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Celebrity Suicides, Netizen Trolling, and the “Success” of the Real Name System

In 2006, when I moved from where I used to live to the place I live now, I changed jobs, and suddenly I was able to understand what my students were trying to say about current events in classes. I taught a lot of conversational English and composition-type courses at the time, which meant I began to pick up on news and online memes in Korean society, because students would be repeating claims, arguments, and points almost verbatim.

One of the earliest of these memes that I encountered was related to the “Real-Name System,” a then-proposed (and since-implemented) method for eliminating anonymity online. If you live outside of Korea, this might blow your mind. Imagine being unable to post a comment on a news issue on most popular websites unless you signed up for the website — and imagine thereafter that signing up for a website routinely involves inputting your national ID number, such as your Social Insurance Number if you’re Canadian, or your Social Security Number if you’re American, or the other-government equivalent.

The initiative baffled me: they wanted to get rid of anonymity? But it was already so hard to do anything online: if you wanted too do ecommerce of any kind — like, say, buy a baby stroller or a CD online — you would often need to register with your National ID number… and since most sysadmins were lazy bastards then (as now), almost nobody had updated their National ID number processing software to include foreigners’ alien registration numbhers, the second string of whose National ID numbers start with different numbers. (Wikipedia explains it lucidly: I’m a 5, a foreign woman in my situation is a 6.)

So, anyway, at that point (before the instituting of the Real-Name system) a lot of the Korean internet was functionally inaccessible to me already — well, unless I wanted to fax my ID card to every site I wanted to join, and who had time for that? And yet, young people around me were all arguing that there needed to be even stricter controls and government-issued-identity tracking of online activity and self-expression.


“Well,” they explained, “… there were these celebrities. People said bad things about them online. They killed themselves.”

I would raise and eye brow, pause for a moment considering whether to ask about whether there was a real causal link, or just silly conjecture, and then say, “And…?”

“And so, we need to stop people being anonymous online.”

When I pointed out they were skipping some steps in their logic, when I asked whether people in good mental health kill themselves over nasty comments online, it usually went this way:

People online were free to express themselves. They were cussing about celebrities, and cussing at one another, too. They were gossiping about celebrities, alleging all kinds of horrible things about them. This hurt celebrities’ feelings, [presumably] driving them to suicide in large numbers.

“Therefore freedom on the internet is bad, and we need a way to stop it. The way to stop things is to give the government the right to eliminate anonymity from the internet. A Real-Name system needs to be implemented,” they would say.

“Then people can’t ever be anonymous on the Internet!” They were usually puzzled when I recoiled in horror. “You don’t see how that might be a bad thing?”

“What? Without anonymity, people won’t swear, they won’t gossip nastily. They won’t hurt celebrities’ feelings. Celebrities won’t kill themselves. And we won’t have to read bad language online.”

At the time when people were arguing this, I would ask them where they’d come across these ideas. “Newspapers,” they’d say to me, as if it were self-evident that everything in newspapers was trustworthy. (The same way a student a couple of weeks ago told me that the things asserted in this video must be true, since the people on TV said so.)

When I started looking around, I discovered it was sometimes even government officials who were making these claims in the Korean, which the newspapers were quoting and printing. Elected representatives would claim that celebrities were killing themselves because of gossip online — a very common claim even now. They would argue that anonymity needed to be eliminated. They would argue that it was the way to turn the internet into a decent, well-behaved place.

“But,” I would argue, “Michael Jackson is probably the most gossiped about celebrity on Earth, and he hasn’t killed himself! People say all kinds of horrible things about all kinds of celebrities worldwide, and they don’t kill themselves anywhere near as often as Korean ones do! Don’t you think there might be other reasons for this?”

No sensible response was forthcoming except, occasionally, that loss of face was a bigger deal in Korea.

“But,” I would argue, “Koreans have a very high rate of suicide nationwide! It’s not just celebrities, suicide is increasingly becoming an  epidemic in your whole society. The celebrity suicides aren’t happening in a bubble… Couldn’t we suppose that maybe the problem is the taboo about seeking mental health care for depression!”

In most discussions, the students concerned offered no sensible response to that except that people in Korea have a bad attitude about psychiatry and that no, a Real-Name system would fix this problem.

Of course, there was more debate than this suggests in Korean society: this archive of articles on the subject shows that there was discussion of the panopticon-like effects of the proposed system… but also that the idea was very popular among people despite such fears, with numbers like 8 out of 10, or 75% of people surveyed, coming out in support of the elimination of anonymity online.

