The Unclearable Dirt on Weibo: Governing the Cyber Toilet Accounts

Hate Speech and Online Harms


The cyber toilet refers to a kind of bot on Weibo, one of the biggest Chinese social media platforms; just as its name suggests, it is used to dump emotional garbage, vent negative energy, and provoke quarrels online (Hu, 2023). It provides fertile ground for the breeding of hate speech, which has been defined as speech that “expresses, encourages, stirs up, or incites hatred against a group of individuals distinguished by a particular feature or set of features such as race, ethnicity, gender, religion, nationality, and sexual orientation” (Parekh, 2012, p. 40).

This phenomenon happens due to the characteristics of bots. It allows users with similar interests to be grouped and communicate freely in each post’s comments section. Most bot accounts focus on specific topics, like literature, photography, or MBTI, naturally attracting people with similar interests. Precisely because of their targeted content and the relevant recommendation function of Weibo, they quickly gather a group of fans who may not be numerous but are very active. The bot accounts represent the many niche circles within the internet world, centred around hobbies and bringing people together (Sun, 2022). At the same time, some bots periodically solicit contributions from netizens. Different users can submit what they want to say to specific bot accounts via Weibo’s private messaging, which are then publicly posted by these accounts, thereby achieving the effect of anonymously expressing opinions, which is similar to a “cyber tree hole”, where netizens can express themselves anonymously, opening their hearts to share thoughts they might normally keep to themselves (Sun, 2022).

However, it is also easy for a bot to gather netizens with the same hatred. For instance, “The Cyber Toilet for the Poor” is a Weibo account for netizens describing difficult life experiences and showing hatred for the rich. Users of the toilet began referring to themselves as “toilet girls” because it is thought that there is a higher proportion of females using these types of accounts. “Toilet girl” has also become the collective term for this group (Zhong & Zhou, 2023).

The Death of a “Toilet Girl”

In July 2022, an 18-year-old girl from Hong Kong named Yi Nai (online alias) jumped from a tall building during a live stream and died on the spot. She had been subjected to vicious attacks from a “cyber toilet” on Weibo before her death, simply because Yi Nai once mentioned that she would commit suicide if she couldn’t achieve top rankings in a mobile game (Zhong & Zhou, 2023). However, she ultimately did not go through with it and suffered a barrage of abuse, including various forms of resentment towards the wealthy. Because she mentioned on her personal page that her family employed a housekeeper, presumed to come from a rich background, it was thought that her claims of willingness to commit suicide, despite her wealth, were merely attempts to attract attention and were seen as whining without cause (Wang & Du, 2022). Consequently, she broke down under such online attacks. After she jumped, some netizens did not express any sadness or remorse. They showed disdain, even outright saying “good death” and “her phone didn’t even break”, with some people posting emojis of “popping champagne and laughing” (Wang & Du, 2022).

The death of Yi Nai is one of the incidents of online hate speech on the cyber toilet. According to Flew (2021), “Online hate speech and its amplification through digital platforms and social media have been identified as significant and growing issues of concern” (p. 91). As of the end of 2023, Weibo’s monthly active users reached 598 million, nearly half of China’s total population (Sina Science, 2024). Governing online hate speech on Weibo is a crucial problem not only for the platform but also for the Chinese authority. The following part will discuss how the related institutions governed the cyber toilet, the difficulties of regulating online hate speech, and the approaches to overcome difficulties.

To Shut Down the Cyber Toilet

Who took action to shut down the cyber toilet in China? In September 2023, after Yi Nai took her life more than a year ago, the Chinese Supreme People’s Court, Supreme People’s Procuratorate, and Ministry of Public Security jointly issued the “Guiding Opinions on Punishing Cyberviolence Violations and Crimes in Accordance with Law”. It specifies that those who commit acts of damaging others’ reputations and openly insulting others on the internet will be convicted and punished by the provisions of China’s Criminal Law (Translate, 2023). Additionally, platforms are required to respond to managing information network security by law, regulating the cyberviolence information they discover. Otherwise, the people’s procuratorate may initiate public interest litigation in the people’s courts (Translate, 2023).

In November 2023, the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC), also known as the Office of the Central Cyberspace Affairs Commission, released a notice on launching the “Clear and Bright · Rectification of Online Negativity” special campaign (Cyberspace Administration of China, 2023). The campaign required strict investigation and punishment of the cyber toilet. Moreover, it is forbidden to push cyber toilet accounts to users through the functions of “relevant recommendation” and “people who may be interested” (Cyberspace Administration of China, 2023).

In response to a series of policies by the Chinese government, Weibo has sprung into action. According to the official account, Weibo Administrator, from November to December 2023, Weibo closed 124 cyber toilet accounts and dissolved 26 related topics and groups. The platform also established a user complaint portal to combat this online violence.

The Uncleanable Dirt

Although Weibo and Chinese authorities have done a lot to clean up the cyber toilets, some of the accounts still exist on Weibo now and are constantly posting hate speech. A cyber toilet called “Recycling Place for Young Couples” keeps making statements that curse the heterosexual community. Another cyber toilet called “I Don’t Want to Get Sick Either” continues to vent their jealousy and hatred of healthy people. The cyber toilet is like a stain that cannot be removed entirely, parasitizing within the diverse content of social media. It is inherently ungovernable because of its decentralized structure and use of coded language to avoid moderation.

