, more and more platforms, and carriers can provide places and channels for people to express their opinions. In the initial version of the Internet platform, people envisioned free speech, as Barlow (1996) said in his Declaration of Independence in Cyberspace: We are creating a world that is accessible to all, without privilege or judgment conferred by race, economic power, military power, or place of birth. In the original vision, anyone can express his views and beliefs in the online world. However, in the process of starting to build this online world, in addition to bringing people an environment to communicate freely, online harm has gradually been seen by people.

What is online harm?

First of all, in the era of new media, the online world generated by digital information is a kind of virtual society that is interconnected with the real world but is very different, it is a non-physical but real public place. As Barney said(2013), The constitutive principles of networks have become the animating force of individual, social, economic, and political life, and this marks the distinction of our period in history. The essence of online harm is actually the same as the social violence brought about by malicious individual consciousness or group consciousness in real society. In online society, this kind of behavior is also a moral judgment that individuals make on a certain phenomenon or event without principles and justice. In the popular contemporary Internet language, it is called “moral kidnapping”.

Judging from the ways and means of online harm that we know so far, it is behaviors generally fall into the following categories:

Hate speech: Hate speech is defined as biased, hostile, malicious speech directed at individuals or groups of people because of some actual or perceived innate characteristic of them (Cohen-Almagor, 2012). It expresses discriminatory, intimidating, or vulnerable attitudes about characteristics such as gender, race, religion, nationality, colour, ethnicity, origin, disability, or sexual orientation (Cohen-Almagor, 2012).

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Invasion of privacy: Intrusion of privacy in online harm refers to the fact that content publishers or users are maliciously exposed and published on the Internet when they are unwilling to disclose personal information, family information and other private information.

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Image spoofing: Image spoofing on the Internet mostly comes from using some kind of bad social materials or cultural symbols to maliciously collage or graft pictures on a certain Internet user.

Judging from the above-mentioned behaviors, these violent behaviors are not unfamiliar to the current netizen. Personally, I can observe the above-mentioned behaviors on the Internet almost every day. Each of the above-mentioned practices, for the recipients, is passively accepting the ravages and tortures brought about by language. Under the long-term negative environment, they will have different degrees of psychological problems, such as depression, and anxiety, even when the psychological defense line collapses, they will also engage in radical behaviors, such as self-harm, suicide, harming others, and even acts of retaliation against society. It is conceivable that the Internet Society is a virtual world only in the minds of the perpetrators, but for the recipients, the harm and pain caused by the Internet will be reflected in the real world, and bring harm to their daily lives.

A real case study:

TikTok should be familiar to everyone. This short video platform was first launched in China in 2016. With the help of the concept that anyone can share their own life through video, it quickly became popular in the online world and gradually opened the overseas version has established a global network community culture. Just like Facebook and Twitter, this social media platform also has network damage that cannot be ignored when it is extremely popular. Based on the case of  Peiquan Han, we can feel more intuitively that online harm brings about how terrible harm we receive in real life.

Han is a 23-year-old Chinese boy. On the mainland Chinese version of TikTok, he quickly became popular on the Internet for making funny videos of men dressed as women. Later, he became known to more people because he participated in a variety of TV shows by a boy group held by a Chinese satellite TV. Judging from his background story, he was born with a cleft lip and palate, his mother abandoned him, and his father died when he was 14 years old. He was brought up by his grandmother and lived a life of ridicule and poverty since he was a child.

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At the age of 19, he started posting videos on TikTok, singing, live broadcasting, and being a drama queen, just because the grandma who raised him was also sick and needed money. So he hopes to make money through multimedia platforms such as TikTok. Because of his funniness and his hard work in making videos, he was indeed seen by many people, but at the same time, he also ushered in the attack of hate speech that hurts online. The words “not male or female”, “crazy” and “greasy” appear in the comment area of almost every video of his.

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Things climaxed when he finally got a chance to participate in a TV show. In his own words, he can use this opportunity to let everyone know what he looks like as a boy, so he took off his women’s clothes and participated in this TV show with his handsome boy appearance, but the result was different from his imagination completely different.

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As the TV clips were broadcast, his straightforward speech and straightforward personality did attract the likes of many fans, but as there were more and more topics of debate with other guests, he began to be crazily attacked by people on the Internet. Although he issued a statement explaining it is many clips broadcast on TV were edited, or many scenes were re-recorded to create gimmicks, there are still a large number of netizens attacking him with hate speech. The matter fermented to the end, and netizens began to spread rumors that he was taking drugs and cursed his sick grandma to die earlier. This left the 23-year-old with a total mental breakdown. He made a live broadcast on TikTok specifically for this matter to respond to people’s rumors about him, but there are still people who continue to attack him and his grandma in the barrage of comments. In this completely depressive and negative environment, he became more and more emotional during the live broadcast. After saying, “The day after I died, the whole world will apologize to me, that’s enough. Grandma, I love you.” he broke down and jumped out of the next window down. Fortunately, the police were called in time and the floor was not high, Han did not pay the price of his life for it in the end, but since then, he has never been active on the Internet platform.

