This article will mainly explore the causes of hate speech and online violence through analyzing a recent case of fatal cyberbullying in China, including institutional, propagational, and cultural factors. Furthermore, the challenges facing the governance of hate speech and online harm are analyzed at both the platform and legislative levels.
Linghua Zheng, A Chinese girl who just in her 20s but suffered too much from despair for half a year that was brought on by extreme cyberbullying, finally suicided in order to put an end to the internet crazy drama.
“If I pass away,” Zheng once hoped, “maybe the public would pay attention to internet violence, and those who disseminated hate speeches against me will be shamed for the rest of their life.”
In July 2022, Linghua Zheng posted a photo and a video on Bilibili and Xiaohongshu. In the video, she dyed her hair pink and went to the hospital with her acceptance letter from East China Normal University to visit her 84-year-old grandfather. The next day, she found that two Douyin users had stolen her photo and made a short video for an educational institution. She was described as a motivational student who obtained an offer for a vocational school after failing the College Entrance Examination. The stolen photo and short video quickly spread to more social media platforms, such as Weibo, Douyin, Xiaohongshu, and Bilibili. In just two days, a post reached 2.95 million views, and various social media platforms were flooded with comments such as:
“A graduate student with hair dyed like a bar hostess.”
“What kind of job is suitable for someone with hair dyed like this?”
“Does a night club dancer need a master degree now?”
“If she can get accepted with hair like this, what’s wrong with you guys?”
Most of the authors of these speeches are males. She tried to refute each comment, but there were too many.
“I just like pink hair and hope to look better when taking graduation photos and participating in performances.” Linghua Zheng said.
The harsh words even affected Zheng ‘s grandfather, the sick and hospitalized old man. Some netizens accused Zheng of “using her grandfather for publicity” and “thinking her grandfather was slowing her down,” and even suspected that she and her grandfather had a “May-December romance.”
In addition to her grandfather, the university that admitted her also became the object of criticism. Some netizens expressed dissatisfaction with her identity as a normal student or an art student, saying that a student with dyeing hair never study well so she’s not qualified to be a teacher, her hair is a disgrace to East China Normal University and the country should cancel art students admission policy.
Up until the present time, the internet controversy sparked by the 95s girl dyeing her hair pink has not completely subsided. On Zhihu, the Chinese digital forum, there are still people continuously making comments, like:
“Chinese people shouldn’t dye their hair other colors, it’s treacherous.”
“From the photo, she really looks like a hostess, obviously not a decent woman.”
“How much money was spent planning this event?”
Case Analysis: Why Did the Insane Tragedy Happen?
Murder No.1: The Silence Role of Regulators
Her journey to seek justice has been exceptionally rocky because of the inactive role of regulators and flaws in the platform reporting mechanisms. She tried to have infringing videos taken down from Douyin, the short-video platform, but her complaints were dismissed simply without any punishment towards the illegal users because they had already made the stolen videos private. On social media platforms such as Weibo, her private messages were blocked, and her comments were ignored. After finally finding the platform’s complaint page, she discovered that the complaint process was extremely cumbersome: she had to first fill out a withdrawal letter and then submit copies of her ID card, as well as a personal or official seal. In order to gather evidence, notarize, and record it, she had to repeatedly read those unbearable and offensive comments.
The regulators of Chinese digital platforms never consider the terrible influence of hate speech and cyberbullying triggered by it, not even made any sketchy policies to moderate toxic contents. If there are any documents just like Facebook Community Standards that could be used to execute, things may not become that disastrous.
