The real pain in the virtual world

In this digital age, the Internet has become an important part of people’s lives. On the Internet, people can put on thick masks, freely express their views and opinions, and show their emotions without any worries. However, while the Internet has brought with it the convenience of communication and connection, it has also grown into a channel of violence. Hate speech and online harms, this invisible harm, is causing real suffering in the virtual world. It is quietly eroding our society, and we can no longer ignore it (Flew, 2021).

What would social media look like for a girl who wants to suicide? Dark? Painful? Twisted? Is it cursing at the people who have hurt her? Is it angry at the injustices of this society? Or is it writing strange words that people can’t understand?

None of it.

It was her 23rd birthday after being subjected to online abuse, and she made this post on her birthday.

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Figure 1. A screenshot of Xiaohongshu

Besides that, her blog contains photos of landscapes from her travels, sharing her thoughts on life, and photos of her internship. Through her blog, you would think that this is a girl who loves life. However, unfortunately, her blog will never be updated again (Max, 2023).

Her name is Linghua Zheng, and her online name is Egg-hime. She loves pink.

In July 2022, Linghua shared a photo of her grandfather in a hospital bed opening her master’s offer letter. She was raised by her grandfather. When she was six months old, her mom passed away, and since then, her grandfather has been the most important role in her life.2021 In November, her grandfather was diagnosed with brain infarction, heart infarction and intestinal cancer. So she made a decision that she would apply for graduate school. Because she wanted to “let my grandfather see me go to graduate school and be proud of me.” Luckily, in July, Linghua successfully received her master’s offer letter from her dream school. On that day, she dyed her hair to her favorite color, went to the hospital to share the good news with her grandfather, and took this photo (Depth Training Camp, 2023).

Figure 2. Xiaohongshu

This should have been a heartwarming photo. But unexpectedly, it became the beginning of her terrible dream.

“Good girls don’t dye their hair pink.” “Hair dyed like bar whore.” “Nightclub dancers have master’s degrees?” “How can a bitch be a teacher?” “I’ll go to your school’s faculty office and complain.” “Your hair is a disgrace.”

The comments section of this blog was filled with these offensive comments. Some would even private message her to trade insults. Since then, Linghua began to suffer from serious mental anguish. These led her to have depression. But she decided to fight because she “couldn’t forgive the online violators who insulted the teaching profession, the school, my grandfather, and me.”

Starting from July 14, 2022, Linghua began the long road of defending her rights. She tried to register accounts on various internet platforms to let more people know about her, but it was hard to pass the platform review. She went to report every violated video, but those people hid the videos after being reported and re-posted them in a few days. It seemed like there was no end in sight to this road of defense, and this made her depression worse.

Fortunately, her persistence had a result. Some official media noticed her incident and interviewed her. In addition, some lawyers found her and were willing to provide her with free help. Linghua finally got the apology she deserved, and those who had hurt her sent her letters of apology. She accepted the apology and withdrew her complaint (Max, 2023).

The incident seemed to have an end, but the pain it brought Linghua remained. She was still fighting against depression. After that, she would not only share her daily life, but also share simple records of actively fighting depression. It was obvious that she loved the world so much and wanted to live so much. But unexpectedly, the news of Linghua’s death came out, she finally failed to resist the pain of depression .

Linghua’s incident is not an exception. Online abuse happens all the time. Any factor could be a reason of online abuse: public issues, personal integrity, professional performance, gender relations, controversial views, etc. Online abuse, which is based on gender relations, physical appearance, and family ethics, is more likely to happen to women. In contrast, men are more likely to suffer from online abuse due to ideology, public issues and professional performance. More than 40% of online abuse victims are the general public. Anyone can become a target on the internet in any appearance (Das et al., 2020). Getting caught in the center of the maelstrom often times does not even require a definitive reason. But getting out of the maelstrom is not easy for most victims of online abuse. Similar to Linghua, there are many other victims who are struggling to survive in psychological dilemmas due to online abuse. “Fear”, “long-term insomnia”, “sensitivity” and “self-doubt” are all high-frequency words in the description of the condition. Some patients remained in a depressed state for three months after being abused, with the offensive words always resounding in their ears. A year and a half later, some patients are still suffering from painful memories of the details of their past victimization (Plural Lab, 2023).

1.Restrictions on freedom of expression online

At the beginning of the Internet, due to the lack of understanding of the development trend of this new media, and considering the special requirements of the Internet for the free flow of information, there was no law specifically for the Internet in various countries. For many years, traditional media censorship and restrictions have been completely drowned out by the rapid flow of information on the Internet (Flew, 2021). Depending on the Internet, people separated from their real identities can realize their right to free speech. Because of the free speech, people are free to express themselves and their opinions. However, the desire for free expression seems to have become a tool for exceeding moral and legal punishments (Woods and Ruscher, 2021). Besides improving the relevant laws, platforms can also use technology to do something. In order to prevent teenagers from being exposed to bad information, it is common for countries to implement a content rating system and to install filtering software to achieve the purpose. In addition, the platforms offer various one-click online abuse protection functions. Users with protection turned on would not receive messages from strangers, and private accounts could not be searched by others. At the same time, users can also set up comment permissions, add blocking words to isolate themselves from possible negative messages and protect themselves (Cheng and Jiang, 2023).

