Surviving in Trollworld

So, Facebook’s buzzing 1 over some idiotic opinion piece (don’t click on that link: trust me, you don’t need to read it) by one Choi Shi-yong that mostly amounts to “Korea=civilized; foreigner=uncivilized” as the theme that runs through the stream-of-consciousness drivel.

The article in question: a screenshot.

There’s some particularly patronizing garbage about how sometimes they do after all… when they’re taught respect by Korean society:

On the other hand, I saw a Canadian friend in a bus who has lived in Gwangju for over 10 years. He was willing to give his seat to the old lady after finding that she was standing right behind his seat. I thought that Korean society has taught him how to respect the old and that a desirable tradition in Korea has affected him in a more positive way.

Ha ha ha! Pretty rich, considering that Korea’s the least compassionate place I’ve ever been in my life! This one time, back in Bucheon, I…

Er, wait:

Pardon me. I don’t know what came over me.

Actually, no, I do know what came over me. It was a kneejerk reaction to trash. The obvious question, though, is how and why it ended up in print at all, a question that I’m not the only person to consider. However, unlike Rob, I don’t think it’s exactly because of the poor state of English-language journalism in Korea. Rather, I think that’s just a symptom.

Of what? Well, The Korea Times is a newspaper. Even in the English-speaking world, the newspaper industry has essentially collapsed: how in the hell is an English-language daily supposed to survive in a country like South Korea? Newspapers have turned to the internet, but ad revenue requires hits…

See where I’m going with this? Evil Plan time:


Here’s the formula:

Disgust and outrage = kneejerk linksharing = traffic = revenue.

Maybe it’s really just that simple:

It’s in the newspaper’s short-term interest to troll readers occasionally.

Never mind how this just fosters more ill-feeling and ranting, how it immiserates the expats and reinforces stereotypes, and how it makes the newspaper look like even more of a rag. It drives traffic, which means money… and I suppose the Korea Times has little to lose at this point anyway. But essentially, the content itself is secondary to the behavioral reaction it evokes.

(Which is why my link to it is via donotlink: it doesn’t promote the link on Google, at least, and I don’t want to encourage it.)

I’m not posting about this because I think the article deserves discussion—not at all. It’s just that with a kid on the way, I’ve been thinking about what it’s going to be like to grow up in a world where the news media has always been this way, and about what kinds of specific critical skills and awarenesses we’ll have to teach the boy. Kids need to know that a kneejerk reaction are a pretty good indication of being gamed or trolled, after all. (That’s nothing new, I suppose, but in the old days, naïve reactions were much less monetizable, and so there was less pressure to push actual discussion and reflection to the wayside.)

It’s not all new, of course… it’s been decades since companies figured out they could throwing garbage in our faces in order to hijack their emotions and trigger behaviours that benefit them. Thanks, Edward Bernays!

But now we’re actually being pressed—gently, manipulatively—into service as trash-distributors ourselves. We need to grasp at the consciousness necessary to ask ourselves, “Should I turn around and throw that same garbage into others’s faces, by performing unpaid labour that actually does not benefit me?”

This is your brain on social media.
This isn’t social media: this is you on social media.

Imagine a street scene where someone’s hawking newspapers, and the shock-inducing headline is so powerful that a passerby stops and, in an angry voice, starts hawking the newspaper for free. Someone else hears the headline, stops, and in a fit our momentary rage, that person hawks it to ten people. They all stop, and hawk it to ten people each… and some subset of the people they hawk it to turn around and hawk it to others. Nobody gets paid, but nobody works for very long, so almost nobody recognizes the attempt to hijack them into unpaid labour… and so it goes.

Who benefits, in a scenario like this? There might be transient benefits to those who share stuff that gets them an audience and a revenue stream of their own. (Boing-Boing, for example.) There’s clear benefit to anyone who receives the ultimate web traffic, too. (In this case, the trolling newspaper.) The third group, though, is those who resist the urge to hawk the papers. They conserve energy and mental cycles, time, and happiness.


That, in a nutshell, is social media, but especially Facebook, and that’s why I’ve been signing on less and less over the past year.

