Cases of cyber harm are so numerous that they are no longer novel- the murder of member of Parliament in the United Kingdom in 2016, the suicide of South Korea’s famous K-pop star Sulli in 2019, the suicide of an ordinary Chinese boy Liuxuezhou after reunion with his birth parents in 2022, to just name but a few. These tragedies are all resulted from online violence and harm.
A Brand-New World and Disorder
Cyberspace, a new home of mind, is the outcome of the digital age. It is everywhere and nowhere. Everybody can enter the space without any privilege or prejudice. Similar to the real world, cyberspace can also be regarded as a community that can generate social benefits while also demanding regulations and laws to guarantee everything is within a rational and ethical range.
Cyberspace is as complicated as the real world as it involves diverse kinds of transactions, various types of relationships as well as different thoughts. As it has a shorter history than the real world, it lacks sophisticated governance and thus potential risks and threats are always there. Without frontiers or boundaries of races, complexions, classes, economic power as well we military forces, cyber citizens, or in other words, netizens, might hurt people or even kill people in an invisible way and escape from legal liability with high probability(Barlow, 1996).
Online harms involves quite a lot, such as cyberbullying, adult cyber abuse, image-based abuse as well as illegal and restricted online content that could have a bad impact on especially kids, to just name but a few.
Online Harms Cases Caused by Cyberbullying and Cyber Abuse
Sulli’s suicide in 2019 was a shock. Sulli was a child star and a member of South Korea’s most popular girl group F(x). She sang and danced well and acted in TV dramas. At that time, Sulli had a bright future as one of the most representative Korean stars that enjoyed world famous. But when a lot of anti-fans and some Internet trolls began to have non-stop attacks on her, Sulli began to suffer from depression. In 2014, SM Entertainment, the largest South Korean company she belongs to announced that Sulli needed to have a break for a period because both her body and mind were exhausted. But the online rumors and violence against her never stopped. She asked her company to take strong measures to prevent cyberbullying. The death of Sulli indeed triggered a huge response in Korean society. Many Korean wrote petitions to the Korean president’s office to enhance the requirements of applying real-name online when posting comments as well as creating new accounts, which brought cyberbullying and cyberspace management and regulation to the forefront for the president. In order to prevent such kinds of tragedies from happening again, the political circle attached great importance to Sulli’s case and had an in-depth investigation into the case. “Sulli Act” was then mentioned and was enacted to protect Koreans from cyberbullying. In addition, a partial amendment to the Act on Promotion of Information and Communications Network Utilization and Information Protection was proposed in the same year to compulsively require online information service providers, social media providers and any other online communication service providers to delete online harassment, online hate speech and other different kinds of malicious comments. In the same year, an amendment was also enacted to mark hate speech and malicious comments as illegal information and make everyone who finds such kinds of comments the right to ask those publishers or posters to delete them. Also, Korean online information and communication service providers now have the right to disclose the full names who post comments and disclose IPs once needed. Besides, after Sulli’s death, there are many other kinds of laws and legal regulations related to hate speech and online harms were enacted for promoting information safety and building a healthy online communication environment. In 2019, the Korean biggest chatting App Kakaotalk temporarily stopped the comments on entertainment news and removed entertainment search terms for 1 year to protect entertainers from being harmed by online comments(Seo&Hollingsworth, 2019).
Liuxuezhou is another tragedy caused by cyberbullying. He was sold to traffickers as a child by his biological parents. His adoptive parents died when he was a child. Being an orphan meant he was bullied at primary school. He had been suffering from depression and had long been on medication. Unfortunately, when he grows up, he wants to find his birth parents. His biological parents incited online forces to slander him by claiming property from his parents. Liu came under intense public pressure and eventually committed suicide by swallowing a large number of antidepressants. The tragedy gripped China and aroused an outpouring of sympathy among people all over the world(BBC, 2022). He’s endured two major outcasts in his life, but he’s never been free of bullying. Similar tragic incidents happen all the time. Another tragedy is the death of a young Chinese man named Zhou Peng. He was bullied for being “too effeminate”. His death has sparked discussions about gender norms in China where male chauvinism is popular(BBC, 2021).
These three cases are caused by different kinds of cyberbullying, and cyber abuse and some involve hate speech.
What are These harms， Why They Happen and How They Hurt?
Cyberbullying is a new form of bullying. It can be defined as bullying using electronic tools and the Internet to verbally attack, isolate, taunt and threaten people being targeted or a certain group of people with the same characteristics being targeted. This kind of bullying can happen on all kinds of online platforms, from social media to gaming sites. Often repeated, cyberbullying aims to demean, intimidate, humiliate, or irritate the victim so that he or she is psychologically oppressed or hurt so that the perpetrator can control or harm the victim. This type of bullying is more insidious and varied than face-to-face bullying.
Common examples include defamation and spreading rumors, posting embarrassing or abusive photos or videos of the victims or targeted people on social media, or sending abusive, threatening information, photos or videos of targeted people and making the information known to a wide range of netizens. Also, it involves behaviors that inflicters impersonate the targeted people and sends mean messages to other people on their behalf or via fake accounts (LeFtman, Modin & Stberg, 2013).
Cyber abuse refers to online behaviors that could cause harms by sending, sharing or posting menacing, harassing or offensive information that is set to harm the targeted ones physically as well as mentally.
