Unveiling the Shadows: Understanding and Addressing Online Abuse on Douyin

In today’s digital age, the internet has become an essential part of our everyday lives, providing information and entertainment. Douyin, known as the Chinese version of TikTok, has become the biggest mobile short video platform in China. While social media platforms stand for freedom of expression, large-scale circulation of hate speech on digital platforms has grown to be serious and concerning problems. (Flew, 2021, p. 91). Studies in 2022 found that about 38 percent of users are experiencing cyberbullying on Douyin. (Statista, 2023). This blog focuses on the case of Liu XueZhou who was suffering from digital harassment on Douyin and committed suicide under pressure. While discussing the reasons contributed to the consequence, we will also examine the role of the platform on controlling online abuse together with the improvements they should take.  

     Case Review: Liu XueZhou

Figure1. Photo of Liu XueZhou (Weibo)

Liu Xuezhou, a boy looking for relatives in Xingtai, Hebei Province was ‘bought’ by his adoptive parents when he was about 3 months old. When he was 4 years old, his adoptive parents died in an accident. (Jian, 2023). On December 6, 2021, Liu posted a family search video on Douyin, which attracted the attention of many netizens. On December 14, Liu found his biological father, Ding after the DNA comparison came out. (Jian, 2023).

On January 16, 2022, Liu posted a video on social media saying that his WeChat was blocked by his biological parents and would ask for legal aid. On the next day, he was exhausted and decided to find a house in Shijiazhuang and planned to return to his normal study life. That night, Liu’s parents spoke out through the media and maliciously exposed Liu’s reasonable demands against them. His father said that Liu hoped that his parents would ‘buy a house’ for him in Hebei. However, due to the family’s financial difficulties, he was unable to agree to Liu’s request. (Loh, 2022). In the early morning of January 19, 2022, Liu woke up and saw the news, he was very angry and decided to sue his biological father and mother as he has never said those statements.

At the same time, online abuse and attacks came one after another, with many saying that he had only wanted a house from his parents and that he was trying to gain sympathy. (Li & Sheperd, 2024). ‘In the past couple of days, there have been people attacking and cursing me on Douyin’, Liu mentioned his suffering in a 10,000-word note. (Loh, 2022). 

Figure2. A screenshot of abusive comments (Douyin)

On January 24, 2022, Liu posted a 7000-word letter on social media and committed suicide in Sanya after taking medicine. (Li & Shepherd, 2022). 

Why Online Abuse on Douyin?

Liu’s case only maps out the tip of the iceberg of cyber violence, the social phenomenon behind which still needs to be taken seriously. According to Ng (2023), China discovered that around four out of every ten respondents in their country had experienced some type of internet harassment. 

What is online abuse? Online violence is a new type of violence that refers to individuals’ malicious attacks, insults, threats, or rumors against others with offensive words or information on the internet, social media, and other platforms. (eSafety, n.d.). It is a form of mental violence that has a negative psychological impact on victims and can lead to extreme behaviours such as self-denial, depression, or suicide. So, what causes online abuse? How does it happen? 

The main reason for the frequent abuse on Douyin could be divided into three aspects. 

  1. Lack of Education

Douyin, as the biggest short video platform in China, had around 752 million monthly active users in 2022, one in every three Douyin users was below 26 years old. (Statista, 2023). The statistics revealed the fact that Douyin is attracted to many young generations. However, some users may not be educated about online safety or privacy settings, which may lead to a lack of awareness about the consequences of online abuse. Their enthusiasm for self-expression makes them easy to lose rationality on the internet and more likely to participate in online abuse. The short video format also limits the depth of conversation between young people, resulting in misunderstandings and false interpretations. The lack of education is not only on being perpetrators but also on how to protect themselves as victims if harassment occurs. In Liu’s case, after he had been cyberbullied, he did not collect evidence and ask for legal aid immediately but posted the abusive comments he received on social media to defend himself. 

2. Online Disinhibition effect

The online disinhibition effect refers to the lack of restraint one feels when communicating online in comparison to communicating in person. (Suler, 2004). We are behind the screen, we have usernames instead of our own, and others don’t know our looks. The anonymity provided by the internet allows perpetrators to engage in abusive behaviour without fear of immediate responses. People tend to feel safer saying things online that they would not say in real life because they have the ability to remain invisible. (Lapidot-Lefler & Barak, 2012). On the other hand, offenders are more likely to attack individuals or groups they perceive as weak or less powerful. Bullying occurs when there is a power imbalance between the aggressor and the target. (NoPlaceForBullying, 2023). People would like to stand on the top of morality and criticize others to reveal their values, believing that they represent justice. 

