The Spread of Hate Speech and the Dilemma of Platform Governance: Nongfu Spring Incident


With the increasing development of digital media, decentralized content publishing forms are gradually occupying most social media content today, and users of each social platform have the right to produce content on social platforms. However, this form of UGC also provides a stage for posting hate speech, online harm, or online bullying, which can stimulate user emotions on the internet.

The Nongfu Spring dispute is a good example. The death of Nongfu Spring’s competitor, the founder of Wahaha- Zong Qinghou, in February 2024 has drawn people’s attention to Nongfu Spring again. As two well-known drinking water brands in China, commercial competition between them is ordinary. However, with Nongfu Spring’s founder Zhong Shanshan being named the richest person in China in March, some users from social media began to harm him and the Nongfu Spring brand online. As the incident continued to ferment, the controversy among users over Nongfu Spring began with the initial insult to the founder’s personality to some nationalists expressing their pro-Japanese hatred online. More importantly, the controversy has become increasingly intense, and users’ emotions are constantly violent. The boycott of Nongfu Spring gradually transferred from online to offline behavior, even involving other companies.

However, as the main body spreading this controversy, social media platforms do not promptly deal with hate speech and online harm which contain false information posted on the internet. Instead, they allowed the incident to continue to escalate, causing users to argue with each other. The boundary between freedom of speech and the governance of harmful speech on the internet is still an area that social platforms need to constantly explore.

Personality insult and privacy infringement

The personal insults and privacy leaks of the founder of Nongfu Spring can be seen more as an online harm. However, the harm on the internet has a strong continuity. The increasing likelihood of people interacting also leads to a decrease in tolerance for differences, gradually triggering more intense hate speech (Flew, 2021). Due to the late of founder of Wahaha, Zong Qinghou, people begin to compare Nongfu Spring with Wahaha. They search for Zhong’s past experiences through the internet, analyze the reasons for his success, and add some disinformation to post on social media, labeling him disrespectful and ungrateful. Part of cyber citizens even refers to Zhong Shanshan as “the farmer and the snake”. For example, on Weibo, some users claim that Zong Qinghou helped Zhong Shanshan due to his unsuccessful entrepreneurship. However, Zhong Shanshan used Zong Qinghou to make money and established Nongfu Spring to compete with him. Actually, Zhong’s first wealth was obtained through his own work in the curtain manufacturing industry, which has no direct relationship with Zong Qinghou. However, there is still a constant spread of “ungrateful stories” about Zhong Shanshan on social media platforms. This is because the function of liking and commenting on social media helps to quickly spread popular content, while also accelerating the dissemination speed of information (Flew, 2021).

More importantly, some cyber citizens even find a lot of information about Zhong’s family and post it on social media. Some users indicate that his son is not a Chinese citizen, but a US citizen. This viewpoint causes dissatisfaction among many “patriots” who start insulting Zhong’s family and Nongfu Spring on social media. The users who are unaware of the truth will become more supportive of Nongfu Spring’s competitor-Wahaha upon seeing these comments. This also poses a hidden danger for the shift of attention towards Nongfu Spring from commercial disputes to political controversies and leads to nationalist hate speech. In addition, users’ attention to the true nationality of Chinese entrepreneurs has also expanded from Zhong Ting to more people. Even trigger attacks from users on other private enterprises.

From commercial disputes to political controversies

This is quite an interesting phenomenon, no matter what the real initial reason for the Nongfu Spring dispute is, as long as it is the point about politics. Users would prefer to pay their attention to it and express their perspectives. Hate speech is a type of speech that requires policies to respond to the harm it causes, and its impact may be more pronounced than physical justice (Sinpeng et al., 2021). Generally, hate speech occurs in areas such as gender, race, and politics. As mentioned in the last part, when the identity issue of Zhong’s son is brought to the attention of some cyber citizens, they will focus more on political issues related to it and expand this attention to the products of the Nongfu Spring brand. In order to publish their baseless speculations on social media. In the era of digital media, even the smallest details are easily magnified and focused on by users (Perreault, 2023). Once users discover that this is different from what they originally imagined, they will develop hatred (Perreault, 2023). For instance, the drinking water package of Nongfu Spring is red. Some users claim on Dou Yin that the red bottle cap on the white paper is a Japanese flag, so the brand of Nongfu Spring and its founder have a pro-Japanese tendency. The release of this type of content solely based on the user’s own political speculation has no evidence to support it. However, it still can quickly spread on social media, generate huge resonance, and trigger more related inferences. For example, the pattern on Nongfu Spring products resembles the Yasukuni Shrine in Japan, and the font of Chinese characters on products resembles Japanese, among other overly interpreted content. Furthermore, there are even influencers who publish relevant content to increase users’ attention and discuss the pro-Japanese tendency of Nongfu Spring, which has greatly promoted the hatred towards Nongfu Spring and its founder online. Compared to content generated by ordinary users, attributes generated by influencers often spread faster, farther, and reach a wider audience (Mathew et al., 2019).

