Long before the internet era, there was the term ‘Hate Speech’. Nowadays, thanks to social media, ‘Hate Speech’ has evolved into one of the most urgent and critical issues currently being addressed in Internet Governance, and it is usually discussed along with the issue of Online Harassment. So why are people now paying this much attention to an issue that has been existing for a long time and what are the difficulties in addressing it? And most importantly, why should we care about it?
What Online Harassment (Hate Speech) Is & What It Does
There are different views on what constitutes Online Harassment. Some see it as less defined by specific actions but more characterised by its intended effect on the target and their experiences, and there are some common practices such as insulting, threats and doxing (revealing one’s private information online) that harassers frequently adopt to silence the target (Jhaver et al., 2018).
Online Harassment can occur when it comes to topics related to politics, religion, race, gender, etc., and it can escalate to Hate Speech when the speech expresses, encourages or incites hatred against individuals of a specific group characterised by a particular feature such as race, gender, sexual orientation, nationality and so forth (Parekh, 2012). The three main features of Hate Speech include being directed to a specific individual or a group of individuals, stigmatising the target by attributing qualities to it that are widely viewed as undesirable, and thus making the target an undesirable existence and a threat to the stability & well-being of society (Parekh, 2012). According to Flew (2021), it is in this way that Hate Speech significantly fosters mistrust & hostility in our society and undermines the dignity of the targeted individuals or groups.
Online Harassment and Hate Speech can have negative impacts on its target. As Parekh (2012) argued, Hate Speech fosters intimidation, discrimination, prejudice, and contempt, and the target has to constantly live with fear and harassment. Meanwhile, the mental harm it causes can be comparable to more apparent physical injuries and can be ongoing & long-term (Sinpeng et al., 2021). Research has shown that Online Harassment can lead to severe emotional issues such as anxiety & depression, in the worst-case scenario, and even suicide (Ashktorab & Vitak, 2016).
According to Li (2005), Online Harassment usually aims at attacking the target’s social, economic or emotional well-being. Šléglová and Černá (2011) further supported that argument by highlighting the connections between harassment and the target’s feelings of caution, fear, stress, loneliness, distrust and lower self-esteem as well as physical actions such as self-harm and aggression towards others.
What’s more, since the main purpose of Online Harassment is to put the target to silence and many of them choose to leave social media to avoid further harassment, this undermines many of their rights and opportunities such as freedom of expression and the right to enjoy the convenience of technology (Gelber, 2021; Jhaver et al., 2018).
What Is The Role Of Social Media?
So how is social media making everything worse?
Social media is now the most common place where Online Harassment takes place (Jhaver et al., 2018). Its anonymity makes it less risky to conduct harassment online (Suler, 2004) and its interaction mechanisms make it easier for harassers to find their targets and conduct collective harassment (boyd, 2008). The rich affordances of different platforms also provide harassers with much more methods to attack their targets and the very nature of social media just simply lowers the barrier to engaging in such activity as long as you have a smartphone that is connected to the internet with social media accounts.
As for the victims, the sheer amount of harassment they could probably receive online now is just unimaginable in comparison with before, the tactics are more toxic and diverse, the harms can accumulate over time, and the emotional impact can last for a long time even after they go offline (Phillips, 2015). In addition, since social media have basically become an essential part of our everyday life, the victims now face a difficult situation where they need to choose whether to stay online and face non-stop harassment or go offline and give up the rights & opportunities they are entitled to.
Consequently, social media indeed add to the complexity and severity of the issue, and if not solved as soon as possible, it will destroy everything that is good about social media and pose a real threat to society.
Online Harassment and Cybersexism
Some groups in society are particularly vulnerable to Online Harassment. Studies have found that women and minorities are more frequently targeted by harassers online (Golbeck, 2018; Jhaver et al., 2018). In her book, Levey (2018) further pointed out that there has been an increase in online misogyny in recent years as a result of the popularity of social media, women who have been harassed online are twice more likely to find the experience extremely or very frustrating in comparison with men, and due to the ubiquity of the internet, it is almost impossible for women to hide away from harassment, especially when their livelihood depends on the everyday use of the internet.
Moreover, much of the harassment women face online is sexual harassment, and even though it already existed long before the internet, online sexual harassment can be understood as an attempt to separate women from a specific sector of the public space. Since social media platforms are a major public stage where the construction and performance of gender and sexuality take place, women who do not follow traditional norms and values are more likely to receive verbal assaults such as being called ‘bitch’ or ‘whore’. And as Levey (2018) explained, these verbal assaults reflect and reinforce the belief in the essential differences between men and women & women’s inferiority and lack of ownership over their body, and it is in this way that online misogyny constructs and consolidates essential differences and hierarchies in gender and sexuality within society.
Furthermore, Poland (2016) in her book explored the concept of Cybersexism systematically. She defined Cybersexism as the expression of prejudice, privilege, and power online through technology as a medium, which often aims at establishing, enforcing, and normalising male dominance online through behaviours such as sexual harassment, threats, and doxing to make the online environment unsafe, unpleasant, and uncomfortable for women to participate in.
Cybersexism is, in its nature, an online manifestation of offline beliefs and practices which tends to reinforce the existing power structure and dominance over women who have been historically oppressed by men, and it adopts the same tactics that are used offline, namely sexual objectification and insults & gender stereotyping, to keep women away from power and dominance online.
