The invention of social media has brought about a number of positive and negative changes in global society. People’s voices are coming together online to form something bigger than themselves, but the usage of social media is often abused, overused, and exploited. One severe consequence of this is cyberbullying; a growing phenomenon that has adversely changed the way people behave towards one another on the Internet.
Indeed, usage of social media has been correlated with an increase in online hostility. This can result in destructive effects on the victim’s personal as well as professional lives, triggering negative feelings such as frustration, anger, and depression. A 2018 Pew Research study found that a majority of U.S. teens (59%) experienced some form of cyberbullying. This became more prevalent during the COVID-19 epidemic, with cyberbullying and hate speech against kids and teens during online chat increasing by 70%, according to AI-based startup L1ght. What is more, hate speech and hate crimes against people of Asian descent, especially in the United States, were also more widespread, appearing to skyrocket during the pandemic. While we talk about online abuse or harassment in general, it should be pointed out that women are the primary victims. Gender-based online harassment, despite its rising rate, is still not socially, legally, or academically well understood. For instance, the idea of “cyberstalking” was only recently fully legalised, and that too was partly due to its close ties to the more well-known crime of “offline” stalking. What’s more, several world-famous celebrities have been facing online hate, which has made them abandon social media for good. Namely, Lizzo, a GRAMMY Award nominee for 2020 with over 1.4 million Twitter followers, was forced to leave the platform momentarily due to criticism by online trolls.
Therefore, this article will explore the case of South Korea and how the internet -an important source of information, entertainment, and communication-, has been simultaneously exposing the country’s general users, and in particular its celebrities, to dangerous interactions that threaten their professional, personal lives, mental well-being, and, consequently, their safety. The article will also provide insight on how the country’s justice department has dealt with the situation so far and whether the current regulations have been effective in bringing about change.
The conspicuous relationship between South Korean celebrities and K-Netizens
South Korea is considered to be a digital innovator due to its technological advancements, placing 5th in the world in terms of digital potential. This, in combination with the freedom of speech and expression that digital technologies provide, has given way to the rise of the “cyberbullying” phenomenon across the country. Due to the anonymity that the internet offers, people can become extremely malicious when in virtual spaces. According to a 2020 survey conducted among South Korean adults aged 20 to 50 in regards to their experience with cyber violence and bullying, roughly 37.8% of respondents stated they have been both perpetrators and victims of cyber violence. In total, around 65.8% of respondents answered that they have experienced cyber violence as either an offender or a victim. According to Statista, 234 thousand cyberbullying cases were reported to the South Korean police in 2020, marking an increase of about 54 thousand cases in just one year. With celebrities having an active social media presence and the apparent increase in online harassment incidents, cyberbullying is partly to blame for this unwelcomed social development.
The roots of such cyber crime are somewhat interlinked with the country’s social characteristics, which, I would argue, are important contributors to this emerging epidemic of online hate speech. The impact of Confucianism is evident in the country’s power-based, hierarchical, and authoritarian social framework, which could be partly at fault for inequality and lopsided power in Korean society. As everyone strives to dominate others in the workplace or in social settings, both offline and online bullying have been rampant, with social media becoming more of a curse than a blessing for the country. More than half of South Korea’s population has access to the Internet via one of the world’s fastest broadband connections and because of the anonymity provided by the Internet, everyone is able to express themselves with far greater freedom. That being the case, without the proper filtering or needed supervision, some youngsters can end up becoming cyberbullies. Teenagers are discouraged from expressing their thoughts to their parents, teachers, and, later, bosses as they live in a society where Confucian ideals still hold sway. As a result, they’ve resorted to the Internet as a way to get away from the monitoring of authority figures and freely express their opinions. Unfortunately, this often leads to the release of a lot of pent-up rage in the form of online criticism and hate comments.
