Social media is a convenient platform for people to share their personal lives, communicate their thoughts, and collectively solve problems. However, it also poses many risks and dangers, such as hate speech, cyberbullying, and online harassment, which can lead to severe psychological harm. It is not only the responsibility of netizens themselves to maintain a healthy online environment, but also of media platforms and the government.
Different platforms use various methods and tools to combat online harm. Facebook, for example, employs artificial intelligence technology and professionals to detect and remove content that violates community standards. However, research has found that these measures may be insufficient due to the lack of knowledge of the local context or ineffectiveness in handling reports (Sinpeng et al., 2021). Similarly, Chinese social media platforms and the government also take many measures to regulate harmful online activities, particularly cyberbullying, but it still remains difficult to regulate due to the features of the media platform and difficulties in execution.
In this article, I will utilize a recent cyberbullying incident in China to demonstrate how certain characteristics of social media platforms “promote” online violence and highlight inadequacies in regulation.
Pink-haired girl took her own life
In 2022, 23-year-old Chinese girl Zheng Linghua shared her acceptance letter to graduate school with her bedridden grandfather, who had been hospitalized for nine months. However, cyberbullies subjected her to ridicule on social media platforms like Douyin, Weibo, and Xiaohongshu, mocking her dyed pink hair and spreading rumors of a romantic relationship with her grandfather. Despite initially responding positively, Zheng was diagnosed with depression and tragically took her own life on January 23rd, 2023 (De Pacina, 2023). Following her tragic death, discussions about Zheng Linghua on Chinese social media have heated up. While many expressed their regret over her passing, one cyberbully who was involved in the bullying of the pink-haired girl wrote an article on Zhihu, explaining why he targeted her and how he felt about her death. Shockingly, he showed no remorse or shame for his actions, revealing the disturbing and dangerous side of social media.
Figure 1. the confession of the cyberbully (onetwo sister, 2021, screenshot of a cyberbully’s post on Zhihu)
I attack you since I hate ×××: power struggle in cyberspace
When reading through the confession of this cyberbully, the first thing that stands out is his blunt statement of his personal position:
“Firstly, let me state my personal position:
1. I disapprove of, or to be blunt, dislike any hair dyeing except for dyeing black hair to cover grey.
2. I have a disdain for so-called ‘independent women’ who advocate ‘female fist’ (‘Female fist’ is a pejorative term used as a synonym for ‘female right’ in China, since ‘fist'[拳 quan] and ‘right'[权 quan] have the same pronunciation in Chinese )”—— the confession of a cyberbully
Hating hair dyeing or feminism, this is a matter of personal preference and stance which can never be a ‘justified’ reason for one to attack someone they don’t even know. However, Despite the fact that a girl committed suicide as a result of such cyberbullying, the perpetrator remains unashamed and continues to use their personal preferences as a defense for their harmful behavior. What is the reason for that? The cyberbully then gave the answer：
“So am I going to punch someone in real life just because they have dyed hair? Or should I actively seek out and insult those who proclaim themselves as ‘independent women’ on the internet? I have no time and there are many things and people that I dislike. However, if you keep pushing them into my face through the media, then, I’m sorry…”—— the confession of a cyberbully
This statement sheds light on what exasperated the cyberbully. In his opinion, the media’s coverage of the girl who dyed her hair is an invasion of his ‘personal space’ – “I don’t want to see this content, why does it keep appearing in front of my eyes? Just go away!” This feeling of invasion seems unreasonable, given that cyberspace is commonly viewed as a public domain where every individuals can come in and share something freely, be it on a single platform or across multiple platforms. However, If we take a closer look at the current online landscape, we will notice that there is a distinct ‘division of territories’.
According to a research that investigate the causes of “Gender Oppression” on the Chinese Internet, Liu argues that different Internet platforms constitute more subdivided simulated environments. That is to say, different media platforms curate specific content to cater to segmented audiences, creating an environment where similar ideas are prevalent, and where target audiences find themselves situated in their own “information bubbles.” Here, they gradually entrench their existing opinions and form social circles with like-minded individuals, building their sense of self-identity through collective identification (Liu, 2021). While using algorithms to analyze user preferences and effectively distributing personalized content can be seen as advanced business and marketing strategies for media platforms to better serve their users, this platform operation strategy can also lead to “group polarization,” where the attitudes and beliefs of individuals within a group become more extreme over time.
