It is commonly thought that South Korea is one of the greatest Information Technology (IT) powerhouses in the world: a country with over 95 percent of internet penetration rate, the fastest mobile speeds and the third fastest broadband speeds. However, there is a serious social problem of cyberbullying behind these splendid titles. Cyberbullying refers to the activity of using the internet to harm or frighten another person, especially by sending them unpleasant messages. The term is also referred to as cyber- harassment or malicious commenting.
On October 14, 2019, Sulli, an Actress and a former member of K-pop girl-group f(x), committed suicide in her apartment. While the exact causes are unknown, her manager revealed that she had suffered from depression. After the incident, many people are speculating that consistent and severe cyberbullying toward Sulli might have worsened her depression. The event heated social debate around malicious comments in Korean society and made the public realize the seriousness of this issue. On October 25, 11 days after the Sulli scandal, Park Dae-chul of the Liberty Korea party proposed a revision of the Act on Promotion of Information and Communications Network Utilization and Information Protection, etc - hereafter referred to as, “The Semi- Real Name System (Jun-silmyeongje)”. It is a bill requiring online users to reveal their usernames and IP addresses when posting comments on portal sites. On the same day, Park Sun-sook from the minor opposition Bareunmirae Party also suggested another bill allowing sites to delete hate expressions when victims request for such action. It is not the first time that cyberbullying has become a hot topic and legal efforts on venomous comments have been implemented in Korea. “The Internet Real Name System (Internet-silmyeongje)”, enacted from 2007 to 2012, is a representative case. Over five years of its enacting period, the Internet Real Name System did not result in practical relief of venomous comments or cyber insulting and was eventually abolished due to its unconstitutionality of violating freedom of speech and expression. Even after the abolishment of Internet Real Name System, no alternatives regarding the cyberbullying problem have been proposed. There is still no way of knowing whether the currently issued cyberbullying improvement movement will succeed or not. Nevertheless, it is obvious that the issue is attracting huge attention and provoking the necessity of social and institutional reform from the media, the public, and the political spheres.
The Reality of Cyberbullying in Korea
According to the current situation of cyber defamation and humiliation revealed by the Korean National Police Agency, the culture of hostile comments is becoming much worse. The number of cyber defamation and humiliation crimes which occurred last year was 15,000, nearly twice the 8,880 cases in 2014. Considering that 15,000 is merely a reported figure of crimes, we can presume that actual circumstances are far more severe.
Most venomous comments are written towards public figures such as entertainers, politicians, or influencers. In fact, many celebrities are suffering from damages inflicted by cyber harassment and some of them are strongly dealing with the situation by laying charges against alleged cyberbullies. The targets of hostile comments are not limited to celebrities, of course. As online activations of individuals expand, attacks on general people are becoming harsh. The incident involving a female kindergarten teacher in Gimpo last year is a well-known cyberbullying case that targeted ordinary people. A post was uploaded on an online café for moms, saying “A child wanted to be held by a teacher, but the teacher pushed the child away while preoccupied with folding up a mat”. Shortly afterwards, personal information of the teacher was published on the café and an intense witch-hunt began. Tragically, the teacher drowned herself two days after the writing was uploaded, and this incident ended without investigation into whether child abuse had actually been committed or not. Likewise, malicious comments are mercilessly conducted, and victims are suffering from tremendous mental pain.
Why Are Malicious Comments so Serious in Korean Society?
Why are these tragic events endlessly happening in our society? Though various causes exist, yellow journalism in the media and Korea’s social structure is often mentioned as major factors. Professor Lee Jae-jin in the Department of Media Communication in Hanyang University (HYU) stated that the reason for the prevalence of malicious comments is a “Korean phenomenon”. He pointed out the social circumstances: “There is no other country like Korea that allows anonymous comments to be posted on portals’ news sites. Moreover, Korea now suffers from a crisis which is that people are divided in a dichotomous way, and the possibility of being united is too low.” Professor Lee also indicated the media’s reporting problem by saying, “Sometimes venomous comments are published by the press, which hasnʼt even been confirmed in its authenticity.” Meanwhile, Lee Ji-young, a Psychologist and Writer, noted that Koreans suffer immense emotional stress. She said, “Our country thinks highly of material value, is socially unequal, and is mentally stressed to the point where the suicide rate is the highest among OECD countries. So, to the public living in this tough situation, celebrities are recognized as the most favored group of material benefits. Looking at them, the public feels a sense of relative deprivation and tries to relieve their stress with cyberbullying towards celebrities.” Which means malicious comments are acting as the simplest stress outlet for the public. Moreover, Dr. Lee added that Koreaʼs advanced IT is activating a negative synergy by increasing public access to malicious comments.