These hate speeches not only affected the stock price of Nongfu Spring but also affected Zhong’s family. Zhong’s mother passed away in the great public opinion on Nongfu Spring on the internet. Nevertheless, in the face of these large amounts of unjustified hate speech, various social media platforms have not taken timely action or stopped the continuous deterioration of public opinion. On the contrary, platform-based algorithm recommendation models even recommend hate speech with high likes, which further leads people to fall into a homogenized content bubble. The closer connection between hateful users further exacerbates their opposition (Mathew et al., 2019). This also leads to high recognition of the Wahaha company and crazy support for Wahaha products. However, regardless, hate speech has shifted the focus of the internet from commercial competition between Nongfu Spring and Wahaha to political controversy. More importantly, Nongfu Spring has become a tool for many cyber citizens to vent their personal political plots. It is precisely this hate speech online about Nongfu Spring being pro-Japanese that pushes the Nongfu Spring incident to a climax, and its impact begins to spread to offline fields.

From online hatred to offline resistance

Under the influence of hate speech, individuals may exhibit conformity due to social pressures and the normalization of discriminatory language (Nadezhda& Zaychikova, 2023). Therefore, most of cyber citizens have shown a one-sided resistance towards Nongfu Spring online as a result. For example, some users may feel proud of purchasing Wahaha’s products and consider it a patriotic act and post this act on social media to seek public recognition. Some users even leave malicious comments on Nongfu Spring’s social media account to vent their emotions. Moreover, they also attack users who defend Nongfu Spring personally. In the face of these unprovoked attacks and abuse, social platforms such as TikTok do not screen untrue information promptly or increase the input of objective information to alleviate this phenomenon.

More importantly, the herd boycott of Nongfu Spring has also extended to the offline retail industry. Some users who are affected by the hate speech and have more extreme emotions would go to some retail stores to threaten their bosses that if they continue to sell Nongfu Spring products, they will not consume them again. Some people even verbally insult and physically attack the boss who sells Nongfu Spring. They think that selling Nongfu Spring is unpatriotic behavior. Thus, many retail stores have to stop selling Nongfu Spring products due to online and offline pressure. Actually, the offline sales of Nongfu Spring have also been affected by the hate speech of these narrow nationalists on the internet, which caused a blow to the stock price of Nongfu Spring. According to CNN calculations, its Hong Kong-listed stocks have fallen by nearly 5%, with a market value evaporation of about $3 billion and a daily sales decline of over 90% (He, 2024).

Even more exaggerated is that some people boycotted the Nongfu Spring and supported Wahaha with patriotic slogans. They buy plenty of Nongfu Spring products and pour them into the toilet. They record this behavior as a video and post it on social media to gain recognition. However, this behavior is a waste of resources in essence, which is not worthy of promotion and should be prohibited. Social media platforms do not have reasonable restrictions on such content, and they do not address some extreme comments and content on time. Although the emergence of social media gives many users the right to further freedom of speech, the governance of hate speech should not be ignored.


Throughout the entire Nongfu Spring incident, from the initial online harm to individuals, to the later hate speech related to politics, patriotism, and other issues. Social media platforms, as a medium of dissemination, did not take good governance measures. When some hat speeches lacking logic and reasoning spread rapidly on the platform, social media platforms did not control them through algorithms or other technologies. In contrast, they allowed hate speech to escalate, which caused Nongfu Spring to become deeply involved and even trigger large-scale offline activities.

The suppression of online voices in the later stage of the Nongfu Spring incident was not the result of social media actively participating in governance, but rather a shift in public opinion. Some users publish more rational and objective content that was recognized by people gaining support. However, in the early stages of the event, when the hate speech rapidly spread in large numbers, the rational and objective voice was pretty weak. In comparison, the hate speech with political labels pointing to Nongfu Spring has stronger public rendering and dissemination power.

Although social media has gradually achieved decentralized content dissemination and provided users with a platform for free speech. It should still pay attention to the impact of online harms and hate speech on people in dissemination and take corresponding governance measures. Hate speech remarks distrust and hostility in society, and also affects people’s thoughts and behavior. Until now, when it comes to Nongfu Spring on the internet, users still label it as a pro-Japanese brand, and the impact of this hate speech is sustained and profound.

However, in fact, the brand design of Nongfu Spring is derived from traditional Chinese culture, and some Japanese elements that appear are also aimed at promoting the profound influence of Chinese culture introduced to Japan. Therefore, in the current era of digital media, social platforms should guide people to accept information content reasonably and reduce the impact of hate speech on people. The Internet problem of better balancing hate speech and ensuring freedom of speech.


Flew,T.(2021).Regulating Platforms. John Wiley & Sons.

He.(2024).Not Chinese enough? Bottled water empire of China’s richest man is facing a nationalist boycott. CNN. Retrieved April 14, 2024, from

Mathew,B.,Dutt, R.,Goyal,P.,& Mukherjee, A.(2019). Spread of Hate Speech in Online Social Media.

Nadezhda, A., Zaychikova. (2023).Hate Speech.doi: 10.1515/9783110672619

Perreault, G. P. (2023). Digital journalism and the facilitation of hate. Routledge.

Sinpeng, A., Martin, F. R., Gelber, K., & Shields, K. (2021). Facebook: Regulating Hate Speech in the Asia Pacific. Department of Media and Communications, The University of Sydney.

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