Online harm is not a very rare phenomenon, and it happens almost every day in today’s online social environment. Due to the rapid development of the internet, more accurate algorithms have been developed to help spread information faster and more widely on the platform. Looking at this alone many people may think that this is a very good thing, but in reality, this is one of the reasons why the damage of online harm has become more serious. People who are subjected to online harm receive a lot of verbal violence from the Internet in a short period of time, and this violence can last for a long time, causing long-term and violent emotional damage to the person who is subjected to online harm, and sometimes this damage can be carried over into real life.
This blog is intended to discuss a recent incident of online harm on the popular Xiaohongshu platform in China and to explore the causes and background of the incident, as well as the role of the Xiaohongshu platform in the incident. To facilitate the discussion, we will first define hate speech and online harm to help you better understand the meaning of online harm and discuss who is more vulnerable to online harm in China’s social media platforms. In the second part, we will discuss a specific case of online harm on Xiaohongshu – a female university student with dyed pink hair who suffered from depression and eventually committed suicide after being subjected to online attacks. The third section will introduce the features of Xiaohongshu’s platform and recommendation mechanism, discuss what it did and did not do in this case, and whether it should be held responsible for this case. Finally, this blog will conclude with a summary and a vision for the future of appropriate online management.
The Office of the eSafety Commissioner’s website identifies four common forms of online violence: Cyberbullying, Adult cyber abuse, Image-based abuse, and Illegal and restricted online content.
Cyberbullying is usually when someone actively uses the Internet to make mean comments about young people in order to make them feel frustrated and upset. This behavior can occur on any number of online platforms such as games, social media, etc. It can also take many forms, including but not limited to private messages, comments, graphics, videos, posts, emails, etc. There are people who cause harm to young people or children by sharing and spreading photos and videos or vulgar gossip about them. According to Moreno (2014), cyberbullying differs from traditional bullying in that, first, there is a randomness to the bullying, and victims in cyberbullying do not know the identity of the bully and usually do not know why they are being bullied. Second, as long as the victim uses a computer or mobile network, the harm caused by the bully is uninterrupted. Third, bullying on the Internet can spread and may lead to more bullies engaging in the practice, which can cause harm to victims that lasts longer and causes more serious harm than traditional bullying.
Adult cyber abuse differs from cyberbullying in that the bully turns to adults, often with more emphasis on sexual harassment, rumor spreading, and defamation in the process. Adult cyber abuse can cause psychological and even physical harm to the victim and can also negatively affect the victim’s real-life social activities.
Image-based abuse is one of the online harms that violates a person’s right to privacy by publicly distributing unauthorized private photos or videos with the intent to humiliate, intimidate, or threaten the victim. This behavior may be distributed through online forums, emails, private chats, etc. It can cause great emotional harm to the victim, and these publicly disseminated private may include pictures and videos of the victim’s naked body or sexual acts. With the rapid development of AI, there are also many AI-composed private photos on the Internet, usually combining the victim’s facial features with unknown nude bodies to create rumors about the victim. Some researchers also refer to image-based abuse as “revenge porn” because this online harm usually occurs when an intimate relationship ends, and a malicious ex publicly posts graphic sexual acts or nudity of another person without their consent. The probability of this harmful form of sexual abuse has increased significantly with the development of mobile devices (McGlynn et al., 2017).
Illegal and restricted online content refers to restricted illegal content that exists on the Internet and is used to display or encourage violent acts, including terrorism and child sexual abuse.
According to the Pew Research Center (2021), women and marginalized groups (e.g., LGBTQ+ or racial minorities) are more likely to be targeted by online harassment, with 57% of women reporting that they have experienced some form of harassment online. More broadly, people who identify differently in terms of gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, etc. are more likely to be targeted by online harassment. This is similar to the way the “general public” approves of and surrounds “special minorities” on the Internet. In China, this tendency is more evident in terms of gender, region, occupation, and income.
“If I die, is it possible for public opinion to focus on online violence, or to shame the people who speak out for the rest of their lives?”
This is what Jidanji said to reporters after she was subjected to online violence. She was born in a single-parent family, her mother died very early, and she lived with her father and grandfather. She is a very hard-working girl, and after entering Zhejiang Normal University with the college entrance exam, she was successfully guaranteed admission to graduate school at East China Normal University without an examination. The first thing she posted on Xiaohongshu was to share her experience in graduate school and to help other students who wanted to succeed in graduate school understand the relevant exam information. But things took a turn for the worse in 2021 when Jidanji’s grandfather was unfortunately hospitalized due to brain infarction, heart attack, and intestinal cancer. Because of the epidemic, she didn’t visit her grandfather for a long time, and last July she finally got the right to visit and share her graduate school acceptance letter with him. In order to commemorate this moment, she took a photo of herself and her grandfather on the hospital bed reading the acceptance letter together and posted it on Xiaohongshu to share with everyone, however, what she didn’t expect was that it was because of this action that she received a tidal wave of bad comments.