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In fact, no one really knew the full picture of the whole incident, but since he was active on the Internet, the hate speech attacks have never really stopped, attacking his appearance, attacking the way he speaks, attacking his clothes, to finally, attack character, attack morality, and attack family members. The whole process actually lasted for a long time, which is why some people would have a nervous breakdown under such a long-term attack. So why, for such a long time, neither platforms nor government agencies have been able to effectively intervene in people suffering from this kind of harm?

Challenges of regulating and policing online harm:

With the development of the Internet to the present, in the process of continuous emphasis on supervision and order, it is still difficult to effectively manage and properly deal with online harm. One of the biggest reasons is the conflict between the intensity of supervision and the power of freedom of speech. Many commentators and online libertarians have spoken out that online platforms should be an egalitarian communication medium free from government regulation and censorship of information. However, the anonymity, immediacy, and global nature of the Internet also make it an ideal vehicle for extremists and hate mongers to incite hatred gradually increased (Banks, 2010). A study conducted by the UK’s Ofcom in 2020 reported that more than 6 in 10 (62%) UK internet users have experienced potentially harmful behavior or online content at least once in the past four weeks (Yonder Consulting, 2022).

Regarding this phenomenon, governments, relevant institutions, and platforms around the world are actually actively adopting norms and supervision of online harm, but they still face many specific challenges:

Platform technical issues: The algorithms and transportation of digital platforms are very complex, and existing technologies cannot accurately monitor hate speech in different cultures and languages. As mentioned in the article “Facebook: Regulating Hate Speech in the Asia-Pacific Region” by Sinpeng et al., The findings suggest that Facebook’s current hate speech detection and policing mechanisms are insufficient to address the unique challenges posed by the diverse sociopolitical and cultural contexts in the Asia-Pacific region (Sinpeng et al., 2021).

It is difficult to control the supervision of the government’s judiciary: First, the issue of social resource allocation. Criminal justice agencies are less likely to proactively invest time and money into investigating crimes that are not high public priorities, so the police rarely respond to online hate speech unless a specific crime is reported (Banks, 2010). The second is the guidance of public opinion. Whether the freedom of speech in the online society should be controlled by the government, and how to control it to make the masses feel comfortable is one of the challenges that the government is still looking to solve. Insufficient supervision will lead to more and more severe cyber harm, jeopardizing social security, national security, and the personal safety of the people. However, excessive supervision will increase the risk of hindering freedom of speech and depriving human rights.

Things we might be able to do:

Digital media is developing at a high speed, and the network society is also in a stage of continuous evolution and iteration. Human beings’ views and attitudes towards the network need to be continuously learned and improved. In the face of real-world dangers, we may have a complete template or long-term experience to deal with, but in the face of the “young” virtual society in the online world, our technology and supervision need to be constantly adjusted and updated.

The government: Pay attention to the harm that online harm brings to society, and seek a balance between the protection of people’s physical and mental safety and human rights; need to allocate funds and resources to supervise and punish those who cause online harm; Develop, improve and update cyber protection laws.

Regulators: Regulators should cooperate with governments, platforms, and users across borders to ensure that the scope of regulation is as broad and complete as possible and that the content of regulation is true and fair.

Platform: The platform should pay attention to the transparency of its own algorithm, and open the accountability system, so users can clearly see how the platform reviews content and data collection; users’ reports of online harm can be dealt with truthfully; regular It is necessary to collect questionnaires or public opinions; users have the right to express their dislike for a certain comment. For example, TikTok has recently released a new feature, users can click “dislike” on a video comment. When there are enough times, this comment will be automatically blocked.

In general, the digital society is already an existence that we cannot deprive in our daily life, and online harm is a tragedy for the recipients, and no one can guarantee whether you will be the protagonist of the next tragedy. Although so far, we still have many difficulties and challenges in the regulation of the digital society, as digital citizens, everyone needs to keep fighting for a clean and healthy network environment.

Reference list:

Banks, J. (2010). Regulating hate speech online. International Review of Law, Computers & Technology, 24(3), 233-239.

Barlow, J. P. (1996, February 8). A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace. Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Barney, D. (2013). The Network Society: Key Concepts. John Wiley & Sons.

Cohen-Almagor, R. (2012). Fighting hate and bigotry on the internet. Policy & Internet, 4(3), 1-26.

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. Department of Media and Communication, University of Sydney and School of Political Science and International Studies, University of Queensland.

Yonder Consulting. (2022). The Online Experiences Tracker (2021/22): Summary Report. Prepared for Ofcom.

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