As for trolling the expats of Korea with ill-begotten dreck as The Korea Times has done, that’s demonically clever, really, as survival plans go. It depends on a lot of us being suckers, but of course, a lot of us are suckers.

Then again, maybe someone at The Korea Times is sitting there laughing and muttering:

"Do I really look like a guy with a plan?"

That said, there’s one more thing. I got curious about whether this Choi character is even a real person or just a troll sockpuppet. Someone in the comments said he was an acquaintance of the guy, though, and that he’s “not all there”:

Basil Kelani writes: "I know this person. We're acquaintances. Don't bother responding. He's not all there. Didn't understand the implications. It ain't about Koreans."

So I had a look around. Well, okay, I actually just plugged his email address into Facebook, and found a profile that is seemingly left open to the public:

The kook's Facebook profile.

If you didn’t catch it from the image at the top of the page, a little scrolling confirms that—for someone who lives in Korea—there are a lot of pictures of him proudly posing with foreigners. He actually seems kind of obsessed (to the point of it being a little creepy, even) with posting pictures of himself with foreign people. Like, to the point where there’s kind of a creepy vibe to it.

Which raises the question of whether The Korea Times is, in this particular case, guilty of exploitation of someone with mental, er, issues.

But then again, that’s what trolls always do, right?

  1. Assuming 1730-odd shares counts as buzzing over here in expatland: Image showing 1736 shares.

4 thoughts on “Surviving in Trollworld

  1. Hearing about this from you and not elsewhere means I can read this and not need to know anything more about it. Glad I don’t follow facebook anymore.

    1. I’m thinking of taking the rest of the summer (year?) off, except for specific chats. One thing that makes me hesitate is that most of the feedback this blog gets ends up in comment sections there. Annoying, but true, and unless I make all my posts public on FB, I can’t grab the comments. Hm. But I have reduced my usage of the site drastically, and mainly for this reason.

  2. I really don’t understand this latest foofarah, especially Rob’s take on it. What does a crappy opinion column have to do with the state of journalism in Korea’s English media? Opinion pieces don’t have much to do with journalism anywhere.

    Anyhow, the KT and KH op/ed pages have always been full of drivel, long before the Internet decimated old media. All noise, very little signal. I’m just shocked enough people read the KT still for anyone’s dumb comments to register more widely.

    (Disclosure: I once wrote a couple of opinion pieces for those papers, way back in the 1990s. I hope mine were less dumb, but I can’t guarantee it).

    1. Hi Mark. I think the froofrahs are al pretty interchangeable and repetitive by this point: like I said. I don’t care so much about the silly uproar, bu

      I will say I think Rob’s take is probably misstated. I suspect he wants to talk about why the English language dailies here suck (which is what all the “state of English-language journalism in Korea” seems to be code for), but because he’s a blogger and because he wants to seem balanced and intellectual about it, social criticism wins more points than just saying, “Because there’s no market for a well-written, incisive, thoughtful English daily in Korea.” (I also think the comparison is laughable: the rant by the “not a Russian” woman was long and kind of boring, but at least she can string thoughts together in a somewhat logical manner.)

      I remember the op/ed pages being crud when I got here in 2002, which was before normal English-speakers spent much time online, so I believe you that they always sucked. I think they sucked more than the local op/ed pages back home at the time: the Star Phoenix in Saskatoon sometimes had dumb letters, but it wasn’t pure drivel like the KT/KH stuff.

      I’ve had one or two things published in one of those papers, but it was really just a couple of reprints from my blog. When I was asked, “Can we mine your blog for unpaid content? We can give you coupons for restaurants in Seoul!” I declined the offer, mostly because I thought it was sad that non-free newspaper was trying to get essentially free content from random people, to create a new section of local material that would help promote the paper. I mean, I understood they were on a shoestring, and I felt for the guy who asked me, since he knew it was a weird thing to ask, but really: if you’re a business and you’re charging for your publication, pay your writers at least a pittance. Seriously.

      The one thing I remember being published basically amounted to, “Foreigners in Korea need hobbies and interests, or they’ll drink too much and become crappy, ranting, miserable, insane jerks.” But in 800 (?) words.

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