Hate speech vs. Cyberbullying. Can female be protected?

A girl with dyed pink hair committed suicide after being hit by online violence after sharing photos on social media


The wide application of the Internet in modern society has dramatically changed people’s way of life, and in today’s world of easy access to information, the Internet has brought many complex governance problems while providing great convenience for human production and life and cyberbullying is one of the important ones. In recent years, there have been many incidents of cyber violence around the world, and people’s concern about cyber violence has gradually increased. It is noteworthy that according to the data of the survey of the United Nations Population Fund, 85% of women around the world have experienced or witnessed cyber-violence against other women, 57% of women’s videos or pictures on the Internet have been abused or misused, and 96% of the online in-depth fake videos are pornographic (UNFPA, 2021). The targets of the aggression are all women. For women, the Internet not only promotes ease of life and access to information but is also a place of hostility and stares. Violence experienced by women in real life can be extended online, with abusers in the virtual space often posting content that is hurtful, insulting and inflammatory to women through the medium of video, images and text.

Even when such violence occurs in the virtual world, the feelings of fear, anxiety, and powerlessness at the loss of self-esteem are real and persistent for victims of cyberviolence, who may suffer from psychological distress depression and even extreme thoughts such as suicide, just as in the case of other forms of violence.

Case: February 19: Hangzhou girl who was cyber-violated for dyeing her hair pink dies

Linghua Zheng, a 24-year-old girl from Hangzhou, was subjected to massive cyber violence because of her pink hair. On July 13, 2022, Zheng received her certificate of admission to the University of East China Normal University. In order to surprise her grandfather, she took a photo and video of her admission letter and posted it to social media. Unexpectedly, the content was stolen by other platforms, and many people targeted her pink hair, abusing her as a “nightclub dancer and red-haired monster …..”. Some people started the rumour that “the old man with a disease was admitted to graduate school but also married a little girl”. In order to get more traffic, some       marketing accounts pasted the “grandfather cried     after the girl passed the college entrance exam to Zhejiang University” as subtitles to sell college entrance training courses. 

Linghua Zheng posted pictures on her social media. http://xhslink.com/7OqJrG

In mid-July 2022, Zheng was diagnosed with depression, after complex and cumbersome rights protection, Zheng notarised thousands of serious insulting contents and was ready to prosecute the cyber violence in late July. Since then, Zheng had posted the content of the progress of her lawsuit, rights defence, daily life and learning experience sharing, as well as depression after hospitalisation to fight depression diary actively on social media platforms.

In February 2023, Zheng’s former reputation rights agent, Xiaohang Jin, announced publicly that Zheng had passed away on January 23, 2023.

Zheng Linghua was initially cyber-violated simply because she dyed her hair pink and was slammed by people for being immodest and inappropriate for a teacher to dye her hair pink. It can be seen that cyberbullying against women is often due to the objectification and stigmatisation of women, making it unacceptable to a portion of the population when the image of women exceeds the stereotypical image of what patriarchal society requires of women.


To some extent, the appearance of this kind of cyberbullying phenomenon is due to the freedom of expression given to people by the Internet, but where should free speech draw the line? Nowadays, online speech enjoys more significant personal space in the real world than traditional media because of its arbitrary nature, but both rights and obligations are relative. All rights and freedom should be limited in some way, including free speech on the Internet. Once the boundaries are crossed, it has the potential to become a rumour. With the development of the Internet, especially mobile Internet, broadband networks and other technologies, online media have given people new ways to express their online speech. 

According to Parekh (2012), hate speech is defined as ‘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, nationalist, or sexual orientation.’ However, it can be used to indicate speech that is detrimental enough to warrant regulation, as opposed to speech that is offensive or insulting but does not need to be. As the speech could be regulated, the speech must deal a certain amount of damage to the target. (Sinpeng et al., 2021)

Cohen-Almagor (2022) states that the act of causing harm over the Internet or other communication technologies is known as cyberbullying. Usually, this is done frequently using contemporary technology, which makes it simple and rapid to spread unpleasant and humiliating messages to a single person or a large group of people. In contrast to conventional bullying, which occurs when one side of power abuses its advantages and takes pleasure in berating the other, cyberbullies are not always more physically intense than their victims.

Both forms of these two expressions are malicious, hostile to others, and of no positive value to the development of society. At the same time, both forms of expression cause a degree of suffering, violence and death to others. They also use the Internet to express anti-social and discriminatory views.

In this case, Zheng Linghua was initially only subjected to verbal attacks by some Internet users, and this series of attacks was caused by some platforms’ lack of control over rumour-mongering. However, as the story developed, the attacks on Zheng changed from digital to physical, and she suffered from mental anguish and depression as a result of these comments, choosing to take her own life after legal proceedings proved unsuccessful. This illustrates the similarities between online verbal violence and hate speech.

At the same time, the girl was subjected to different degrees of sexism and attacks in this incident. Her comments were full of contempt and degradation of women and showed a stereotypical image of women. For example, “As a college student, you cannot dye your hair”, “Dyeing your hair is disrespectful to the teaching profession”, and so on. They also make unfair and inappropriate moral judgments about women; for example, they attribute the illness of the grandfather in the incident to the girl’s pink hair and blame all the mistakes on the girl’s behaviour, considering her behaviour as the source of all the mistakes.

