Chinese Social Media Platforms Still Need Improvement In The Face Of Online Harms

Figure 1. The rapid development of online harms is ubiquitous.

Three incidents of online harms causing deaths in China in 2023

According to my understanding, in last year and 2023, there were many people in China who died due to online harms.

On January 23, 2023, Linghua Zheng, a girl who used to have pink hair, passed away. Linghua Zheng was raised by her grandfather, so for her, grandfather is the most important person. In July 2022, she was admitted to graduate school at East China Normal University through her own efforts. She brought this good news to her grandfather and took photos to publish on online platforms. But this brought her trouble. In China, dyeing hair in bright colors is a bold and eye-catching move. Many people with more traditional thinking may even believe that among those who dye their hair, many are not good people. In the eyes of many people, a girl with pink hair cannot obtain a graduate offer from East China Normal University through normal means. So many people left comments and insults on her social media account. Some people rumor that she is a “drinking girl”, while others repost her photos to other online platforms and write crazy comments like “an elderly person who got sick and got admitted to graduate school, married a little girl” (Baixingguanzhu, 2023). Although Linghua Zheng later dyed her hair back black and explained it on her social media platform. But most people are still making unfriendly comments about her. In the end, she couldn’t bear the verbal abuse from the internet, developed depression, and then committed suicide.

On February 11, 2023, Guanguan committed suicide while taking pesticide in the car during a live broadcast, and then passed away on the morning of February 14 due to ineffective rescue efforts. “Guanguan” is an anchor of “Tiktok” platform. Since 2021, he has not chosen to drive his own tractor to Xizang in China for relaxation because of his career. He used a camera to capture the beautiful scenery along the way and share his self driving life. Slowly, he began to become popular on short video platforms (FangzhoushengV, 2023). But as a result, he attracted the attention of a group of malicious people. On February 11, 2023, Guanguan was subjected to organized and planned attacks, instigation, and insults from black fans during a live broadcast (Yida Li and Jing Lan, 2023). Guanguan was particularly indignant when facing these online harms, to the extent that he resorted to extreme methods of drinking pesticides to prove his innocence (Yida Li and Jing Lan, 2023). And six months ago, almost every video he posted on the platform had someone maliciously spreading rumors and slander without any basis (Yida Li and Jing Lan, 2023). After his death, his wife’s lawyer Yuhang Wang (2023) told reporters, “Guanguan and his family have been wanting to know the reason and who carried out online harms against him, but they still do not understand.” At the same time, Guanguan’s wife commissioned a lawyer and his team to submit a “Criminal Filing Application” and related evidence materials to the public security organs. Lawyer Yuhang Wang (2023) stated, “In the future, we will pursue criminal and civil liability against the responsible parties in the case.”

On June 2, 2023, a woman surnamed Yang fell from the 24th floor and ended her life. The cause of the incident was that Ms. Yang’s only son was run over and killed by the driver Mr. Liu on campus on May 23, 2023, and the death was extremely tragic. Afterwards, as a mother, Ms. Yang refused to sign the letter of understanding. Shortly thereafter, rumors circulated on the internet that Ms. Yang was demanding high compensation. In addition, some people watched the interview video of the scene on the day of the incident online and found that the mother who arrived at the scene, Ms. Yang, appeared in front of people, although it was a sad mother’s image. But she dressed very well and even put on makeup on her face. So, these people seized this point and accused Ms. Yang of being a scheming villain. They speculate that Ms. Yang attracted traffic through the death of her own child this time, not only demanding huge compensation, but also using these traffic to engage in some commercial activities and make money in the future. So, these malicious speculations were spread by many people, and countless people insulted Ms. Yang through various means. Under the pressure of her son’s death and countless insults, Ms. Yang collapsed. So she chose to commit suicide. After her death, the man who fabricated the rumor that “Ms. Yang received 2.6 million yuan in compensation” was arrested, and multiple accounts that made malicious remarks were banned by the platform (Baixingguanzhu, 2023).

Why do so many people engage in online harms against a stranger?

In fact, the three incidents mentioned above were not the first ones that I learned about “cyber violence” causing deaths. In my impression, the first incident of “online harms” causing death that I encountered was during the pandemic a few years ago when a errand runner helped a woman. As the errand runner refused the payment, the lady could only recharge 200 RMB for his phone bill. After this incident spread on social media platforms, many people accused the woman of being stingy, saying that 200 yuan is not enough. Then they insulted the lady, ultimately leading to her suicide.