Cyber abuse and cyberbullying often happen with image-based abuse, which can be defined as sharing, posting or threatening other people’s photos and videos without their agreement and often these videos or images are indecent or embarrassing, most of which are restricted or illegal.
These online insults are often accompanied by hate speech. Hate speech can be defined as behaviors expressing, encouraging, stirring, and instigating hostility toward a certain group of people. This can often be classified by racial, sexual, gender, and religious factors.
Cyberbullying, cyber abuse, and hate speech can bring great harm to the psychology of the person being targeted, which can extend to physical damage and, in severe cases, can lead to suicide or homicide. The primary and most obvious injury is psychological injury. Specifically, when the victims are bullied or hurt by the Internet, their emotions will be depressed and hit, their value will be degraded or even trampled on and their dignity will be weakened. Cyber harms can be more frequent and covert, and more likely to have a group effect than face-to-face bullying or victimization in real life. For example, bullying a student at school can lead to the isolation of him or among classmates, while cyberbullying can be worse. It can start from malicious or disadvantageous comments by a few people to a large group of completely irrelevant people. Levels of bullying and abuse can fester as the Internet spreads and eventually become unmanageable. That’s what happened in the Sulli case. Long-term negative emotions can lead to mental problems and, in mild cases, mild depression or persistent depression. In severe cases, it can lead to major depression, anxiety, PTSD, suicide, self-harm, and even suicide(Karppinen, 2017).
Cyberbullying and cyber abuse are often directed at individuals, while hate speech is often directed at groups. Of course, hate speech often evolves into harm to individuals. For example, in the case of Zhou Peng just mentioned, the hate speech of ignorant netizens against a certain group of people directly led to the death of Zhou Peng.
The perpetrator is so emboldened by the fact that their behavior online is more hidden than the bullying or abuse that one faces in the real world. Perpetrators can hide their IP addresses in a variety of ways to avoid retaliation or tracking.
From a sociological point of view, most people characterize social media as a virtual world and distinguish it from the real world. It also leads to a fact that inflicters or perpetrators do not feel any responsibility for bullying, abuse or hate speech online. A lot of people think a malicious comment is nothing at all. However, indeed, a malicious comment full of prejudice and rumors ferments much faster online than face-to-face(Flew, 2021).
In addition, from the perspective of law, the development speed of the network society has been far faster than the speed of the law to regulate it. This has also allowed many criminals to take advantage.
Moderation and Prevention in the Future
The Internet is a land of free speech, but it is not a desert without laws and regulations. Everyone needs to be responsible for what they say on the Internet. The web needs moderation. Moderation can be defined as the avoidance of excess or extremes, especially in one’s behavior or political opinions.
Since the study of the algorithm has had significant breakthroughs in recent years, the development of digitization development that has already in a rapid speed has become even faster. Therefore, digital rights and personal privacy related to the network have become increasingly essential in digital era. Regarding this, governments of various countries are already aware of its importance and are speeding up the improvement of digital-related laws and regulations. Establishing and refining digital related governance is on the agenda of many countries. For example, China has promulgated Regulations on Computer Information System Security Protection, Regulations on the Protection of Information Network Transmission Rights, Regulations on the Security Protection of Critical Information Infrastructure and other relevant laws to regulate network security and protect individual rights and interests online. But this is far from enough. This not only requires the government to introduce strict laws but also requires law enforcement departments to pick up the pace to speed up cracking down cyberbullying, online abuse and hate speech.
From the perspective of the society as a whole, the efforts of law enforcement departments and legislative departments are efforts only from the downstream of the attack. If we want to prevent these harms from the sources, we also need the joint efforts of the whole society. Educational institutions, including kindergartens, primary schools, middle schools and universities, should educate students about why cyberbullying, hate speech and abuse are wrong, what harm will they cause and teach them how to protect themselves and defend their rights in such situations. And families need to educate their kids about Internet safety and it should become as important as protecting their body in the real world. On the other hand, corresponding psychological counseling should also be established to ensure that people who have been hurt can be comforted and treated(Gottschalk, 2022).
Barlow, P. 1996, A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace. available from: https://www.eff.org/cyberspace-independence
BBC, 2021, China: The death of a man bullied for being ‘effeminate’, available from: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-59576108
BBC, 2022, Liu Xuezhou: Outrage over death of ‘twice abandoned’ China teen, available from: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-60080061
Flew, Terry (2021) Regulating Platforms. Cambridge: Polity, pp. 72-79.
Gottschalk, F. . (2022). Cyberbullying: an overview of research and policy in oecd countries. OECD Education Working Papers.
Karppinen, K. (2017) Human rights and the digital. In Routledge Companion to Media and Human Rights. In H. Tumber & S. Waisbord (eds) Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge pp 95-103.
LeFtman, S. B. , Modin, B. , & Stberg, V. . (2013). Cyberbullying and subjective health: a large-scale study of students in stockholm, sweden. Children and Youth Services Review, 35(1).
Seo, Y. &Hollingsworth, J., 2019, Death of K-pop star Sulli prompts outpouring of grief and questions over cyber-bullying, https://edition.cnn.com/2019/10/15/asia/kpop-sulli-death-aftermath-intl-hnk-scli/index.html