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Cyber scarlet letter: How online abuse drove YouTuber to death

A photo of Cho Jang-mi from her official Instagram page
A photo of Cho Jang-mi from her official Instagram page
Last Saturday, uncle of YouTuber and online streamer Cho Jang-mi revealed that his niece had taken her own life due to rumors and malicious internet comments.

The revelation has since sparked nationwide furor over cyberbullying and a relatively novel phenomenon of “cyberwreckers,” referring to YouTubers who make commentary videos of contentious issues using compiled footage and photos.

A particular cyberwrecker involved with the incident was a YouTuber with the channel name PPKKa, who uploaded multiple videos in which he claimed Cho, who went by the handle of Jammi, used gestures and words unique to radical feminist online communities.

The suspicions that Cho is a man-hater, incited by rumormongers, ignited a barrage of malicious comments against Cho. 

Controversy and attacks

Things began to turn bad for Cho in mid-2019, when she used in her videos controversial phrases and gestures associated with an extreme right-wing online forum and radical feminists.

Startled by a barrage of criticism on the comment section, she explained she was merely mimicking internet memes and was unaware of the derogatory nature of the said words and gesture. This made but a dent on the onslaught of attacks, which continued as verbal insults and even leakage of her private social media accounts and real name.

In February 2020, Cho said again that she was neither a member of the controversial communities, nor a feminist. In May, she announced that she was retiring as an online streamer, again denying the accusations and saying her mother has committed suicide the year before, possibly due to malicious comments.

Amid all this, cyberwreckers entered the picture.

Posing as a crusader against the “hypocrisy of left wingers and feminists,” PPKKa uploaded his first video questioning the validity of Cho’s explanation on July 10, 2019, and again on July 12. He posted two more videos after that.

The four videos accusing Cho of being a radical feminist -- which have now been made private -- garnered nearly 3 million views. His YouTube channel has 1.2 million subscribers as of Wednesday.

Once a target was acquired, cyberbullies gathered at the comment sections to verbally attack Cho. There was no stopping in their hatred until Cho‘s untimely death. 

Bullies online

Cyberwreckers generate hate content because it sells. Why do viewers tune into such videos, and even partake in attacking victims?

From a psychological perspective, the sense of wanting to feel superior is likely to have factored in the cyberattacks against Cho, said Lim Myung-ho, professor of psychology and psychotherapy at Dankuk University.

By posting comments, one is likely to feel like a part of a group, and be more inclined to feel superior as a group by attacking another, he explained.

“The victim is a young and beautiful woman with a fan base. By attacking someone who represents a group and inflicting damage upon her authority, it can lead to one feeling more superior by comparison,” he said. Lim added that the fact Cho looked more vulnerable after the attacks, appearing visibly hurt in her videos and saying she considered suicide, may have further agitated the attackers and their sense of superiority.

Over the years, there have been multiple cases of celebrities committing suicide after being abused by online bullying. Volleyball player Kim In-hyeok was found dead last week at his home in an apparent suicide. He had posted on his Instagram page pleading for the malicious comments to stop, denying rumors about his homosexuality.

Cyberbullying, defined as repeatedly sending hostile aggressive messages with an intent to inflict harm, is more common among adults than even teenagers, a study found.

“A Study on the Factors that Influence Adult Cyberbullying” by the government-affiliated National Information Society Agency said that its 2019 survey found that 54.7 percent of adults in Korea have been victims or perpetrators of cyberbullying, much higher than 26.9 percent for teenagers. Despite this, a majority of the studies in Korea related to cyberbullying is focused on minors. There are 30 research reports focused on students, and only two on adults.

The report also pointed out that factors like the presence of another person partaking in cyberbullying, experience of being bullied oneself and tolerance toward being perpetrators of it attributed to cyberbullying for adults. This is in contrast to gender, age, family relations and how often one logs onto the internet, which are factors relevant for teenage bullying rather than adults.

In short, almost anyone can be a cyberbully, particularly if there is a large crowd doing the same thing. In Cho‘s case, the comment sections of cyberwreckers became a perfect gathering ground for cyberbullies.

Mere hours after news of Cho’s death, PPKKa uploaded a video saying that he did not “incite” any hatred toward her, and that he did not initiate the rumor that she was a radical feminist. Despite this, the YouTuber has come under heavy criticism, as have the online communities that heaped insults on Cho over what was essentially a handful of questionable remarks.

By Yoon Min-sik (minsikyoon@heraldcorp.com)
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