Murder No.2: The Irrational Crowd
Cyberbullying is collective behavior triggered by every personal hate speech. Traditionally, the “crowd” is said to constantly have a collective “mind” that is distinct from individual minds, and that this collective mind causes people to lose their individuality, become more suggestible, and have a propensity for irrational and emotional behavior (Le Bon, 1895). In the internet context, there are two factors that strengthen the delicate attribution of the crowd:
As we all know, the cyber reality is constructed by algorithms. Only a few minor information technology experts know how it exactly works, but everyone who can access the internet is influenced by its invisible magic power. For example, all the contents we can see on social media are filtered and recommended by algorithms according to every individual’s preference, gradually creating echo chambers that repeatedly present what we want. Therefore, in Zheng’s case, males tend to see posts written by females and react more positively because of mating instinct, which is already transformed into machine logic. However, chambers are not completely closed, and sometimes they will see something different, someone who totally exceeds their expectations, just like Zheng, disrupting their Chinese stereotype of an ideal female student: quiet, gentle, and absolutely black hair. After being shocked, they are likely to post negative comments and even malevolent speeches. After all, there is no cost to pay to criticize someone under the anonymity protection from current internet rules.
Silence of Spiral and Opinion Leader
When an opinion is supported by the majority, other people who hold different ideas will be gradually unwilling to express themselves and tend to keep silence, bringing about an abnormal spiral: the voice of the minority is becoming increasingly faint, while the viewpoint of the majority is gaining more and more support (Elisabeth, 1980) and finally become some kind of “truth”. In Zheng’s case, although there were some comments support her, the power was not enough to stop bullies to immerse themselves into crazy revelry and they have great “helpers”: the marketing accounts, who stirring up negative emotions are professionals equipped with skills such as using emotional language and attractive images to entice users can be seen as opinion leaders (Katz & Lazarsfeld, 1955) that have key influence on the pubic main perspectives.
Actually, in addition to cyberbullying, we can also observe the illogical population routinely using hate speech as a weapon in the fandom community(Ghaffari, 2020) of social media. The distinction is that although fandom flame wars typically involve two or more groups assaulting each other, cyberbullying typically involves a large group of people verbally abusing a single individual.
For instance, even if the authors never explicitly confirm, many fans of audiovisual works frequently ship one character with another and enjoy analyzing their (potential) romance. Next, to support their ships, these shippers will build their own communities on social media platforms like Reddit(Masanori, 2017) and Tumblr, produce artwork, or publish analysis pieces. The community, however, is another type of echo chamber. Shippers who invest too much emotion will eventually grow intolerant of any opposing viewpoints as the community’s contents keep solidifying their pre-existing beliefs, and occasionally ridiculous hate arguments happen when they “fight” for their ships. For example, some fans of the North American anime RWBY believe a female character in the series is lesbian and should be together with another female role. Then some male fans who believe the character ought to have a straight romance assert that she shouldn’t be a lesbian because she has big boobs, and ‘we all know’ lesbians never have big boobs.
Murder No.3: Male Gaze and Chinese Patriarchal Culture
Because the internet’s virtual world is a reflection of the actual one, hate speech on the internet is inevitably influenced by real-world cultural elements. We can see the straight male perspective, which presents female characters as sexual objects, commenting on their bodies and appearance in accordance with their fictitious women stereotypes or erotic preferences, which is an extension of patriarchy from real world society, whether in Zheng’s case or in the example of RWBY male fans.
The culture of male dominance may be more deeply ingrained in China than in most other nations and areas, and one of the most important factors in this is that it is the birthplace of Confucianism. It has too much of an impact on Chinese culture to be considered a religion or something “divine.” Although Confucianism emphasizes virtues like compassion, justice, and faithfulness, it also incorporates aspects that are discriminatory towards women. Women are frequently seen as men’s belongings and are expected to be obedient and moral; as a result, they are frequently seen as utilitarian instruments with little need for personality and are always seen as being more essential than the demands of their spouse and children.
Two facts in Zheng’s case are “sensitive” to men who live in China’s patriarchal society. Initially, Zheng got accepted by a renowned university as a postgraduate, but she should have gotten married and devoted herself to her spouse at her age according to conventional wisdom; only men can pursue higher education, and men are typically thought to be wiser than women. Zheng also colored her hair pink, which contrasts with the stereotypical picture of Chinese ladies and shows personality. Because of this, a “rebellious” lady with pink hair is admitted to a prestigious university that many male students are unable to attend, which causes jealously, lowers self-esteem, and leads to dissatisfaction that eventually turns into irrational humiliation.