Looking back at how the Pink-haired girl became the target of cyberbullying, she first shared a photo of herself visiting her seriously ill grandfather after receiving her graduate admission offer on Xiaohongshu. The post received 60K likes the day it was posted, as the platform’s user base is primarily(90%) female (Ipsos, 2020). Unfortunately, the photo was then stolen by several other social media accounts on Douyin and Baidu. The most influential of these was a baijiahao account with over 300K followers. This pirated post received more than 300W viewership, and under the post were large amounts of negative comments, such as “Nightclub dancers also have master’s degrees?” and “like a barmaid” (there were many other disgusting comments that I won’t repeat…). These detractors were mainly male with strong misogyny, and this type of environment is quite common in many Chinese media platforms where most or half of the users are male. These male users often gather together to constantly share anti-feminist and misogynistic opinions, becoming more and more extreme over time.
“She has passed away? Deactivate my social media account and flee!”: Morally unburdened anonymous
After the cyberbully complained about how the content of the pink-haired girl’s post and news reports had offended him, he then went on to describe his reaction upon learning of her suicide. The anwser is quite staightforward —— Deactivate my social media account and flee! He also made a quite ‘philosophical’ conclusion:
‘Just like in the gender battle, where only the upper class wins, in the case of the victim and the online bullies, only the media wins. I can only let out a sigh like everyone else and then, just live my life as usual.’—— the confession of a cyberbully
As one among thousands of cyberbullies, he attacked someone online, and when that person died, he felt no impact on his life. Sadly, this seems to be the norm in our online world. This lack of morality on cyberspace is largely due to the anonymity, as netizens create virtual identities that are disconnected from their real selves. According to the research in which anaylise the psychological characteristics of cyberspace, it states that: the anonymity involved in creating a screen name encourages the acting out of fantasies lending a “masquerade” quality to online activity. A normally withdrawn person can act out aggressions online that she or he would never express in public (CHISHOLM, 2006). That is to say, anonymity can make people more aggressive.
While some social media platforms require users to provide identification documents during registration, this information is not publicly displayed in order to protect privacy and guarantee freedom of speech. Consequently, even if a user engages in negative behavior using a social media account linked to their real identity, their true identity remains unknown, and their friends and family are also unaware. This allows them to enter a world without any sense of supervision. Additionally, anonymity in online spaces also lowers the cost of bad behavior. As illustrated by the cyberbully’s confession, the only consequence for his actions was to deactivate his social media account and create a new one, thus erasing any record of his wrongdoings. With a new account and a new online identity, he could start anew and continue his actions without any accountability.
Weibo requires new users to
upload the photo of identity card
Question the Regulation
Platform’s regulation: effective?
As previously mentioned, certain aspects of media platforms have been found to contribute to the occurrence of cyberviolence, cyberbullying, and other types of online harm. Personalized content feeds often result in individuals only consuming content that reinforces their preexisting beliefs and biases, leading to group polarization and increased hatred towards others who are perceived as different. Anonymity also reduces individuals’ moral obligations and lowers the cost of engaging in negative behavior online. Despite this, media platforms are an essential component of regulating online behavior and can utilize other methods to prevent online harm. However, in this cyberviolence case, the effectiveness of these tools and strategies in addressing cyberbullying remains questionable.
- Reporting fatigue: why unsuccessful?
Reporting harmful content by individual users is a crucial step in deterring cyberviolence and cyberbullying. As harmful content can take various forms and cyberlanguage can evolve quickly, it is challenging for AI and network administrators to detect all instances of it. Thus, user reporting serves as an important tool for identifying and removing harmful content from online platforms. However, the effectiveness of the reporting system can be limited and may lead to a phenomenon known as “reporting fatigue,” where users become less inclined to report content due to a perceived lack of impact on moderation practices (Sinpeng et al., 2021).
In the case of the pink-haired girl, the situation was getting worse as many social media accounts illegally pirated her photos and posted false information. She immediately reported this situation to Douyin and other social media platforms, but the results were unsatisfactory. The girl made several posts on her social media account to record how she defended her rights.
Initially, she reported a social media account that stole her photo to Douyin. However, the account quickly hid the post using a function on Douyin that prevents videos from being shown to the public. This made it difficult for Douyin officials to handle the case. Moreover, on Douyin, only accounts with more than 10k followers can prohibit others from downloading their posted videos. As a result, ordinary users with fewer followers cannot prevent their content from being pirated.