At that time, when I saw this, I was particularly shocked and didn’t understand. I don’t understand why a warm thing is criticized by countless people and ultimately leads to one person’s death. Throughout the entire process of this incident, the errand runner fulfilled his duties and stated that he did not require any extra compensation. The lady was grateful to him and recharged 200 yuan for his phone bill. They are both very good and have not done anything wrong. But many people on the internet have criticized and insulted this lady, feeling that she has done something wrong. Prior to this, I did not feel so deeply the horror of online harms.

French social psychologist Gustave Le Bon (1895) proposed in his book “The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind” that once people gather as a group, they exhibit a characteristic of “decreasing intelligence”, and individual rationality and restraint are more likely to disappear. This is mainly because individuals in the collective often have a “lack of responsibility” mentality due to a “disregard for the law”, and even if their participation causes serious consequences, their sense of guilt will become lighter. Under the influence of group psychology, expressing extreme opinions and opinions becomes a safe and stimulating thing, and this psychology will spread and spread among the public on the internet. Therefore, netizens united to launch a process of “collective violence” against the parties involved in the incident.

The Chinese government and social media platforms are attempting to prevent continued tragedy caused by online harms

Flew (2021) once stated that the widespread dissemination of hate speech and other forms of online insults on social media platforms has become an important and increasingly concerning issue. They exacerbate hostility, discrimination, contempt, etc. in society, and they also negate the personal dignity of the target group, allowing them to live in fear and harassment. It is crucial for social media platforms to adjust their content for the public interest and demonstrate government involvement in addressing these concerns (Flew, 2021).

The Chinese government has actually realized in earlier years that the harm caused by hate speech and online harms is very serious. So there is the China National Internet Information Office (CAC), which is responsible for managing, reviewing, supervising and controlling the national Internet. This institution is affiliated with the State Council Information Office (2014). It is responsible for Internet content management, supervision, management and law enforcement. These are all to promote the healthy and orderly development of Internet information services (State Council, 2014).

However, their existence has not played a sufficient role. In 2022, there have been several incidents of people committing suicide due to online harms, such as the tragedy of the woman living in Shanghai, China that I mentioned earlier. So in November 2022, the Notice on Effectively Strengthening the Governance of Online Use was issued by the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine of China. It is pointed out that in the face of behaviors that infringe on the rights and interests of netizens and damage the online environment, the platform should implement the Notice on Effectively Strengthening the Governance of Online Use and improve relevant working mechanisms.

But based on my observation, although the Chinese government made efforts to improve these terrible situations on the internet, most social media platforms in China did not provide timely and effective responses at that time. They usually encounter incidents of online harms leading to incidents on their own platforms, and the impact of these incidents is significant before making up for it.

Take China’s social media platform “Tiktok” as an example. I mentioned earlier that on February 11, 2023, Guanguan was subjected to online harms during a live broadcast. He chose to commit suicide by taking pesticides in his car, and then passed away on the morning of February 14 due to ineffective rescue efforts. Tiktok platform shows that it has made the final update to its “Community Guidelines” in March 2023. In the “Safety and Civil” module, there are “Violent Behaviors and Critical Activities”, “Hat Speech and Hateful Behaviors”, “Violent and Hateful Organizations and Individuals”, “Youth Exploration and Abuse”, “Sequential Exploration and Gender Based Violence”, “Human Exploration” and “Harass” “seven modules (Tiktok, 2023). Among them, we can also see some sentences highlighted in bold, indicating the platform’s emphasis on this.

My suggestions for the platform

In my opinion, there is too much space and freedom on the Internet. As we all know, on the Internet, in most cases, people do not know who each other is. At the same time, people also default that strangers are far away from each other in real life. So many people believe that no matter what they say to strangers online, they will not let the people around them know in real life that they said it, and it will not have an impact on their real selves. So many people say something bad online without any hesitation. And the harm of this is significant.

We all know that almost all social media platforms have established many rules to ensure their long-term operation. If a user does something that is not allowed by the rules, the platform will punish the accounts that have done something that is not allowed by the rules. The audit mode of most platforms is similar to the “Facebook audit mode” mentioned by Suzor (2019): users first publish, and then the platform conducts the audit. If any content issues are found during the review, delete or block these problematic content.

However, in my opinion, this model has significant drawbacks. China is a country with a huge population, and now there are many active people on various social media platforms in China. The first layer of this review mechanism often involves AI discovering that “published content” triggers problematic “keywords”, marking them, and then manually reviewing them. However, this is too slow. At least so far, in the examples of “online harms causing casualties” that I mentioned earlier, those social media platforms did not completely remove the “hate speech” before the tragedy occurred. That is to say, the current review mechanism has not played an effective role in the face of sudden “online harms”. Most social media platforms can only block accounts that have published rumors or hate speech after a tragedy occurs. Looking back at the three tragedies mentioned at the beginning, whether it is Linghua Zheng’s “Little Red Book”, or Guanguan’s “Tiktok”, or Ms. Yang’s story has been spread to many other social media platforms, it is no exception.

My personal suggestion is that social media platforms on the internet must “quickly cut off hate speech from being transmitted to victims” when dealing with these “online harms”. Looking back at these tragedies. It is not difficult to find that when online harms first emerged, victims faced a large number of “hate speech” and rumors. Although they may be emotionally agitated, they did not yet think of “suicide”. However, as time passed, more and more people participated in online harms against victims, and the pressure on victims increased, ultimately leading to the inability to bear suicide. During this process, a large number of “hate speech” and rumors that suddenly appear can be detected by relevant technologies. In China, if a savings account suddenly experiences multiple large transfers in a short period of time, it may be detected as abnormal, and then the account may be temporarily restricted until I confirm that there is no problem. In general, ordinary people will not receive a large number of private messages in a short period of time. So if an account didn’t receive a large number of private messages from strangers in the past, but suddenly received a large number of private messages from strangers in a short period of time, this is abnormal and can be temporarily marked as problematic. Subsequently, social media platforms will contact potential victims to confirm if they are in trouble. Of course, if online harms occurs on other social media platforms (such as Ms. Yang, who did not make any comments on social media platforms as mentioned earlier, but was learned about through interviews at the time, and many people engaged in online harms against her under relevant “topics” on multiple social media platforms in China), then the platform can review a large number of comments that appeared under the “topics” in a short period of time. Of course, there is still a significant difference between “topic” and “private message”. Compared to private messages, the review of topics is more difficult and requires a greater workload. Because if there is big news happening in daily life, it will also add a large number of related topics in a short period of time. But in my opinion, this is also a method.

A final note

In a word, I hope that the Chinese government can pay more attention to the management of the Internet and formulate more perfect policies. At the same time, we hope that various social media platforms in China can carefully improve their relevant mechanisms to avoid tragedies like Linghua Zheng, Guanguan, and Ms. Yang from happening again.


Baixingguanzhu. (2023). If cyberbullying had a voice! Looking back at 2023, how many people collapsed and committed suicide due to cyberbullyinge [Video]. Sina.

China Daily. (2021). The rapid development of online harms is ubiquitous [Image]. China Daily, English version 8.

FangzhouxianshengV (2023). Hold accountable! Internet celebrity “Guanguan” committed suicide due to cyberbullying. His grieving widow speaks out and vows to sue the cyberbullies.

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

Kunyujisheng.(2023) A Wuhan primary school student dies after being hit on campus, mother falls to death: Where does the hand of cyberbullying come from?

Le Bon, G. (2005). The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind (Feng Keli, Trans.). Beijing: Central Compilation & Translation Press.

Li, Y., & Lan, J. (2023). The internet celebrity “Guanguan” committed suicide by ingesting pesticides during a live broadcast. Prior to his death, he had been subjected to coordinated cyberbullying. Local authorities have formed a specialized task force to investigate.

Secretariat of the Cyberspace Administration of China. (2022). Notice on effectively strengthening the governance of online abuse.

State Council. (2014). Notice on the State Council empowering the Cyberspace Administration of China to be responsible for Internet information content management work.

Suzor, N. P. (2019). ‘Who Makes the Rules?’ In Lawless: The Secret Rules That Govern Our Lives (pp. 10-24). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Tiktok. (2023). Safety and Civility.

Xiaohongshu (2021). Xiaohongshu community standards.

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