Governance Challenges: How to Prevent Tragedy Happen again?
Digital platform regulators urgently need to control hate speech and other harmful information, and the reporting mechanism needs to be finished right away to defend user rights. In order to boost consumer knowledge of how material is sorted and recommended on platforms, algorithmic transparency (Flew, 2021) should be improved. This would entail platforms offering users more control over their personal data as well as knowledge about how algorithms operate and are developed. Yet there are many issues that need to be resolved, and in my opinion, the majority of them have to do with legislation.
First of all, acquiring proof of the quantity of comments clicked on is challenging. The same defamatory information will become a crime of defamation if it is genuinely clicked, seen, or forwarded more than 5,000 times or more than 500 times, respectively, according to the legislative regulations on the conviction of online defamation(2013). The quantity of clicks can show how much of an impact the cyberbullying victim has had. However, there may be discrepancies between the time the snapshot of the click volume was captured and the time the click volume was actually generated, which could lead to mistakes in the court’s discretionary process. Moreover, after accepting the case, the court must still confirm the actual click volume through the platform, even if the proof is notarized.
Second, it can be challenging for regular people to track down the precise information of those that violate their rights. The only option is to file a lawsuit against the internet platform firms first and demand that they reveal the identity of the infringers. The plaintiff can then ask the court to add the infringers as defendants so that a civil trial can be held.
The difficulty of categorizing aggressive language used online is the third problem. When Zheng reported the event to the police, the response she received was that “crime cannot be defined without calling name.” Legally speaking as well as practically, cyberbullying is defined in a way that is quite nebulous. There are a large number of unclassifiable comments, some comments use abbreviations or emojis, which cannot be used as qualifying vocabulary for cyberbullying. Ultimately, whether it constitutes defamation in criminal cases needs to be determined by the court’s discretionary judgment on whether it is an infringement.
Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann. (1980). Die Schweigespirale. Öffentliche Meinung – unsere soziale Haut. Zurich/Munich: Piper.
Flew, T. (2021). Regulating Platforms. Cambridge: Polity.
Xue Qing, G. (2023, February 22). The Girl with Pink Hair Who Was Crushed by Online Bullying Is Gone. http://zqb.cyol.com/html/2023-02/22/nw.D110000zgqnb_20230222_2-05.htm
Ghaffari, S. (2020). Discourses of celebrities on Instagram: Digital femininity, self-representation and hate speech. International Journal of Language and Culture, 7(2), 246-267. https://doi.org/10.1075/ijolc.00015.gha
Facebook. (n.d.). Community standards. Retrieved April 6, 2023, from https://transparency.fb.com/en-gb/policies/community-standards/
Katz, E., & Lazarsfeld, P. F. (1955). Personal influence: The part played by people in the flow of mass communications. Free Press.
Le Bon, G. (1895). The Crowd: A study of The Popular Mind. Macmillan.
Masanori, A. (2017). #Gamergate and The Fappening: How Reddit’s algorithm, governance, and culture support toxic technocultures. New Media & Society, 19(3), 329–346. https://doi.org/10.1177/1461444815608807
Mulvey, L. (1975). Visual pleasure and narrative cinema. Screen, 16(3), 6-18. https://doi.org/10.1093/screen/16.3.6
Pasquale, F. (2015). The Need to Know. In The Black Box Society: The Secret Algorithms That Control Money and Information (pp. 1-18). Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Supreme People’s Court, & Supreme People’s Procuratorate. (2013). Interpretation on the Application of Law in Cases of Defamation through Information Networks. (X. Liu, Trans.). China Law Translate. Retrieved April 6, 2023, from https://www.chinalawtranslate.com/en/interpretation-on-the-application-of-law-in-cases-of-defamation-through-information-networks/