This is a social media account that pirated pink-haired girl photos. The girl reported it to the official, but the account quickly hid the post so that the report failed. (Egg girl[鸡蛋姬], 2022)
Ineffective feedback is one of the aspects of the flaw of this reporting system. Another deficiency is the complex reporting procedure. In one of the posts of the pink-haired girl, she shared a post about reporting another account on Baidu for stealing her photo. However, despite reporting the incident, she received no feedback. Moreover, she highlighted the difficulties of locating the link to the report system and filling out the reporting form, which took her nearly an hour to complete. Fortunately, she had a friend who was an internal staff member at Baidu, and he helped her to remove the illegal content.
National laws: significant influence?
The self-regulation of platforms is often inadequate, making government intervention essential. According to Article 1119 of the Civil Code, portraits cannot be used by others without the permission of the rights holder, regardless of whether the use is commercial or non-commercial. In the case of the pink-haired girl, she had to take legal action against several social media accounts and their owners for infringing upon her portrait rights. While she eventually won the lawsuit, the legal procedure was still extremely arduous and time-consuming.
Article 1119 of the Civil Code:
No organization or individual may infringe upon the portrait rights of others through means such as disparagement, defamation, or the use of information technology to fabricate portraits. Without the consent of the portrait rights holder, no one may produce, use, or publicly display the portrait of the rights holder, except as otherwise provided by law.
Without the consent of the portrait rights holder, the owner of the rights to the portrait work may not use or publicly display the portrait of the rights holder through methods such as publishing, copying, distributing, renting, or exhibiting.”
One of the girl’s posts revealed that she had to spend 4000 RMB on notarization fees in order to sue the media account holders. Additionally, finding a lawyer cost her at least 10,000 RMB, which was a significant financial burden for her as a graduate student. She also pointed out that she was not just fighting against individuals, but rather a powerful interest group. With many media companies holding large numbers of social media accounts to produce content and earn profits, the influence of these companies is too great for individual users to contend with on their own. As a result, even though national laws are designed to protect individuals, the significant power disparity between the plaintiff and the defendant in a lawsuit can undermine the effectiveness of these laws.
The death of Zheng, the pink-haired girl, was not solely caused by the immoral cyberbullies who emerged from the polarized and unsupervised online environment, but also by the inadequate reporting system and legal process. To prevent similar tragedies, media platforms and the government must enhance their support systems, including promptly addressing reports, assisting those struggling with prosecution, and improving hearing case efficiency. Creating a secure and healthy network environment requires the collaborative efforts of multiple parties.
CHISHOLM, J. F. (2006). Cyberspace violence against girls and adolescent females. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1087(1), 74–89. https://doi.org/10.1196/annals.1385.022
De Pacina, M. (2023). Suicide of pink-haired Chinese woman sparks campaign to combat cyberbullying. Yahoo! News. Retrieved April 16, 2023, from https://news.yahoo.com/suicide-pink-haired-chinese-woman-194335539.html
Ipsos. (2020). 益普索 x 小红书 | 2020小红书年中美妆洞察报告 [Ipsos x Xiaohongshu | 2020 Xiaohongshu Mid-Year Beauty Insight Report] (PDF) [Chinese Simplified version]. Retrieved from https://www.ipsos.com/sites/default/files/ct/publication/documents/2020-08/2020xiaohongshunianzhongmeizhuangdongchabaogao.pdf
Liu, G. (2021). Study on the causes of “gender opposition” on the Internet. Journal of News Research.
Sinpeng, A. S., Martin, F., Gelber, K., & Shields, K. (2021). Facebook: Regulating Hate Speech in the Asia Pacific.
Cited social media posts:
Egg girl (鸡蛋姬)[pseudonym, real name: Ninghua Zheng]. (2022, July). My grandfather in the hospital opened my master’s admission letter [Post]. Xiaohongshu. http://xhslink.com/Vx5f8o (Due to the influence of this event, this URL cannot be used to access to this social media post)
Egg girl (鸡蛋姬)[pseudonym, real name: Ninghua Zheng]. (2022, July). My image was stolen by a Baijiahao user, leading to 3 million views and verbal abuse [Screenshot]. Xiaohongshu. http://xhslink.com/Vx5f8o (Due to the influence of this event, this URL cannot be used to access to this social media post)
Egg girl (鸡蛋姬)[pseudonym, real name: Ninghua Zheng]. (2022, July). Protecting rights 001: #| Violating my grandfather’s image rights for profit and traffic [Screenshot]. Xiaohongshu. http://xhslink.com/Vx5f8o (Due to the influence of this event, this URL cannot be used to access to this social media post)
Onetwo Sister[pseudonym] (2021). Screenshot of a cyberbully’s post [Screenshot]. Baidu Baijia. https://baijiahao.baidu.com/s?id=1758712158167968493&wfr=spider&for=pc