The age of digital media: Freedom of speech does not equal online harms


Under the background of the digital media era, people acquire news and socialize more on the network platform. Although the network platform has brought a lot of benefits and help to people, it has exposed a lot of harm caused by freedom of speech. The growth of digital media has had a twofold impact. On the one hand, it enriches people’s access to information, leads the change of culture and values in the Internet era, and promotes the improvement of social expression and participation. On the other hand, it has also caused some problems, such as the proliferation of false news and vulgar content, as well as the challenge of information authenticity and credibility. In particular, the proliferation of some online violence and hate speech on social media has great harm to individuals and society. Hate speech can take many forms, including spoken words, written words, pictures, videos, and comments on social media. At present, the Internet is full of hate speech all over the world. Although governments around the world are trying to control the occurrence of hate speech, it is still inevitable that hate speech will bring very serious harm to people of different colors, genders, and ages. Therefore, how to reduce hate speech has become an issue worth discussing.

What is hate speech and online harm?

Hate speech can bring unlimited harm to people online. Hate speech, speech or expression that denigrates a person or persons on the basis of (alleged) membership in a social group identified by attributes such as race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, religion, age, physical or mental disability, and others (Curtis, 2024). Hate speech is recognized as a growing online problem that can negatively impact a person’s mental health, overall well-being, and online engagement. Therefore, freedom of speech does not mean that one can express one’s own views without restraint or even abuse and discriminate against others. For the current online world, more and more unrestrained speech appears in front of people’s eyes, which is not the reason why we advocate freedom of speech to bring online harm to others. Individuals who are hurt by hate speech and the Internet may develop self-doubt and negative emotions, resulting in negative factors in work, study, and various social environments, resulting in exclusion from others, resulting in mental health problems. As more and more people have moved online, experts say, individuals inclined toward racism, misogyny, or homophobia have found niches that can reinforce their views and goad them to violence. Social media platforms also offer violent actors the opportunity to publicize their acts (Laub, 2019). As a result, hate speech and online abuse have the potential to encourage further violence and hate crimes, which can even be very harmful to society. Some specific groups will even send out some racist, sexist, and even political hate speech, so it is particularly important for social media platforms and the government to distinguish and regulate freedom of speech and hate speech, to ensure the safety of the online environment.

Social media regulation and the impact of hate speech

The universal adoption of digital technologies has made it more convenient to spread various types of speech, including hate(ful) speech that impinges on racial, religious and gender equality, all of which constitute themes of socio-political significance (Chen, 2022). With the development of social media and the progress of the we-media era, it has become increasingly difficult to distinguish between free speech and regulating hate speech online. We media is not restricted by traditional media and can publish more and richer content. Show your ideas and creativity through your own words, pictures, and videos to gain more recognition and support. However, it is precisely because of the rapid dissemination of we-media that the difficulties of network supervision are further increased. China’s online platforms regulate hate speech much more strongly than those in the United States and Europe. In today’s world, the governance models of Internet speech can be discerned roughly in a taxonomy of ‘three empires of Internet’: China, the EU, and the US. As such, more profound features are identifiable in the distinctions between speech regulation in authoritarian countries and that in democratic countries (Chen, 2022). The internet is argued to be a non-governable space as it might create a favorable setting for unwanted activities due to the high quantity of online activities (Bromell, 2022) Despite the difficulties, government regulators and online platforms should formulate effective rules and regulations to regulate users of online platforms and create a safer and more harmonious online environment. Through the establishment of clear rules and regulations of the network platform, and the violation of the network platform users to carry out corresponding penalties, such as blocking accounts, deleting illegal content. In addition, social media platforms should also strengthen the review of content posted by users, and promptly detect and deal with illegal content. In addition, social media platforms need to find a balance between the regulation of hate speech and free speech, ensuring the freedom of speech while effectively driving away those users who are full of hate speech. Especially when cyberviolence is in a gray area, while the law is sometimes difficult to interpret, online hate speech perpetuators are creative and find ways to go around the law. For instance, they may post an image of monkeys instead of texting insults or a hateful utterance (Dralega, 2024). Moreover, the nature of digital media that carries hate speech brings significant obstacles to direct supervision by government authorities, since it is almost impossible for them to ask even explicit but unidentified sites to delete hateful information thoroughly. Still other websites have a variety of ways, such as using neutral domain names and a deceptive user interface, to cover up their discriminatory purposes (Chen, 2022). As such, online platforms and government regulators face great challenges in regulating platforms and making laws. In the context of globalization, it is difficult to achieve unified management of social networks, and it is difficult to determine the relative freedom of speech and the boundaries of hate speech for different races and nationalities.