Doubtless, this support was boosted by the way newspapers constantly reported the suicides of celebrities as if it were directly connected to the behaviour of people online, especially in 2007. The obvious question of mental state/mental health/depression were usually not broached in those articles. (Though, in the most recent case above, depression was mentioned.) Instead, politicians, reporters, and the public preferred to focus on how killing anonymity online was what needed to happen.

They got their wish (sort of): the Real-Name system was implemented in 2009. Many major Internet sites run by Korean companies implemented it, and because of the corporatized, centralized, portalized nature of the Korean net, the rarity of self-hosted websites and of international websites in Korean, that actually does comprise a lot of the web that most South Koreans use regularly.

Celebrities continued killing themselves (and still areanother one, who’d suffered from untreated depression, just did.) Indeed, Korea is one of the few countries on Earth to have a former President kill himself.

People are still gossiping and cursing at one another online at a rate that leaves one a bit baffled. For a Westerner of the right age, the Korean internet is quite reminiscent of the original days of Usenet; but Korea’s had an internet now about as twice long as it took for use to get all that Usenet nastiness out of our systems and develop a sensible netiquette, where this kind of behaviour is seen as extreme, as weird, as deserving of a smackdown by admins. Troll-like behaviour is essentially common on the Korean net, much more so in my experience than in the English-speaking portions of the Net. (For what I suspect are reasons I’ll explore in another post, this week or next.)

Meanwhile, there are an increasing number of witch-hunts happening on the Korean net, almost always of women whose behaviour is “unacceptable” on the subway (while men doing similar things seem not to end up being photographed or videoed on smart phones and posted to the net). Again, this is something I’ll post about soon.

And the plain and sad fact is that suicide in Korea has continued to increase: it has, in fact, become the number one killer for South Koreans under the age of 40. (I get one or two students a semester visiting my office in this state, in crisis and seeking help, on average, though thank goodness none of them have yet contributed to that statistic.) Depending on which study you look at (among the few that are constantly cited on expat blogs), Korean women alone have the average suicide rate (per capita) as the whole Japanese population, male and female — and we all know that male populations are much more prone to suicide… but the Korean male population is at least one third more prone to it than Japan, and more than twice as suicidal as American men.

Yeah, that Real Name System sure worked in reducing celebrity suicide and suicide generally. It’s terrible how Google refused to cooperate with the current administration to force all Youtube users in Korea to have to abide by the same system, isn’t it? If only the government could have control of all internet websites, then they would never have to be criticized by the citizens again nobody would ever kill themselves again!

Of course, a few of my students — the few who are very critical minded, generally speaking — have openly said that they feel intimidated by the system and reluctant to post negative opinions of the government because of it. A few have said that. They have usually said this when others have asked them, incredulously, “What, you think it’s a bad system?”

“Yes,” they say, “but it’s too late to do anything about it, now, isn’t it?” And they gaze upon their Real-Name System-supporting classmates with misery in their eyes, with the look of a person who has been banging his or her head on the wall for years on end, and with no end in sight. The system is accepted, generally speaking, and even in the face of it’s failure plenty of young people still claim it’s an important way of controlling and reducing all those behaviours it has failed to control and reduce.  Suicide, cyberbullying and witch-hunting, and general nastiness — everything this system was billed in terms of — seem either to have either continued at roughly the same level, or gotten worse.

I’m not saying I have a complete handle on the dialog in Korea about this subject. Maybe people have moved their nasty behaviour to other venues — though I am still constantly hearing complaints of people cursing and insulting others online. I’m not saying there was no resistance to the Real-Name System — in fact, there was, as in the archive I linked above. I’m also not saying that it would be easy to change social attitudes towards mental health, though it is possible: after all, while we like to imagine the West as a place very open about mental health care, there was still a time when almost anyone sent to a psychiatrist would see it as shameful and embarrassing, and even now a lot of people struggle with those kinds of feelings when seeking mental health treatment.

I’m saying it was wicked and unconscionable that people used the most prominently noticeable part of a massive social problem to slide into legislation laws that primarily were of benefit to the government and the detriment of the population. I’m saying it was wicked and unconscionable that the newspapers went along with it without calling them on it.

But of course, the real problem is critical thinking skills, and a critical attitude when it comes to media and reading. In the end, I think it actually is necessary for someone to learn to write arguments: when you learn to make your own structured, reasoned, evidence-based arguments, you get better at picking out the flaws in others’ attempts to do so. Writing is, as I see it, the cornerstone of learning to think critically, at least in a literate society where most argumentation is done in texts. And if there’s one thing that is poorly taught here at all levels of education, it is writing. (As I’ve discussed before, in this series: On Teaching Writing in a Korean University.)

Well, the other problem is that people don’t tend to call strangers on bad behaviour, but I’ll talk about that more in the witch-hunt post I’m planning to write soon.

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