Navigating the Dark Side of the Digital Age: Understanding and Regulating Online Violence

With the development of internet technology and the popularization of smart devices, more and more people have been able to access the online world. By 2024, there will be 5.35 billion global internet users, accounting for 66.2% of the world’s total population (Kemp, 2024). The ubiquity of the internet has accelerated the dissemination of information and given people more opportunities to express their views freely. At one time, the Internet, because of its decentralized and decentralized nature, was tied to freedom of expression without regulation or restriction. However, this ‘freedom’ has now become a tool that can potentially harm others, serving as a breeding ground for online violence, hatred, rumors, and discrimination.

Screenshot of the popularity of electronic devices 

A survey conducted by the Pew Research Center from April 14 to May 4, 2022 showed that nearly half (46%) of American adolescents aged 13 to 17 have experienced at least one of six types of cyberbullying. While bullying behavior existed before the internet, the rise of smartphones and social media has provided a new, more public stage for such aggressive acts (Vogels, 2022).  This article will analyze and discuss the causes and effects of online harms and how it should be regulated through specific case studies centered on cyber violence.


In my opinion, the difference between cyberviolence and traditional violence is that it occurs in virtual cyberspace and achieves its purpose of attacking others through irrational, group, and large-scale dominance of public opinion. Cyber violence dominators ignore their own responsibilities while exercising their right to freedom of  expression, which is essentially an alienation of the freedom of expression online.

1. Korean actress Choi Sulli’s suicide

On October 14, 2019, Korean actress Choi Sulli was found dead of suicide in her home. She was only 25 years old. According to her agent, she suffered from severe depression during her lifetime. For celebrities, they are at the peak of fame and fortune, enjoying the admiration of fans, yet living an extremely unfree life due to the media’s excessive attention to their private lives.  At the same time, K-pop stars mainly establish intimate connections with fans through social media platforms such as V Live, Instagram, and Bubble. On these platforms, in addition to letters from fans, they also receive hateful comments and attacks. Various aspects such as appearance, singing skills, acting skills and even their private lives have been targeted by hatemongers.

Screenshot of Sulli’s photo (from instagram)

With these premises in mind, the first time Sulli was subjected to large-scale cyberbullying was when she joined a feminist movement that supported the “No Bra” campaign, taking to Instagram to publicly denounce groups that discriminate against and objectify women. In East Asia, where sexuality is still relatively traditional, and with her status as a female celebrity, supporting the movement exposed her to a barrage of slut-shaming. The media richness of the Internet provides these cyberbullies with more humiliating methods of violence besides text attacks: haters turned some of her revealing body photos into sex-related memes, intensifying this grand ‘humiliation carnival’.

In this case, I think there are two dominant factors that led to this tragedy. On the one hand, it was Sulli’s status as an actress. Whether in the real world or the cyber world, discrimination, harassment and violence against women is a ‘cross-cultural global phenomenon’, meaning that it occurs in different cultural and educational backgrounds. According to Amnesty International, 88% of women experience abuse and cyberharassment after posting feminist content online (Amnesty International, 2017). For example, on the Chinese social media platform Weibo, users who support feminism have been labeled as extremists, and some have even jokingly referred to the platform as a “women’s toilet”. These are important factors that contributed to the cyber violence she received after supporting the No Bra campaign. On the other hand, the disinhibition of the internet is also one of the key factors of cyber violence. Disinhibition refers to the fact that people feel more free to express themselves freely online than in reality. Groups of people who follow Korean artists are generally younger and lack self-judgment, which makes them easy to be used by cyber violence dominators as a tool to attack others. Surveys show that most of the people involved in cyber violence and the spreading of online rumors are also not highly educated. These groups are easily incited by mere words released by media marketing numbers and thus join in the atrocities. In the program ‘Reply Night’, Sulli mentioned that she had planned to sue a bad reviewer who was educated at a prestigious university. She mentioned, ‘She wrote me several apologies, saying she was sorry and that she didn’t think it would get this big. It seemed like she was stressed about her daily academic life, so she took it out on me.’ Unsurprisingly, the de-inhibiting nature of the internet allows people to take their emotions out on others in an anonymous digital space without being held accountable for it.

2. The Johnny Depp Domestic Abuse Incident

In 2016, Amber Heard filed for divorce from her husband, Johnny Depp, and posted photos and video evidence on social media of herself being physically assaulted. At that time, a vast amount of media coverage and online commentary was condemning Depp as an unethical ‘double-dealer’, completely at odds with his on-screen reputation as a good-natured leading man. This was followed by a proliferation of memes circulating online about the details of his domestic abuse allegations, further intensifying public attention and causing significant psychological harm to Depp himself.

After enduring 6 years of online abuse, Depp appealed to the courts and ultimately prevailed in the defamation case. However, even though Depp was cleared of the domestic abuse charges, he permanently lost his role as Captain Jack Sparrow in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, and was also replaced in the Fantastic Beasts series. Most importantly, he has irrevocably lost his public image and reputation.