Overnight, her pink hair became the original sin, and many people on message boards maliciously speculated about her education and personal private life through her pink hair. These vicious and vulgar words flooded her message boards, and the sudden online violence left her unsure of what to do with it, and she suffered from depression within a short period of time. In order to defend herself and her grandfather, she tried to compile all the information about the people who had made rumors and slander against her and take them to court. However, the kind-hearted girl always forgave and agreed to drop the lawsuit after receiving an apology from the other party, but the defense of her rights simply could not keep up with the speed of the bully’s online violence against her. She eventually chose to commit suicide after six months of psychological treatment.
Ironically, this online violence did not stop after her death, with people still speculating about her and saying that her death was of her own making under the articles reporting her death.
What is Xiaohongshu?
Xiaohongshu is a social platform that started as a community website, and its main role is to help users share and collect information about their consumer experiences and lifestyles. In the process of using it, Xiaohongshu uses big data and artificial intelligence to recommend posts that are likely to be of interest to users or have high current popularity, thus enhancing the user experience. As a sharing user in Xiaohongshu, you have to fully show your experience to others, and those who see these posts will be converted into real-life consumption to achieve the same experience as the sharing user. In this case, Xiaohongshu continued to blindly push Jidanji’s story to more and more people as the hot topic of the moment for six months, ignoring the fact that it was itself a case of online violence that required platform intervention. As a social platform in China’s online environment, but when posts involving sensitive national terms appear, Xiaohongshu’s backend deletes and blocks the relevant information at a very fast pace, which is also criticized by Chinese netizens as violating the freedom of expression online. However, in the case of online violence, due to the lack of relevant laws and regulations, Xiaohongshu chose to provide a battlefield for this online violence and did not protect the victims in order to continue to rise in popularity. When the incident fermented to other online platforms, users from other online platforms would visit Xiaohongshu to learn more about the Jidanji incident, and even sign up for Xiaohongshu accounts and participate in the discussion. So, letting things fester would bring more benefits to Xiaohongshu, so they chose to ignore the girl who was sacrificed in the cyber violence incident. What is strange is that after the incident, some netizens began to reflect on their own failure to help Jidanji or even hurt her on message boards during the online violence, but among those who seriously reflected and lamented her passing was not Xiaohongshu. If the platform had intervened to deal with the bullies in this long and brutal online violence, would the outcome have been different? But unfortunately, Xiaohongshu as the beneficiary of this incident will not feel sorry about it.
Jidanji’s case is a pathetic and thought-provoking example of how online platforms are not invisible and neutral in cases of online violence and need to be bound by laws or regulations to protect the rights of their users. According to the Santa Clara Principles (n.d.), there are fundamental and operational principles that need to be observed in the process of online regulation. In terms of fundamentals, human rights must be respected, and formal procedures need to be in place to help regulate them. And these rules and policies that need to be enforced must have a level of transparency that needs to be understood by all who are using the online platform. According to Flew (2021), regulating platforms requires addressing a complex set of challenges. Because the relationship between forms of platform governance, the platform economy, and the digital economy is growing as the Internet evolves, governance practices have never been more important to avoid using the Web to harm others and to maintain a safer online environment. So, in the future, online platforms will need to have regulations that can be strictly adhered to in order to maintain the user experience in the network, while also being able to actively develop their own economies.
Australian Government eSafety Commissioner. (n.d.). eSafety Commissioner. Retrieved April 10, 2023, from https://www.esafety.gov.au/.
Flew, T. (2021). Regulating Platforms. Cambridge: Polity, 96.
McGlynn, C., Rackley, E., & Houghton, R. (2017). Beyond “Revenge Porn”: The Continuum of Image-Based Sexual Abuse. Feminist Legal Studies, 25(1), 26. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10691-017-9343-2
Moreno, M. A. (2014). Cyberbullying. JAMA Pediatrics, 168(5), 500. https://doi.org/10.1001/jamapediatrics.2013.3343
Pew Research Center. (2021, January 13). The State of Online Harassment. https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/2021/01/13/the-state-of-online-harassment/
Santa Clara Principles. (n.d.). Retrieved April 9, 2023, from https://santaclaraprinciples.org/.