Cyber Harassment: Nothing to Attackers, Dagger to Victims
There is a Korean proverb that says, “A frog dies from a stone thrown without any thought”. It means that someone’s careless behavior can be a great detriment to someone else. Victims are wounded like frogs by cyberbullies’ venomous comments. Dr. Lee said, “If you have a small quarrel with someone, you will keep thinking about it unintentionally. As such, interpersonal relations are important to humans. However, if one receives criticism from the majority at a time, it can lead the victim to serious self-condemnation.” In human psychology, it is said that enough recovery time is needed to overcome self- depreciation. But if someone is attacked indiscriminately, the process is likely to be lacking and eventually leads to depression or skepticism about self-worth.
Then what makes people become cyberbullies? Dr. Lee explained that the combination of low self-esteem formed by emotional violence, lack of empathy, and loss of control leads to cyber harassment. Meanwhile, cyberbullies can be categorized in many different types by intentions or content of comments. The first is a warrior type. This type of bully deliberately writes controversial comments and waits for a fight with their opponents. Generally, sexual harassment or insulting comments on someone’s appearance are common examples. The second is a stalker type, who constantly attacks only one person regardless of whether he or she is ordinary or famous. Stalker type bullies write slanderous or groundless rumors about the figure on his or her personal blogs, social media and articles just like a physical stalker. The third is the most common type, a stress- relieving one. For this type of bully, writing a venomous comment functions as a stress relieving vent. They are quite similar to stalker bullies in terms of malicious slanders, but they are different in that the subject of their malicious comments is not limited. Lastly, an attention seeking type refers to people who write hostile comments to attract other people’s attention. They usually leave links of their own homepages or blogs on their comments with aggressive headlines. As an example, when an entertainer’s secret file is circulated, posting his or her own homepage address by advertising that he or she has the file.
How the Government and Portals Deal with Malicious Comments
Under the current law, malicious comments can be punished by the Guilty of Cyber Defamation by Falsehood (maximum seven years in prison) or the Guilty of Insulting (maximum five years depending on contents). In fact, however, the application of the law itself is ambiguous due to the difficulty of regulation and judgment on malicious comments. Go Ji-yoon, a lawyer, pointed out this legal limitation by explaining that, “Most malicious comments are applied to the guilty of insulting. Regarding this punishment, ‘insult’ is defined as expressing abstract judgments or derogatory feelings that might undermine a person’s social assessment without specifying facts. Likewise, whether someone’s acts of expression are subject to criminal punishment or not depends on vague criteria, so the courts usually judge cases based on ‘social norms’ and ‘robust common sense’. However, there is still some room for interpretation depending on the standards which laws have. After all, it is inevitable to individually determine if the expression is a malicious comment subject to the punishment by referring to the court's judgment criteria established through various cases.”
Since the level of legal punishment is low, many people are calling for portal sites, which are the origin of the cyberbullying, to present appropriate countermeasures. Naver and Daum (Kakao), which each rank first and second place among South Korean portal sites, are responding to this demand through various policies, including an automatic replacement system for abusive replies. Firstly, Naver provides its own filtering service called the “Cleanbot”, a malicious comments detection AI. This is an AI technology that automatically detects and hides comments that contain offensive swear words, and is currently applied to Naver webtoons, sports news, entertainment news, etc. In addition, Daum (Kakao) announced that it has closed the comments on entertainment news since this October and plans to abolish search words related to people by the end of this year. Although various efforts are being made by portal sites to eradicate venomous comments, some people criticize that these alternatives to limit the function of comments are not desirable. This is because the comment window is serving as a public forum. Regarding this view, Professor Lee Jae-jin affirmed that some of the comment sections do serve as public debate centers. However, he supported portal sites’ renovations saying, “Not all expressions are constitutionally guaranteed. Some public intervention based on voluntary restraints is inevitable at this time when illegal expressions seriously damage individuals’ personal rights.”
Why is the Semi-Real Name System Noteworthy?
While the public agrees upon the necessity of countermeasures that could tackle malicious cyberbullying with common sense, the question of discerning which kind of legal enactment should suitably be taken still remains. Among the various anti-cyberbullying acts that have been introduced earlier in this article, the Semi-Real Name System is highlighted.
