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When netizens attack

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One week it was a pop star, driven out of Korea over an unpatriotic post he made on his MySpace page years before he was famous. The next week a book published in Germany that didn`t shed Korea in a glorious light had many a netizen up in arms. And almost every week, netizens, both Korean and foreign, are worked into hysterical tizzies by journalists reporting on rising crime by foreigners.
The keystrokes of Korea`s angry netizens, although the issue at hand many times is indeed much ado about nothing, end up having far-reaching consequences.
Still, some issues are serious and deserve public debate, such as the outcry these last weeks over a judge`s lenient sentence for child predator Cho Du-sun, which netizens and citizens alike rightfully took issue with. The court told prosecutors Cho didn`t deserve the life sentence they had sought because he was drunk, and thus was "weaker mentally and physically."
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But many of society`s important debates are taking place online among anonymous netizens, where overreaction and libel are all too easy and less effective. It was the case with the rapist. After the story broke, netizens scampered to reveal his true identity, and in their blind fury ended up circulating a photo of the wrong man.
So who are these angry netizens? And more importantly, why do anonymous netizens` opinions even matter?
Professor Min Byoung-chul of Konkuk University says a lot of complicated social factors are at play. He believes the country`s low birth rate -- the lowest in the developed world -- has created a self-centered family structure. "Parents treat their child as if they are queens or kings, and children who do not interact with other siblings become selfish," thus intensifying competition in education, and by doing so, skewing the social development of children and young adults, he said.
Min also points to two ingredients that can stew to create an angry netizen: The Net`s anonymity and prolonged suppression of expressive instinct.
"When Koreans were kids, they were not allowed to express their opinions and feelings, compared to other countries, because of cultural aspects," said the professor.
In Korean society, creativity is generally caged and controlled from a very young age by parents in an attempt to buttress school entrance scores. After all, drawing pictures won`t get you an A in English. But even after youth enter the workforce, personal expression and creativity are kept to a minimum; subordinates are rarely encouraged speak their minds.
"They don`t argue with their superiors or elders. So I believe the anger or the restrained feelings that come from this can actually become a reason why people become angry netizens," Min added.
Caged creative youth + contorted salaryman + anonymity + the internet = angry netizen. The recipe for social revolt is ripe. Vive le (online) revolution.
And Vera Hohleiter, a German living in Seoul, found out how pissed off they are. After her book "Sleepless nights in Seoul" was published in Germany, and a Korean student mistranslated passages from German to suggest she spoke ill of Korea (the evil of all evils here), a tsunami of online rage hath rain down upon her.
Her blog was flooded with hundreds of hate-filled comments from anonymous posters. She was called a "Nazi bitch" and told to "go back to Nazi Germany." But some didn`t stop there. There were even death threats and another netizen called her a racist and a descendent of Hitler.
What caused the hullabaloo? She must have done something terrible, something obscene, right?
Not so. Like most internet lynchings, it was another case of much ado about nothing.
Her crime was to suggest that Korean women don`t look comfortable in short skirts. She also said that kimchi smells bad.
Vicious.
According to Hohleiter, everything started with one Korean student in Germany. "I`m not sure if she read (my book) or if she heard form someone who read it, but she said that I wrote the show ("Chatting with Beauties," on which she is a participant) was scripted. Someone`s also said I said my boyfriend is always drunk and never has time for me, or at work and that I complained about that and he doesn`t give me enough attention. But it`s not true at all."
From there, the story caught on like wildfire on the internet. The main problem the more moderate netizens had with the book was that the opinions expressed in it by Hohleiter, as translated by the Korean student in Germany, were different from the opinions Hohleiter had expressed in one TV interview and on "Chatting with Beauties."
Hohleiter has since released the book in Korean, she said, to clear up misconceptions.
But why are the opinions of angry, anonymous netizens taken seriously? Indeed, every country has its share of online negativity, and there`s no evidence to prove that Koreans are more negative in their online postings than people from other countries. (Just look at comments under any U.S. politics-related YouTube video to get a taste of the angry American netizenry). But nowhere do netizens seem to grab as much attention as they do in Korea.
Journalists refer to "netizen opinion" in their news reports. Lawmakers respond to online sentiment. The government even crafted immigration rules at the urging of a group of angry netizens. All E-2 visa holders are currently required to pass an HIV/AIDS test before they are granted work permits. That doosey, which puts Korea in league with some of the most putrid countries on the world, was championed by an internet cafe of angry netizens.
But a quick look at the numbers shows that opinions expressed on internet message boards are anything but representative of society as a whole. Indeed, they aren`t even representative of internet users as a whole.
According to a study conducted over a 10-day period from Dec. 20-30 last year, the JoongAng Ilbo reported that more than 41 million people visited the popular portal site Naver, but only 0.84 percent left at least one posting (There were more than 4.3 million postings in total). Digging deeper into the numbers shows that only 3.4 percent of that 0.84 percent was responsible for more than 50 percent of the postings. Just 11,878 users were responsible for the majority of posting comments.
That 3.4 percent of posters -- 0.029 percent of all internet users visiting the site -- is what journalists and lawmakers are using to gauge online sentiment.
Hankuk University of Foreign Studies professor Cho Chong-hyuk admits the internet has become a hotbed of negativity. "The internet has been abused and emerged as a space with negative activities -- one example would be posting bad comments. Meaning the Korean netizens have not used the internet with its full potential," he said.
Min said we have to find ways to utilize the internet in a more constructive, positive manner.
"A possible solution is to improve online manners by fostering people to post positive, rather than attacking or negative comments, online by altering the social atmosphere through such movements," he said.
The initiative he founded, the Sunfull organization, has set Nov. 6 "Sunfull Day," where netizens will post positive comments for 24 hours on its website. The ultimate goal, he said, is to foster a more civil online culture. As a bonus, Nov. 6 will also attempt to set a Guinness World Record. "This is the first time such an event has taken place worldwide. We are aiming at setting this as a Guinness World Record. Currently, as of Oct. 17, 137,906 people from 377 schools and 427 companies have vowed to post positive comments on that day," Min said.
In the meantime, as you tiptoe through the internet, make sure you don`t piss off any netizens, lest you draw the ire of the netizenry.
Claudio in "Much Ado About Nothing" said, "Done to death by slanderous tongue, Was the Hero that here lies." But had he a Cyworld webpage, he might have phrased it more like, "Done to death by slanderous postings, Was the Hero that here lies."
(mattlamers@heraldcorp.com)



By Matthew Lamers

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