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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.

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 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:

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”:

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:

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:

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