She then identified active verbal harassment as the most common form of online abuse on social media which mainly points towards the comment section under social media posts, and she also highlighted harassers’ belief in the inherently sexist nature of online spaces which helps justify their behaviours, reject any responsibility, and place blame on the targets for their ‘inappropriate behaviours’ instead.
To summarise, women are a group that is particularly vulnerable to online harassment (mostly sexual) on social media. Cybersexism can be seen as sexist online harassment that aims at creating and reinforcing existing male dominance and norms around gender and sexuality on the internet, which cyber sexists perceive as inherently sexist and insist that women must accept being abused as the cost of entry.
Case Study: The Suicide of ‘Pink-Haired Prostitute’ on Xiaohongshu
An incident that happened last year on the popular Chinese social media platform Xiaohongshu is a relevant example that can help us understand the issue of Online Harassment and Hate Speech.
In July, Zheng Linghua, a 23-year-old young woman from Eastern China, shared posts on the popular Chinese lifestyle app Xiaohongshu showing her admission letter to East China Normal University to her grandfather who had been hospitalised for nine months.
Shortly after that, thousands of users began to drop ugly comments under the posts, attacking her pink hair which she dyed to celebrate her graduation. Because Zheng mentioned in her posts that she had an interest in music education, many criticised that it was not appropriate for a teacher to have such a bizarre hair colour, some called her a ‘nightclub girl’ and a ‘prostitute’.Even worse, there were rumours spreading that suggested a romantic relationship between her and her grandfather as a married couple.
Initially, Zheng faced these malicious personal attacks with positivity, but she was soon diagnosed with depression in the same month and suffered from sleeping and eating disorders, she was even hospitalised once. Finally, after a six-month-long combat with endless harassment and depression, on 23rd January this year, Zheng took her own life.
In her suicidal note, she claimed that the numerous anonymous online harassers were responsible for her depression and death (Pacina, 2023; Yang, 2023; Yao, 2023).
Through this unfortunate event, we can now understand how Online harassment against women can impose long-term and serious psychological harm upon the target, how it utilises gender stereotyping and sexual insults to confine the target to existing gender and sexuality norms in online spaces, and how the affordances and anonymity of social media amplify the scale and influence of Online Harassment and Hate Speech.
That being said, the more pressing question now urgently needs to be answered is: what can we do about it?
Online Harassment and Regulation Dilemma
Social media are constantly surrounded by debates on content regulation, freedom of speech and state intervention (Auerbach, 2017). However, as Jhaver et al. (2018) pointed out that restricting online abuse is crucial to sustaining the usability of online spaces. In the meantime, Flew (2021) also agreed that the concept of free speech absolutism needs to be significantly modified in our current legal, regulatory, and business system, and the key question is whether that concern points towards government involvement more or self-regulations by platforms themselves in the public interest more.
In our case study, although Xiaohongshu (n.d.) in its Community Guidelines encourages users to ‘respect other users and the content they share’, ‘put yourself in others’ shoes and ensure friendly interactions’, ‘only discuss the content shared and avoid making comments on people’s appearances, body image, age etc.’, and ‘proactively report any content that you believe violates our Community Guidelines’, it did not effectively respond to the request of Zheng’s lawyer to remove the abusive content (Xu & Wang, 2023).
Meanwhile, China, as an authoritarian state that regulates public speech heavily on the internet (Sinpeng et al., 2021), has also been relatively slow in adopting formal legislation to tackle Online Harassment and Hate Speech, since most of its efforts were devoted to censoring politically sensitive topics.
As Golbeck (2018) argued that the solution to Online Harassment is not simply one action but a set of tools, both social and technical. Following the suicide of Zheng, multiple Chinese state media have expressed opinions on the issue.
China Daily stated that people need to be educated to respect and appreciate individuality and diversity to promote an open-minded and inclusive society while emphasising the importance of enhancing laws and regulations to tackle discrimination and cyberbullying (Yao, 2023).
Global Times addressed the responsibilities of social media platforms, claiming that systematic regulations need to be established to help these companies recognise their role as ‘frontline fights’ against cyber abuse (Shan, 2023).
Hence, the underlying logic here can be interpreted as social media platforms should take the primary responsibility for preventing and tackling online abuse and the state should adopt legal approaches to prompt them to fulfil their obligations while educating the general public.
However, how to make this process as efficient and effective as possible still needs further exploration and experiment, considering the rapid formation of Online Harassment, the large scale of its reach, and its huge influence.
We have witnessed the harm Online Harassment and Hate Speech can cause and how they are significantly amplified by social media. To protect the potential victims, the usability of social media, and the well-being of our society, we must find ways to control this kind of harmful speech and behaviour in our online spaces to ensure that everyone can enjoy equal opportunities and rights, including freedom of speech.
There is a popular saying in China: the law cannot punish the public, so social media companies must realise that the primary responsibility in tackling online abuse lies on their shoulders. As commercial entities, which rely on user traffic to generate profit, always acting in the public interest voluntarily is just not realistic for these internet companies. Laws and regulations are inevitable, but how to make state intervention work in the best way still needs to be figured out.
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