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2020-10-29 11:56:29

Should Weibo, China’s biggest social network, be held responsible when users upload gruesome videos? That’s the question at the heart of a legal case for which hearings began Monday at a Shanghai court.

A professor from East China University of Political Science and Law in Shanghai — identified only by her surname, Qiu — sued the company that manages content on microblogging platform Weibo for allowing cat abuse videos that Qiu says caused her mental harm, according to Shanghai Law Journal, a party-affiliated legal affairs outlet.

While browsing Weibo last year, Qiu came across an account showing videos of cats being abused and offering visitors more such footage for money — a not-uncommon phenomenon on Chinese social media. Seeing the “cruel and shocking” content allegedly caused her to experience insomnia and led to a diagnosis of neurasthenia, a condition characterized by mental and physical exhaustion, according to the report.

Qiu reported the account to Weibo, only to discover that there were many more similar accounts she suspected were run by the same person. She then sued the company, requesting that Weibo permanently ban such accounts and publicly apologize.

During the hearing Monday, the lawyer representing Weibo said the account owner should be held responsible, given that the platform had swiftly responded to Qiu’s report by deleting the problematic content. The lawyer also questioned whether the videos caused the professor’s symptoms. “Qiu is currently 57 years old,” they said. “It’s normal for people her age to have mild symptoms of insomnia and neurasthenia.”

Qiu’s lawyer responded by saying the plaintiff would be willing to add the user peddling animal abuse videos to the lawsuit, and that Weibo — which, like all Chinese social media platforms, links users’ accounts to their ID cards — should disclose the person’s identity.

The defendant did not respond to that request during Monday’s session. The court adjourned, and a date for the next hearing has not been set.

Shanghai-based lawyer Ding Jinkun told Sixth Tone he believes the lawsuit is meaningful because it alerts society to the issue of who is responsible for content on social media. He added, however, that the court probably won’t side with the defendant.

“Her request is basically calling for Sina (Weibo’s parent company) to be held accountable, on behalf of the oversight authorities — which will be hard for the court to support,” Ding said. “It’s really hard to prove that her mental harm is related to the cat abuse videos.”

According to Weibo’s terms of service, users are responsible for creating a civilized online environment; are not allowed to upload or post any false, harassing, or abusive content; and will be held accountable if their content causes harm. Government regulations say online platforms themselves are responsible for managing content, and authorities regularly meet with internet companies that they feel aren’t adequately controlling certain types of content.

Yao Yue, campaign manager for the nongovernmental organization World Animal Protection in Beijing, told Sixth Tone that only enacting an animal protection law will
fundamentally prevent animal abuse.

Animal welfare activists and social media users have long advocated for such legislation, and public support flared up again last week after a video of a man pouring boiling-hot water over a pregnant cat, killing her and her unborn kittens, was circulated online.

“Actions against animal cruelty should never be seen as overreactions,” Yao said. “Currently, punishments for animal abuse are far too light.”

Editor: Kevin Schoenmakers.

(Header image: People Visual)