Screenshot of Depp and Heard by Robert Rodriguez (from CNET)

In this case, Amber Heard fabricated video and photographic evidence to create the identity of a woman suffering from domestic abuse, in order to gain sympathy from the internet. She even claimed that Johnny Depp was misogynistic, earning the condemnation and backing of feminist groups. Significantly, Heard chose to initially publicize the allegations on the internet rather than pursuing legal action directly. This demonstrates her strategic exploitation of the internet’s ability to rapidly disseminate information widely, allowing the issue to quickly escalate globally and paving the way for her to take advantage of the public opinion.

Based on the case analyzes above, I believe that there are four main factors contributing to the causes of cyber violence. The first is the de-inhibiting and widespread nature of the Internet, which makes it possible for cyberviolence participants not only to denigrate and attack others on the Internet at no cost, but also to gain self-satisfaction as well as to achieve the purpose of catharsis. Second, there is the phenomenon of group polarization in social media. It refers to the phenomenon of like-minded people forming groups and interacting online, leading to increased ideological polarization (Boyd, 2020). Group polarization and online violence are mutually reinforcing. When a closed circle of information is formed, the people in it will become more and more firm in their position, even if that is very radical and extreme.Additionally, the profitability of the communication media leads some news media and influential social accounts to publish news and posts that disregard truthfulness and objectivity in order to gain popularity. These tactics use netizens as judgmental tools to guide online violence, while they themselves sit back and enjoy the benefits behind the scenes. Lastly, poor regulation by platforms and governments can also lead to frequent cyber violence. For example, Facebook’s neglect to censor hate speech in order to preserve users’ freedom of expression led to attacks on some groups until the government imposed regulations and penalties on social media platforms that failed to remove hate speech (Sinpeng et al., 2021).

Victims of online violence may suffer not just psychological harm, but also physical consequences. The tragic suicide of Choi Sulliis an example of the damage caused by cyberbullying. An even more painful outcome is when victims develop mental illnesses like anxiety and depression as a result. Some extreme perpetrators even resort to ‘human flesh searches’ to publicly expose victims’ personal information.

This phenomenon also has detrimental effects on the development of the rule of law in society. As a medium for information dissemination, the one-way flow of information from media to audience has transformed into an interactive influence. For instance, when the public becomes passionately engaged and discusses a controversial issue through various channels, it can trigger extensive media coverage. This represents a reverse output from the audience to the media. Consequently, media reporting and opinions can become easily hijacked by public opinion, abandoning the principles of objectivity, fairness and rationality, leading to media trials. This undermines the development of the rule of law and can even impact the independence of the judicial system.

As the policymaker of laws and regulations, the government has an obligation to improve legal policies around online speech and protect the public from online violence. The government must clearly define the boundaries between free speech and criminal acts such as invasion of privacy, and incorporate severe cases of online violence into criminal law, increasing the cost for such offenses. When facing online violence incidents, the government should also take the initiative in public discourse, promptly releasing official clarifications and revealing the truth of the matter.Most importantly, the government should educate the public about relevant legal knowledge, especially how individuals can collect evidence and utilize legal means to protect themselves when facing online abuse.

As the primary medium for online violence, social media platforms should bear the majority of supervisory responsibility. The anonymity of the internet and the extremely low cost of offending have greatly enabled the frequency of online violence. In the Johnny Depp defamation case, 11% of the discussion around the trial was generated by fake bot accounts, which is a very large number (Sillito, 2022). Therefore, mainstream social media platforms should implement real-name registration policies, requiring users to provide authentic identity information, which would greatly reduce the registration of fake accounts and dissemination of misinformation.

Furthermore, platforms should issue warnings or bans on unscrupulous media accounts that frequently post false information to gain traffic. They also need to improve the reporting mechanisms for online violence. While most platforms provide complaint functions, user feedback often proves ineffective.

Lastly and most importantly, platforms must strengthen the scrutiny of content before publication, considering its truthfulness, morality, and potential impact. Only by preventing the emergence of hate speech at the source can the escalation of online violence be halted.


This paper analyzes the formation, impact and regulation methods of cyber violence under the rapid development of network technology and social media. Through a case study of Choi Sulli’s suicide case and Johnny Depp’s defamation case, this paper summarizes the four causes of cyberviolence: a de-suppressed and widespread network, group-polarized social media, profit-centered communication media, and ineffective regulation. Cyber violence not only harms others psychologically and physically, but also undermines the social climate and most importantly will affect the media and the law. The establishment of a regulatory system with government law as the leading role and platform regulation as the supporting role is the key to curbing cyberviolence.


Amnesty International. (2017, November 20). Amnesty reveals alarming impact of online abuse against women. Amnesty International.

Boyd, K. (2020). Group Epistemology and Structural Factors in Online Group Polarization. Episteme, 1–16.

Kemp, S. (2024, January 31). Internet use in 2024. DataReportal – Global Digital Insights.

Sillito, D. (2022, June 2). Depp vs. Heard Domestic Violence, Defamation Case Sparks Big Online Trial. BBC News 中文.

Sinpeng, A., Martin, F. R., Gelber, K., & Shields, K. (2021). Facebook: Regulating Hate Speech in the Asia Pacific.

Vogels, E. (2022, December 15). Teens and Cyberbullying 2022. Pew Research Center; Pew Research Center.

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