The decentralized structure is a leaderless group characterized by a mass of individuals acting together towards a common goal without central control. Benefiting from using Weibo’s private messaging for submissions, a cyber toilet account actually has many toilet girls behind it. They can either post directly below the comments section or make an anonymous submission to express their views. This optional anonymity makes it easier for extreme statements to emerge and makes it more difficult for platforms to identify the specific individuals who are issuing these hate speeches. Moreover, the decentralized structure also gives cyber toilet the ability to “rebirth”. Since the entities behind these accounts are groups rather than individuals, even if Weibo banned one account, another similar account would quickly emerge, operating even more secretively, one after another. These cyber toilet accounts are like indestructible zombies. As long as hatred exists, cyber toilets can continue to appear, perpetuating the spread of hate speech.

Similar to the digital hate culture analyzed by Ganesh (2018), the cyber toilet circumvents government and regulation with its dynamic development of coded language and actions to avoid legal repercussions for its content. This method allows exponents of digital hate to share their common sense by inventing new terms that are not covered by community guidelines on social media platforms or by hate speech laws (Ganesh, 2018). For example, toilet girls use homophones, replacing many swear words with other characters, the first letters of pinyin, or numbers with similar pronounce. Even if manually reported, such posts are likely not to be identified by the platform’s review system as online abuse. As a result, many cyber toilet accounts are difficult to determine because this coded language does not have a specific context. Even though Chinese officials have mandated platforms to prohibit the promotion of cyber toilet accounts through interest-based recommendation functions, many cyber toilet accounts still get pushed to netizens from similar interest areas. This phenomenon does not mean Weibo has not complied with the CAC’s policy regulations. It’s because cyber toilet accounts that post hate speech using a lot of slang are hard to identify.

Gaps in Governance of the Platform

Compared to policies governing online hate speech on X, also known as Twitter, Weibo has various gaps in managing cyber toilets. As a platform required to maintain the network environment by law, Weibo has not released any further action and notice about against cyber toilet accounts after December 11, 2023. According to the content of the “Weibo Community Convention”, most of Weibo’s governance is mechanically carried out by the “Civil Code of the People’s Republic of China”, the “Cybersecurity Law of the People’s Republic of China”, the “Law of the People’s Republic of China on the Protection of Minors”, and other relevant laws and regulations designated by the Chinese government, as well as the management policies of the regulatory authorities (Sina Weibo, 2021). However, as Gillespie (2018) argued, most laws were not designed with social media platforms in mind. The laws were released many years ago and were not intended to address specific issues such as online hate speech and the emergence of cyber toilets. This has left a gap in the Weibo policy structure that struggles to suit the complexities of moderating and regulating content on the platform. Besides, the “Weibo Community Convention” does not provide clear definitions and examples of online violence and hate speech but simply summarizes them as “harmful information”. This leads to the impression that Weibo sets policy regulations to maintain the online environment, but in fact, the platform’s governance still works like a black box. Some users even find themselves silenced or banned by Weibo for no reason. And when they question Weibo administrators about why their accounts are subjected to these penalties, they do not receive any response. By contrast, it is much more detailed about the rule from X. In “The X Rules”, users can click into each category to view examples and descriptions in great detail. For instance, the “Hateful Conduct” section lists a series of actions that will be recognized as hateful conduct, and it emphasizes the X team will understand the context when they review this type of content (X, n.d.).

External Governance: Governing Platforms instead of content

Although the CAC has been leading an annual internet special campaign code-named “Clear and Bright” since 2016 to regulate the internet environment in mainland China, the persistent presence of ungovernable cyber toilet accounts on Weibo has demonstrated that merely targeting content has become increasingly ineffective. Instead of governing the endlessly emerging cyber toilet accounts, the CAC should regulate big tech companies like Weibo, obliging platforms to accept a duty of care. Because “the design of the service, its business model, the tools the platform provides for users, and the resources it devotes to user complaints and user safety influence information flows across the platform” (Moore & Tambini, 2021, p. 94).

As a government agency, CAC needs to force every social media platform, including Weibo, to develop itself and become a platform where it is difficult to generate and spread hate speech and other harmful information. According to Moore and Tambini (2021), CAC can encourage Weibo to conduct comprehensive risk assessments to identify potential sources of harm, mainly focusing on features that might enable or amplify harmful content. In this way, Weibo can proactively manage risks rather than reactively address harmful content after it has appeared. It can also let platforms become transparent, which means not only setting clear regulatory rules with detailed explanations and cases (just like “The X Rules”) but also carrying out its statutory duty (including complaints) and reporting regularly to CAC on their handling of harmful information online. Moreover, CAC can prompt Weibo to train the staff to recognize the coded words in complex contexts. Therefore, the living zone of the cyber toilet will be directly limited.

Final Note: An Internet Environment without the Cyber Toilet

Perhaps the inherent attribute of freedom of speech associated with the internet inevitably leads to the emergence of hate speech and other online harms. However, we do not wish to see more individuals like Yi Nai being pushed off high buildings by the cyber toilets. Suppose the Chinese government can focus more on regulating platforms rather than targeting content and encourage platforms to prioritize the long-term maintenance of the online environment. Online hate speech and cyber toilets may be eliminated as much as possible. We aspire to a digital future that upholds dignity, safety, and respect for all users.


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