Comparison between China and European and American countries on the regulation of online hate speech

TikTok, as a very famous social media platform in China, has very good measures to regulate online speech. TikTok has a set of clear rules that monitor user-generated content through human moderation and automated filtering technology to identify and remove hate speech. They may use tools such as keyword filtering and image recognition technology to detect and deal with offending content. According to Andrew Hutchinson, TikTok says that it uses a range of measures to both detect and to limit the spread of hate speech, including re-directing people who search for offensive content to its guidelines and rules: ″For instance, if someone searches for a hateful ideology or group, such as “heil Hitler” or “groyper,” we take various approaches to stop the spread of hate, including removing related content, refraining from showing results, or redirecting the search to our Community Guidelines to educate our community about our policies against hateful expression(2020). TikTok has established clear community guidelines and provides a user reporting system that allows users to report content that violates the regulations. Once a report is received, TikTok may investigate the content involved and take appropriate measures based on the situation, such as removing the offending content or banning the offending user. TikTok has a special regulatory department responsible for monitoring and combating hate speech. These teams may regularly review content, handle user reports, and work with government authorities to ensure that content on the platform complies with regulations. According to the data released by TikTok at the same time, since July 2023, TikTok has intercepted about 7 million messages, checked, and cleared 78,000 messages, disposed of 4,843 accounts, and sent a one-click anti-riot reminder pop-up window to 9,271 accounts. And overall, the notes here are good, they show that TikTok is working to address dangerous content, and it is looking to tackle hate speech and other concerns (Hutchinson,2020).

In China, online platforms and government departments have cooperated to implement very strict measures to regulate online hate speech. Because China is different from other Western countries, it is easier to enforce the regulation of online hate. China has enacted a series of laws and regulations to sanction or protect online hate speech. Where a user violates such government policies, that online platform is obliged to take measures such as ‘warning for rectification, restricting functions, suspending updating, and closing accounts. Meanwhile, the ISP must ‘eliminate illegal information and contents in a timely manner, keep relevant records, and report to the relevant competent authorities (Chen,2022). The Chinese government has rectified the unhealthy atmosphere on the Internet by making the Internet platforms carry out strict supervision measures. After strict censorship, it can not only reduce the occurrence of online hatred and reduce social anger, but also prevent some extremists from publishing some sensitive topics related to politics and inciting and guiding public opinion.

In contrast, the social background of Western countries and China is very different, and the intersection of different cultures and races makes it difficult for the Internet platform and the government to make a clear distinction between freedom of speech and hate speech. Take the United States, for example, social media platforms have broad latitude, each establishing its own standards for content and methods of enforcement. Their broad discretion stems from the Communications Decency Act (Laub, 2019). Although the US government has issued relevant laws and regulations for a long time, as a multi-racial and pluralistic country, it is difficult to establish a complete regulation on organizing hate speech in the context of freedom of speech. Platforms such as Facebook and YouTube have worked hard to balance the rules of speech, but there are still many loopholes due to the open society. A ProPublica investigation found that Facebook’s rules are opaque to users and inconsistently applied by its thousands of contractors charged with content moderation (Laub, 2019). Therefore, under the circumstances of various factors, Facebook and other platforms have issued targeted community norms prohibiting attacks against specific groups such as race, religion, gender and sexual orientation, and prohibiting violent incitement and terrorist propaganda. However, due to the lack of unity between the supervision of platforms and government departments on laws and regulations, In the absence of an imminent danger of violence, the US government may not take complaints about hate speech seriously, which could easily lead to further escalation and thus political instability. Not just for the United States, but for other Western countries as well. Especially when some politically inflammatory remarks happen, it is easy to cause great harm to the country and even the whole world.

A woman holds a smartphone with Meta logo on it in front of a displayed Facebook logo in this illustration taken, October 28, 2021. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration


The harm caused by online hate speech is very serious and terrible. To distinguish the boundary between freedom of speech and hate speech, Internet supervision platforms and government departments should pay more attention to and formulate more standardized rules. According to the research, it is not difficult to find that the formulation of network rules is facing huge challenges, and it is particularly important to minimize the harm caused by speech while maintaining freedom of speech. Western countries should learn from China’s Internet department’s regulation of speech and laws. Politicians should not only pay attention to the game at the political level but should strengthen government departments’ regulation of the Internet. The physical and mental harm that hate speech brings to people is enormous, not only having a direct negative impact on individuals, but also causing widespread damage to the entire society and culture. Therefore, the Internet regulatory authorities should strengthen the Internet governance and use more and more intelligent technologies to ensure the safety of online speech. At the same time, cultivating network civilization and friendly atmosphere also needs the joint efforts of society and individuals to create a harmonious and healthy network environment.


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