3. Misleading traffic makes the truth unclear

On short video platforms like Douyin, traffic refers to the exposure rate or the number of viewers of a video, and is becoming the most important part of fan operations. More traffic means more user attention for creators which could lead to more interactions and higher exposure. Videos over 1 million plays become ‘viral videos.’ ‘Viral videos’ not only encourage direct product purchases from users and boost revenue, but they also significantly raise brand awareness. (RogueLink, 2023). Therefore, in order to attract attention and traffic, some media may report incidents by using exaggerating words, or even release posts without thorough investigation. In Liu’s case, his foster family hired lawyer Zhou Zhaocheng after he passed away. He extracted more than 2,000 pieces of malicious information on cyberbullying Liu from the internet. Zhou found that the reason why a large number of netizens have sent insulting and offensive messages to Liu is because of two active accounts on Douyin. A blogger named ‘Truth Words Brother’ with millions of followers and a sentiment blogger named ‘Warm-heart Sister’ with tens of thousands of fans have published videos to criticize Liu. (Jian, 2023). They speculated, slandered, and used extremely insulting language to provoke the child who was under 16 years old. With the incitement of bloggers, internet users started to believe them without thinking critically and sending abusive texts to Liu. Because these two accounts have a large number of followers and the content they publish is widely circulated, they were among the first to be prosecuted. The court saw a viral video showing ‘True Words Brother’ saying that Liu is not a simple person, and what’s even more exaggerated is that he even said that Liu abandoned his parents. (Jian, 2023). Finally, both of the accounts were blocked by Douyin. 

Figure3: Truth Brother and Warm-heart Sister’s Douyin account being blocked (Sohu)

So, who should take the responsibility of Liu’s case? The perpetrator? Yes, for sure, but what about the social media platforms? Are they also one of the ‘murderers’ as they allow the online abuse to exist there? If not, short video platforms should take actions. 

Role of Douyin on Digital Harassment

One of the primary challenges is to balance the competing principles of promoting freedom of expression and having effective legal sanctions against hate speech and online abuse. (Flew, 2021, p. 94). As a short video platform providing services, Douyin should evolve its strategies to create safer digital environments based on three stages of developing online abuse: before, during, and after the event. 

  1. Before the event

In the early stage of the event, more attention should be paid to educating users and predicting risks, in order to minimize the occurrence of violent content as much as possible. The Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC), a subordinate office of the State Council Information Office, regulates the Internet across the nation. Platforms have to develop and clarify the criteria for content relating to online abuse based on the characteristics of the platform. (State Council, 2014). On Douyin, all user-generated content must conform to the ‘Douyin Community Standards’ (Douyin, 2022), which was taken into implementation since September 13, 2022. Douyin also opened an account called ‘Douyin Security Centre’, and publishes videos in interpreting which content is not allowed by the platform in a fun and educational way. In the videos, they are using scenarios or conversations by actors to give education on digital harassment, which comes out to be more powerful and attractive than the announcement of disposal only. 

The algorithm is also used to identify and predict risks. The improvement and development of algorithms provide a better user experience for us. In response to inappropriate comments sent by users, Douyin has launched a ‘post warning’ function to intercept risky content. However, the existing manual approach of identifying harmful content on social media platforms is not good enough due to the exponential growth of evil content. (Gongane, 2022). Douyin should update the algorithm of detecting regularly in order to control the appearance of online abuse.

2. During the event

During the event, it is necessary to provide users with more convenient and effective prevention functions. Douyin has opened a function in users’ profile settings called the ‘One Click Prevention’ to protect users from being cyberbullied. In the function, there also contains email addresses of lawyers for victims if they want to ask for legal aid. The change actually made achievements that Douyin has intercepted 92.18 million pieces of improper information in six months. (Sina_Mobile, 2022). The CAC also requires platforms to remove content that is illegal or includes online abuse. (Secretariat of the Cyberspace Administration of China, 2022). Douyin has the ability to delete violent comments and videos posted by bloggers who are using exaggerate and misleading statements to gain traffic. 

Besides, users can report comments, private messages, and videos that they think are abusive. However, the report system of Douyin is so simple compared to worldwide social media platforms such as Twitter, and Facebook. It only contains choosing types of cyberbullying when reported and gives you feedback on whether the report succeed or not. But for Twitter, as we can see in Figure 4, contains more categories including which part of the identity are you being targeted, and how is the offender doing this before identifying which type of abuse are you reporting for. It also gives you steps of what to do next after being bullied followed by detailed feedback. 

Figure 4Steps of reporting abusive behaviours on Twitter (Twitter)

3. After the event

After the incident happens, more attention should be paid to the punishment of perpetrators and the compensation for the victims. In Liu’s case, the punishment for the two offenders is not enough, the perpetrators of online violence can easily gain group support, it is hard to find every violator participating in the harassment. China does not have a law against online violence, the Civil Code stipulates the infringement liability of Internet users and Internet service providers who use the Internet to infringe on the civil rights of others, including stopping the infringement, compensating for damage, and making an apology. (Legal, 2020). Such legal liability obviously cannot effectively combat such illegal activities. Therefore, in situations where other laws cannot effectively evaluate and regulate online violence, criminal law should be used as a safeguard law on digital harassment. 

Experiencing online violence requires tremendous psychological pressure. The changes in emotions are the most obvious. Ng (2023) discovered that 16% of the victims had suicide ideation, almost half reported anxiety, 42% sleeplessness, and 32% sadness. Therefore, in addition to blocking information harassment, Douyin must also pay attention to the psychological counselling of the victims and provide humanistic care in the core links.


Controlling online abuse is not only the platform’s responsibility but also wisdom. Although Douyin has taken actions in regulating digital violence, there is still much space for progress. Platform companies should continue to develop more practical and powerful measures for the public interest. The Internet is not a lawless place, at the same time when we feel regret about victims like Liu XueZhou, it is also our duty to create a safer environment and say no to online abuse. 


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