2. Platform protection is less effective

Why do online abuse continue to happen many times despite the various protection modules offered by the platforms? Plural Lab (2023) have tested a mock online abuse on 4 platforms. The picture below shows some of the data from this test:

Figure 3. Data from Plural Lab

We could find from these data that all four platforms could block extreme speech containing clearly abusive words in comments and private messages. However, there were still large limitations to the platforms’ blocking effect when faced with extreme speech with homophonic words, emoji, or hidden abuse. At the same time, compared to the protection of the comment section, the blocking effect of death hints and extreme pictures in private messages was even more unsatisfactory, and was in an awkward situation that was difficult to solve. From the legal perspective, the protection of private messages against online abuse faces objective difficulties. Plural Lab (2023) thinks that private message interactions are private, which involves the protection of citizens’ privacy, so platforms do not have the power to monitor every private message of users. All of these situations lead to the fact that online abuse is still happening many times. Therefore, strengthening the regulation of private messages and upgrading the restrictions on non-explicitly abusive words are issues that platforms need to consider.

3. Difficult and slow feedback for users to channel their requests to the platforms

Similar to Linghua, there are many users who are willing to take the initiative to collect evidence and report to the platform when facing online abuse. The first thing is that the complaint entrances of many platforms are very difficult to find and might require much time to search. And the process of submitting a complaint could be very difficult and complex. The most important thing is that complaints like this are probably without results (Max, 2023).

I had an experience of reporting to a platform. At the time, an account posted my photos on social media without my permission. I asked the platform to deal with the matter as soon as I was notified of it. My request was for the platform to remove the video and block the account for a period of time. During the reporting process, I needed to provide a lot of my personal information and give sufficient evidence that the account had stolen my photos. These steps would firstly make me worry about the leak of privacy. Secondly, after I submitted my request, the platform was slow to give me a clear answer. Until almost half a month had passed, the platform gave me a reply saying that the video had been removed from the site. But the account was not affected in any way from beginning to end, not blocked or monitored. During that time, I was even abused by the owner of the account in private messages.

All I have to do is report only one account, and have been met with these various difficulties. People who have been subjected to large online abuse have to deal with numerous accounts and face even more verbal abuse. How do they protect their rights and safety in this. Clarify the reporting entrance, simplify the reporting process, speed up the processing efficiency and strengthen the processing results, these are the things that the platforms need to improve.

4. Platforms’ promotion of hotspots is a double-edged sword

Hot spot promotion could get more people to pay attention to the news and participate in the discussion. But it would also be a cause for online abuse to arise.For example, private blogs are promoted to a wider audience because they contain hot words. Because it was just their own personal thoughts, they might not have been too strict with their words. But once more people have seen it, it would lead to different understandings or even misunderstandings, and in serious cases, it would evolve into real online abuse (Plural Lab, 2023). The orientation of the platform is an important part of the governance of online abuse. The Regulations on the Governance of Information on Internet Violence (Draft for Public Comments) state that Internet platforms should persist in correctly guiding public opinion, and should not engage in promotion, diversion and other harmful marketing and speculation behaviors (Yang, 2013).

Online abuse is a serious social problem that requires the concerted efforts of all of society to solve. We cannot ignore it any longer and allow it to spread freely. Let’s work together to prevent online abuse and create a more harmonious and safer online environment. Let everyone grow up freely and peacefully in the internet world and stay away from the shadow of online abuse. Let everyone feel the real freedom and joy in the virtual world.


Cheng, S., & Jiang, X. (2023). The challenge of governing cyberbullying: How should it be defined? Should there be specific legislation? How should platforms be held accountable? Southern Daily Newspaper. Beijing. Retrieved April 8, 2023 from

Das, M., Mathew, B., Saha, P., Goyal, P., & Mukherjee, A. (2020). Hate speech in online social media. ACM SIGWEB Newsletter, Autumn, 1–8.

Depth Training Camp. (2023). How the media reports on the cyberbullying of a girl with pink hair. Depth Training Camp Official Account. Guangdong. Retrieved April 8, 2023, from

Flew, T. (2021). Hate speech and online abuse. In Regulating platforms (pp. 91-96). Cambridge, MA: Polity Press.

Max (2023). 24-year-old female college student who dyed her hair pink commits suicide after being cyberbullied, but those who insulted her have not stopped. Retrieved March 1, 2023, from

Plural Lab. (2023). 311 victim cases, 4 cyberbullying simulations tell you who should “keep you safe”. Fudan University Data Journalism Course Official Account, Shanghai. Retrieved March 24, 2023, from

Woods, F. A., & Ruscher, J. B. (2021). Viral sticks, virtual stones: addressing anonymous hate speech online. Patterns of Prejudice, 55(3), 1–25.

Yang, L. (2013). Analysis of restrictions on freedom of speech on the internet. Jiangsu Court Network. Nanjing. Retrieved March 7, 2013 from

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