Cyberbullying against women also highlights the complex relationship between new media, represented by social media, and the protection of women’s rights and interests in the new media environment. In the traditional media, most of the media’s violations of women’s rights and interests are manifested in the reinforcement and dissemination of women’s stereotypes, such as focusing on women’s private and domestic spheres, portraying women as housewives who wash, cook and raise their children, or visualising and objectifying women as a kind of symbol of commodities or an object of “gazing”, hate speech directly targeting women is not common.

However, in the context of new social media, the empowerment of technology gives regular internet users a greater voice and means of distribution. In addition, hate speech that is published in the mainstream media is readily shared on new media platforms due to the connivance of online anonymity and the absence of pertinent laws and regulations. 

The Due Diligence Project’s director, Zarizana Abdul Aziz, has stated that the Internet has changed from a liberating space to a space of violence. If trends continue, gender-based violence and sexism may spread in online spaces rather than strengthening women. As a result, women and girls may no longer feel secure in these environments, whether they are online or off (Hussein, 2018).

Social media should do its share to encourage the awakening of female subject consciousness as it sets the public agenda and shapes public opinion.

Currently, 49.8% of women use social media, making up nearly half of users of social media due to the rapid growth of this social media platform (Kemp, 2024). The negative effects of stereotyping women in media news stories persist, even if social media has a long way to go before acknowledging female social identity and communication style to this extent. Encouraging women’s subjective consciousness to a new level is essential if they are to fully understand the shift from “I am seen” to “I want to see” and from “I am protected” to “self-protection”.

Figure from Datareportal shows the population essentials on social media.https://datareportal.com/reports/digital-2024-global-overview-report

An important reason why discrimination against women still exists in the field of social media is the lack of supervision. While providing media practitioners with professional ethics training, the appropriate state departments should also enhance the teaching of social gender consciousness. In order to address gender discrimination in social media with a zero-tolerance attitude and lay the groundwork for establishing a media environment of gender equality, it is more important to improve the supervision system of female image building in the media for emerging media that rely on the Internet.

As the subjectivity of female viewers becomes more widely recognised, women want to use the media to express their opinions and demonstrate their beauty. Everyone must take advantage of the resource advantages that already exist for female-focused media organisations, consistently increase the number of female journalists, make it easier for women to hold positions of decision-making authority, start more media columns with a “female perspective,” and make sure that news reports accurately depict the lives of women. This will significantly increase women’s rights to scrutiny, speech, and information in public spaces. Such actions are necessary to address the problem of negative representations of women in the media.

Considering that the whole incident happened in China, there will be some suggestions based on the situation in China. 

Firstly, strengthen the design and regulation of the entire social media industry, incorporate the dissemination of the value of gender equality into the management of the social media, promote the media to assume its social responsibility from the top design and deep mechanism, strengthen the media as a “social instrument” to publicise the basic national policy of gender equality, and promote women’s development and social harmony. 

Secondly, it is necessary to conduct gender analysis and evaluation of China’s current media policies and regulations at the institutional level, as well as add provisions and contents that prohibit gender discrimination and promote women’s development. Apply global experience to inform the development of gender-sensitive guidelines and opinions for media programming, promote media coverage of women’s issues, strengthen media oversight and monitoring from a gender perspective, enhance oversight and monitoring systems, and integrate training in gender awareness and gender-sensitive reporting into the media’s daily assessment process. 

Thirdly, the media can influence the development of gender balance in culture, the spread of gender equality ideals, and the advancement of women’s rights because they serve as a means of reproducing and creating social reality. They also create an “imitation environment” for the general public through their internal agenda-setting mechanism. Prioritising women’s development and other related issues, eliminating gender bias, creating and enforcing industry self-discipline standards, reducing the “consumption of women” and other excluding and pornographic phenomena of women, and participating in values correction are all things that the media must do first. 

Last but not least, create a positive media environment that will make it easy for women to voice their ideas, engage in extensive social life, defend their rights and interests, and advance women’s development via media usage and interaction. Invest more in women’s media, promote a positive networking atmosphere, and support the development of women’s organisations, groups, and individual social media platforms’ communication capabilities in order to promote gender equality and protect women’s rights and interests.


Cohen-Almagor, Raphael. (2022). Bullying, Cyberbullying and Hate Speech. International Journal                                             of Technoethics (IJT), 13 (1).Advance online publication. 


Hussein, Zeid Ra’ad Al. (2018). The impact of online violence on women human rights defenders      and women’s organisations. United Nations. 


Kemp,S. (2024). Digital 2024: Global Overview Report. Datareportal


Linghua, Z. [@Jidanji]. (2022, July, 13). [Xiaohongshu update]. Xiaohongshu. 


Parekh, B. (2012). Is there a case for banning hate speech? In M. Herz and P. Molnar (eds), The Content and Context of Hate Speech: Rethinking Regulation and Responses (pp. 37–56). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Sinpeng, A., Martin, F., Gelber, K., & Shields, K. (2021). Defining hate speech.Facebook: Regulating Hate Speech in the Asia Pacific. 11-12. https://doi.org/10.25910/j09v-sq57

UNFPA. (2021). Making all spaces safe. 


Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply