A new gathering place for online abuse in China: the toxic “Fan Circle”

Internet abuse bites everyone like a poisonous sting

In the early years of the development of the Internet, we were full of free and beautiful imaginations about the Internet. The Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace (Barlow, 1996) once asserted that the Internet is a free place that allows anyone to express any belief without fear of being coerced into silence or conformity.

However, reality often does not develop followed by the path that imagined by humans. Although the anonymity of the Internet promotes freedom of expression and diversity communication, it allows those who abuse Internet anonymity to cause trouble and problem in cyberspace (Johnson, 2000)

Humanity’s moral bottom line seems to have been lowered because of this kind of anonymity, causing many people give up the moral principles they learned from childhood, such as “respect others” and “don’t swear “.Then without any hesitation and concern, just use harmful words to “sting” strangers on the other side of screen .

“The scope of transmission of online harm has grown exponentially in the online world.” As a major Internet country, China cannot escape the influence of online abuse. And in recent years,since the rapid rise of the entertainment industry and new media platforms,China has been born a new gathering place for online abuse :Fan circle.

A variety of hate speeches are appeared in the “Fan Circle”

The formation of the “Fan Circle” in China was inspired by global fan culture, especially the idol culture of Korea and Japan, which had a huge impact on the Chinese fan circle(Dan et al., 2023).

They are a group of people who gather together because they like a same idol or actor, and they show characteristics such as closedness, exclusivity and unity as they continue to expand. It is a good thing to gather and communicate on the Internet because of common interests.

Actually ,it is a good thing to gather and communicate on the Internet because of common interests.This reflects the benefits of Internet that it can break through geographical restrictions to facilitate human communication and connections.But Sanstein (2009) mentioned that when group members are brought together by emotional connections, opinions that are different from those of the group will be suppressed and can easily lead to extreme views or behaviors.

On online platforms, information exchanges between fans are also anonymous and virtual, and speech is not restricted by real identities. This provides convenient conditions for fans to launch a “sacred expedition” to protect their idols on the Internet. In the “fan circle “, once fans have conflicting opinions with other “fan circles”, it will cause constant quarrels and terrible violence among them.

They often use ugly pictures and dirty words as weapons, mixed with all kinds of typical hate speech. Hate speech is discriminatory speech against marginalized groups, causing harm to the targeted group through discrimination, dehumanization and disempowerment (Sinpeng et al., 2021). So in order to cause direct harm to each other, fans often use hate speech words directed at women or the gay people to hurt each other.

To put it simply, if your idol is a woman, call you and your idol are both whores and bitches, and use any language that can stigmatize women to curse each other, even though both parties to the quarrel may be women; If your idol is a man, slander your idol as gay, and use all secular discriminatory words which targeted to gay people to insult the idol they like.

If these remarks are only spread within their circles, the problem still be supervised and controlled. But in the past five years, online abuse and online violence in fan circles have affected innocent ordinary internet users, and sometimes even escalated into major public events in society. For example, in July 2021, Wu Yifan(Kris Wu),who was the most famous idol in China and South Korea at the time, was criminally detained by the Beijing Public Security Office on suspicion of raping a minor. As soon as this incident came out, the entire Chinese Internet was on fire. In the face of legal justice, many of Wu Yifan’s fans still supported him. Some platforms even appeared extreme statements like “breaking prison for the idol” and “raising funds to rescue Wu Yifan.”

Speeches and behaviors like this have seriously damaged the public opinion environment on the Internet. The extreme, irrational, and verbally violent group behavior in the fan circle has truly become a “toxic cancer” in China’s cyberspace.

Government and digital platform efforts

Taking the incident of Wu Yifan as a trigger, in August 2021, the Cyberspace Administration of China (2021) published the “Notice on Further Strengthening the Management of Chaos in the Fan Circle”which covered ten measures to severely manage the chaos in the fan circle,including the cancellation of celebrity artist lists , strictly prohibiting the irrational quarrels, prohibiting inducing consumption , standardizing supporting fund-raising activities and so on.

Since then, Chinese officials have regularly carried out online “Operation Qinglang(clarification)”to rectify the chaos caused by the fan circle. During the process of action, many accounts and groups which played bad influence such as inducing fund-raising, doxxing, and rumor-mongering attacks were closed and disbanded. What’s more ,some accounts which with illegal activities such as professional anti-fans(black fans), malicious marketing, and online trolls in the fan circle were strictly dealt with. In addition,for some platforms who overindulge chaos and violence in the fan circle, government will also give a warning to them and ask them to adjust their management better.

Under the guidance of national policies, as the most active new media platforms of fan circle, Weibo and Douban have responded to the call and taken lots of action to deal with the online abuse in fan circle.

Weibo has launched the #deep blue plan ,which welcome users to actively complain about vulgar comments or violent accounts . It also has set up accounts such as Weibo Man and Weibo administrator to facilitate direct reports and feedback from users. Announcements on how to deal with vicious accounts will be posted regularly to encourage every users to surf the Internet in a friendly and polite manner.

Douban is a platform that excessively indulged online abuse and hate speech among fans. In March 2022, the Cyberspace Administration of China sent a supervision team for this platform to urge it make rational measures to solve the problems.And during the rectification period ,the app was removed from the app stores for a while. Since then, Douban has shut down a large number of communication groups which spread wrong information and indirectly provoked online harms.Then ,it set up some community management accounts, each of them will post announcements monthly about how much they have handled illegal content and toxic accounts during that month.

New issues arising from the management of online abuse

In the process of the government and platforms working together to combat online abuse in the fan ciecle, the effects are obvious and useful, but there are some new problems constantly arising.

In order to directly and effectively avoid the occurrence of abusive and sensitive words, the platform uses the help of algorithms to set some words as prohibited words, so that users cannot pronounce these words even if they are typed on the keyboard, such as “死” (death), “贱人” (bitch) and other words.But this has led some people to use emoji or words with the same pronunciation to replace sensitive words, like using “亖” replaced “死” (they have the same pronunciation).

This can not only bypass supervision but also can insult others smoothly. This is harmful thing because it let violent words that should be banned to continue to spread on the Internet, and at the same time ,it destroys the normal meaning of written language.

In addition, limitless reporting has also become an new form of online abuse. In order to protect their idols, some fans often make short-term and rapid collective reports against Internet users who make remarks that are harmful to their idols. The platform’s complaint mechanism is not so smart,so after receiving a large number of reports in a short period of time, the innocent user will usually be punished by deleting the remarks or banning the account for 7 days. The overuse of the reporting mechanism seems to have become a variant of violence, which not only breaks down the free speech of others, but also undermines the fairness and justice of the online environment.

Finally, it needs to be added that although platforms are responding to national policies to fight against online abuse, these platforms still put interests and profit at first. Although the gathering and quarrels of fans have brought great damage to the online environment, they have also increased the activity and retention rate of the platform. This makes some platforms dare not completely give up the popularity that fan circles have brought to the platform while responding to the Operation Qinglang. For example, although Weibo canceled celebrity rankings in response to the “Operation Qinglang”, it then launched an interactive section called “Super Like”, which constantly stimulates the desire for comparison among different fan groups. The contradictory and wavering attitude of the platform has undoubtedly contributed to the spread of online abuse to a certain extent.


Faced with this problem, we want to ask: How can we truly alleviate online abuse in the fan circle?

Although the platform’s execution capabilities and money-first goals are questionable, platforms still need to bear the main responsibility for alleviate online abuse. They should completely cancel those platform functions that may provoke conflicts , and completely ban those toxic marketing accounts and an-ti fans who deliberately trigger “wars” among fans . At the same time, they should also establish a more complete reporting mechanism, combining algorithm review and manual reviewers to ensure that comments that truly attack others can be dealt with in a short time.

The “visible hands” of the government must also be involved. The most important thing is to strengthen the crackdown on Internet trolls to prevent them from using the fan circle to conduct vicious attacks , and aggravate conflicts and hostility between different groups of people. In addition, the government should keep up with the changing pace of Internet culture, adjust the goals of Internet governance actions at any time, then deal with certain online violence and hate speech one-on-one in a targeted manner to provide public with a safer and healthier online environment.

Of course, educational guidance is also very important. Most of the fan groups are young people. They lack sufficient social experience and judgment and are easily influenced by the outside world. Therefore, schools, parents, idols and platforms should strengthen their guidance and education to let them understand the importance of chasing idols rationally. They should not compare, compete, insult strangers or generate hatred between each other, but should pay more attention to their real life. , cultivate other interests and hobbies that are truly beneficial to their future development.

In short, the rapid expansion of fan circle culture has caused the further spread of online violence, which has become a major problem that cannot be ignored in China’s Internet society. Simply relying on the power of the platform can no longer solve this worrying problem. The government needs to participate in guiding the direction of management and moderation (Flew, 2021), society and individual citizens should also take part in, and all parties should work together to create a healthy and peaceful online environment , constantly moving closer to the previous ideal imagination about freedom of the Internet , allowing everyone to freely express their thoughts and feelings here.


Barlow, J. P. (1996). A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace. Humanist, 56, 18.


Cyberspace Administration of China .(2021). Notice on further strengthening the management of chaos in the “fan circle”. Secretariat of the Central Cyberspace Administration of China. https://www.cac.gov.cn/2021-08/26/c_1631563902354584.htm

Dan, M., Jingya, W., & Jiajun, C. (2023). Observations of Chinese fandom: organizational characteristics and the relationships inside and outside the “Fan circle.” The Journal of Chinese Sociology, 10(1), 18–25. https://doi.org/10.1186/s40711-023-00197-2

Flew, T. (2021). Hate Speech and Online Abuse. In Regulating Platforms, 91-96. Cambridge: Polity.

Johnson, D. (2000). Anonymity and the Internet. The Futurist, 34, 12. https://www.proquest.com/magazines/anonymity-internet/docview/218600966/se-2

Sinpeng, A., Martin, F. R., Gelber, K., & Shields, K. (2021). Facebook: Regulating Hate Speech in the Asia Pacific. Department of Media and Communications, The University of Sydney. https://hdl.handle.net/2123/25116.3

Sunstein, C. R., & Sunstein, C. R. (2009). Going to extremes : How like minds unite and divide. Oxford University Press, Incorporated.

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