Every year, Chinese courts rule on hundreds of legal cases about people badmouthing each other on social media.
For a recent investigation, Sixth Tone’s sister publication The Paper found more than 1,400 cases of right to reputation infringements involving social media since 2018. All of the documents are publicly accessible on China Judgments Online, a searchable database of legal decisions maintained by the government.
The cases primarily involved the Moments feature on messaging app WeChat — a Facebook-like social feed of posts by a user’s contacts. The courts considered various factors in deliberating their judgements, such as whether an offending post was personally insulting, whether it was grounded in fact, and how much harm was done.
According to The Paper’s analysis of 19 civil judgments issued this year, courts typically order defendants to issue public apologies on social media, in the form of a placating post that must remain online for a designated period of time.
Several lawyers told Sixth Tone that distinguishing between free speech and libel — and assigning monetary values to reputational damage — can be tricky.
Ding Jinkun, a lawyer at DeBund Law Offices in Shanghai, said the issue often boils down to the defendant’s privacy settings, as it’s easier to prove remarks critical of others are defamatory if they’re publicly disseminated. Judges, meanwhile, “must draw a clear line distinguishing complaints or well-intentioned criticism from malicious slander,” Ding told Sixth Tone.
Here are a few standout cases from The Paper’s investigation, providing insights into some of the legal reasoning found in China’s judicial system.
The Case of the Malicious Messages
In a case involving a pair of defendants who had posted abusive comments about two plaintiffs to their WeChat Moments feeds, as well as on short-video platform Kuaishou, a court in the eastern Shandong province ruled that the posts were derogatory and therefore constituted slander. In addition, they had had “a serious negative impact” on the plaintiffs’ reputations and social standing.
The Shandong court demanded that the defendants delete the offending comments and apologize on the platforms where were posted. However, the plaintiffs’ request for compensation for emotional distress was denied, as the posts had not resulted in “serious consequences.”
The Case of the Portentous Picture
In another case, a defendant surnamed Wang had posted two sets of insulting pictures of the plaintiff, surnamed Shu, on their WeChat Moments feed. One of the images was altered to include the Chinese character dian — meaning a libation for the dead — over Shu’s forehead. Both the posts and the comments they subsequently prompted included vulgar, indecent, and otherwise foul language, and were viewed by nearly 1,600 of Wang’s WeChat contacts.
“WeChat Moments is made up of (posts by one’s) acquaintances, and therefore has a certain degree of privacy,” explained the judges from a district court in the coastal city of Ningbo. “But due to the cross-connection of interpersonal relationships, they also had a certain degree of influence.”
The court determined that Wang’s behavior had caused Shu psychological distress and violated their right to reputation. In court-ordered atonement, Wang had to publish an approved apology on WeChat Moments and leave it there for at least one month.
The Case of the Lambasted ‘Liar’
In a work-related dispute in Dongguan, an industrial city in the southern Guangdong province, a person surnamed Chen accused another person, Lu, of being a “liar” in a WeChat Moments post that also included Lu’s personal information.
A local court determined that Chen had illegally infringed Lu’s personality rights by committing “an inappropriate and irrational act of harm,” referring to the disclosure of the plaintiff’s personal information.
However, because the post was only viewable to the defendant’s contacts, was neither liked nor commented on, and was deleted after about a week, the court said it did not support a further claim that the plaintiff’s right to reputation had been violated.
The Case of the Mask Maligner
Of the 19 cases that The Paper reviewed, only one involved a plaintiff receiving payment for psychological damage.
In August, the Fugou County People’s Court in the central Henan province ruled that a defendant should issue an approved apology on short-video app Douyin — as TikTok is branded in China — and pay 5,000 yuan ($740) toward helping the plaintiff find “spiritual solace.”
The defendant, surnamed Gao, had alleged on Douyin and WeChat Moments that the plaintiff, surnamed Mao, sold fake face masks. Because the post received several likes and comments, the court concluded that it had damaged Mao’s reputation through insults, false claims, and “improper statements.”
Additional reporting: Qin Siqi; editors: David Paulk and Bibek Bhandari.
(Header image: People Visual)