Here, we also need to mention the phenomenon of Korean “netizens”, a term most commonly used by Koreans to describe the people inhabiting the “electronic commons” of the Internet. Hauben coined the term “Netizen” (“Net” + “citizens” = “Netizens”) to refer to “Net Citizens” who utilise the internet from their home, work place, school and library amongst others. In Korea, where internet communication tools are effectively deployed, netizens wield significant political and social power through comments posted on online forums. Due to the country’s traditional society and values, while the comments or posts of Korean netizens may not be worse than those of other countries’ netizens, their influence could perhaps be greater. In western countries, particularly in the United States, people rely on professional paparazzi and news agencies in order to stay updated on celebrities’ personal lives or other breaking news. On the contrary, South Korea seems to be an exception, with online comments of netizens often being taken more seriously.
Celebrities as victims of online abuse
The shield that online anonymity provides is an advantage for netizens, helping them lurk on the internet unnoticed and virtually abuse celebrities. But what happens when leaving harsh comments on a celebrity’s online pictures causes such irreparable damage that they decide to take their own life? Indeed, celebrities have been a prominent target of Korean netizens’ cyberbullying as a result of the rise of the country’s popular culture. Any celebrity who indulges themselves in anything that is contrary to societal norms may face criticism at any time; just a few clicks on a keyboard and a celebrity’s entire career, and oftentimes, their well-being, could be at stake.
These days, cyberbullying in Korea has been common on social media platforms like Instagram and KakaoTalk, where anti-fans flood a celebrity’s comments section with harsh words as soon as they share a picture or express their feelings online. And for influential figures, this isn’t a one-time occurrence; they have to deal with it regularly. Celebrities have always been idolised, and Korean society seems to expect perfection from these idols. Nonetheless, everybody is flawed and subject to criticism in one way or another, and with Korea’s favourite stars being constantly under the microscope, it’s really no wonder that they frequently end up as the victims of cyberbullying or online criticism. One such recent and tragic example of the detrimental effects of online harassment is the case of Kim In-hyeok, a professional volleyball player who committed suicide at his house in Suwon on February 4, 2022. For most of his professional career, Kim had been subjected to a barrage of offensive comments about his appearance, as well as rumours about his sexual identity. In an August 2021 post, Kim In Hyuk called out his critics on Instagram, saying: “All of these misunderstandings that I have ignored for the past ten years. I thought ignoring them would be best, but now I am tired. None of you have ever seen me up close, and you know nothing about me, yet you constantly bully me with your malicious comments. Please stop. I’m so tired of them.” It is disheartening to see that he had to justify himself to individuals online, giving explanations in regards to his personal life and pleading for online hateful comments to stop.
Sulli, a South Korean singer and actor who took her own life in 2019, was another victim of cyberbullying. She was publicly targeted by “keyboard warriors,” many of whom criticised her actions as radical, from her clothing to the photos she shared online. According to her close friends, the malicious online comments she received depressed her to the point of no return. Her suicide triggered outrage over management agencies’ failure to shield their stars from “toxic fandom” and called for government action against bullying on famous internet forums where users could post anonymously. Even though Sulli’s death spurred web portals Naver and Daum to shut down comment sections for sports and entertainment news, cyberbullies have now shifted to global social media sites, such as YouTube and Instagram. As a result, despite an increasing number of reported cases of cyberbullying and the resulting suicides, the South Korean police force has struggled to bring charges. In 2019, the country’s legislators advocated for the introduction of a new law that would make cyberbullying education mandatory in all schools. The call for action came after K-pop sensation Goo Hara committed suicide less than two months after Sulli, because of similar misogynistic online abuse, sparking a massive campaign against cyberbullying.
Eventually, unless justice is served to online bullies and until laws catch up to prevent virtual harassment and hate speech, suicides appear to be inevitable. It seems like online harassment only stops when the victims decide to go private. The South Korean authorities, as well as the general population, need to be proactive about this issue, following a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to cyberbullying. There should be proper and strong legal action taken on all fronts against malicious comments that are directed towards Korean artists. However, for this to be achieved, Korean society’s support is pivotal. At the end of the day, the changes brought by the authorities will be relevant only if society recognizes the seriousness of such malicious online activity and encourages people to refrain from posting hurtful comments.