The recent death of Korean actress Choi Jin-sil shows how the Internet can be used as murder weapon. It is not fair to blame the network itself- as a knife is a useful tool unless put into the hands of the wrong person- but perhaps the Internet is too new that people need to be regulated on the do’s and don’t’s of using it. Regardless of economic development and high education levels, this obvious shows how mindless and cruel people can be.
Let me back up.
Choi Jin-sil was a famed actress, at the height of her career while I was growing up. She (allegedly) committed suicide last Thursday, after being accused for being responsible for the death of fellow actor Ahn Jae-hwan. (Ahn committed suicide because he had a lot of debt; rumors claimed that Choi was the one who lent him money and pressed him to pay it back. Choi went to the police, saying that these rumors were not true, but killed herself anyway). It didn’t help that Choi was very emotionally fragile at the time this happened, because she had gone through a yucky divorce
Another sour element in this story is that the person who originally posted the rumor about Choi is now being attacked with malicious posts as well- for being responsible in driving the actress to her death.
On one side, people are now clamoring for new laws that will incriminate those who post malicious or defamatory posts on the Internet. After all, Choi’s death was only the most recent of a series of suicides in the past couple years that were linked with malicious posts and rumors circulating on the Web. Others are claiming that such regulations will turn out to be a 21st century “witch hunt.”
The most disgusting thing about this issue is that politicians are taking partisan stances instead of thinking about what would be truly good for the people. The ruling Grand National Party is seeking a law dubbed the “Choi Jin-sil law” which would require people to using their real names when writing on public forums (as opposed to an online ID) and allow criminal punishment without the victim having to file suit. Some other provisions are that the ISP would have to delete posts in 24 hours if requested by a slander victim. The opposition party, however, is saying that the government is just trying to restrict freedom of speech. Both parties have a point, but aren’t getting to the real point.
It’s not as if defamation is not punishable- but it’s harder if it’s done through the Web. There are also questions as to whether the original writer of the rumor is responsible- or the tens of thousands who circulated and amplified it.
Under Korean laws, defamation by spreading false rumors is subject to up to seven years in prison but most get away with fines. Also, defamation can only become a case of the defamed person sues; many times, that person won’t take the case to court- trying to cover up the case and prevent further personal damage. (I think it’s a negative element of Korean culture; rape victims, for instance, will not go to court because the fact that the public knows about the rape and becoming socially disowned becomes more painful than the rape itself.)
According to the Supreme Court of Korea, only 2 percent of slanderers are actually prosecuted. The number of online slander cases, however has risen from 316 in 2005 to 213 just the first half of this year. People in the entertainment industry (mostly actors and actresses) have been the biggest victims of these malicious writing. It would be great if they could just ignore all the stupid stuff that is circulated on the web, but a huge part of Korean culture is to care and respond to what people say and pay attention to what your public image is.
As a Korean, I’m embarrassed, angry and ashamed of this foul online culture, which poisons all the good online culture that is out there.
*There is an interesting op-ed in the conservative JoongAng Ilbo about how “we can’t wait for netizens to become ethical.” How sad.