The Semi-Real Name System is a bill proposed by the National Assembly (NA) which will have an official legal effect starting in early December. It outlines both the user and major portal site’s owner’s responsibilities. According to the bill, the user is required to use their real name when posting comments on articles published on portal sites or uploading online posts; while the managers of the major portal sites are obliged to detect discriminatory or hateful comments in advance and delete them as well as blocking the IP of hate commenters. The bill is aimed at eradicating the overly prevalent malicious comments by imposing a burden on the commenters to rethink their behavior and ultimately change their actions. Moreover, the NA also expects reform in the online platform business industry that sometimes distort the content from actual facts for profit raised by the users’ access to the platform. In this sense, the NA hopes that both users and owners & managers of portal websites’ change of action will lead the online platform to become a place where more productive discourses are held.
Agreements on the Semi-Real Name System
Kim Ji-woo, a student from the Division of International Studies in Korea University said, “The bill is deemed feasible to meet its goals as it demands platform managers and owners to take the leading role in regulating online hate speech.” He elucidated that the root of malicious comments lies in people’s prejudices and stereotyped ways of viewing an individual or society. The stronger the bias is embedded in one’s way of thinking, the more likely they are to think that it is acceptable to raise a rebuttal against claims that does not match with what they believe is the “truth”. Kim explained that such thinking process is deemed to be the main trigger of discriminatory and hateful comments spreading online.
In this regard, Kim agrees with the idea of the bill that it would be helpful in blocking the means that are used to distribute hate comments. However, he also added that the bill still has its unsolved challenges: “In order for the Semi-Real Name System to be more feasible, there needs to be improvements in establishing an understandable standard that clarifies comments as problematic or not.”
Disagreements on the Semi-Real Name System
Nevertheless, history tells us that when legal regulation interrupts human behavior, the enforcement of law not only brings positive outcomes but can also backfire. This also applies to the Semi-Real Name System from the perspective of opposing parties. Professor Lee Ho-yong from the Policy Department at HYU criticized the policy for lacking a generalized and socially consented criteria for discerning hate comments. “It could differ from person to person when deciding which comment is harmful and thereby should be deleted or not. Therefore, hateful comments that are judged to be wrong by the platform operators have the possibility to be misjudged due to differences in political or ideological views and other personal beliefs. Likewise, I am skeptical of a bill that grants platform operators the right to block comments and IPs. The problem of unclear demarcation of hate speech online appears when content falls in a gray area, not a black or white area. Unfortunately, this gray area always exists, and it becomes controversial.” Professor Kim Jun-hewk from the College of Dentistry at Yonsei University also added that, “The efforts to prevent individuals from attacking specifically targeted figures through anonymous online features should be highlighted to alter their awareness of the seriousness of cyberbullying rather than solely restricting them with legal punishments. Therefore, I think it is a less advanced way to impose legal acts in advance when people would naturally come to realize that it is wrong to express their opinions in such malicious ways when they change their awareness.” The opponents of the bill share the aligning perspective as Professors Lee and Kim. They claim the absence of an absolute judgement criteria for discerning hate comments as one of the main reasons for their opposition along with the bill’s aspect to restrain people’s right to freedom of speech which is a basic human right.
Discussions About Prospect of Cyber- bullying Culture in Korea
Aside from Korean government’s effort to root out anonymous cyberbullying, there are diverse cases of foreign countries that are reaching out to deal with the social problem of cyberattacks. In the United States, major online media platforms, such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal, only mark the number of readers under or above the article. Instead of showing the comment section on the first screen of the article, they allow users to see the comments only when they double click the article. This contributes to preventing hate speech or creation of false news in the comment section where anybody could easily see and be persuaded by it. Also, they require the users to make an account with an email account that has to be confirmed of the user in order to leave posts. The New York Times even limits articles in which allow comments to be left. However, the influential power of portal websites in the US is not as big as Korean websites. Also, when compared to Naver which easily arranges and revises the various online media in its first page, the most used American portal site Google only shows a browsing window.
Similarly, there are many European major online media platforms such as The Guardian which do not have a comment section. Recently, more and more European governments are acknowledging the spread of fake news through comments and legal action is being introduced. For instance, Germany passed a law that imposes a significant amount of responsibility on website owners to maintain clean platforms. If the owner or manager does not delete obvious fake news within 24 hours, they could receive fines up to fifty million euros. According to Professor Kim, “Germany’s strong action towards preventing fake news and hateful comments could be related to their history, as they have records of hate speech turning itself into actual violence which empowered political authority and excluded groups that were positioned in the minorities’ stance.” Professor Kim’s insight presents possible reasons behind foreign countries’ stronger response to the cyberbullying issues. However, the resolution for Korean society might need a slightly different approach as each law could have different outcomes according to the community’s uniqueness.
Strictly speaking, there is no absolute answer to tackle the Korean society’s consistent cyberbullying issue at the moment. However, one thing that is clear is that the perfect time to recognize the importance of rooting out cyber-crimes is “right now”.