By Claire LEE
SEOUL (AFP) — Man-hating feminist, mentally-ill, grind her into dog food: activist Kim Ju-hee endures a torrent of abuse from powerful South Korean cyberbullies, who are driving more and more of their victims to suicide.
From K-pop stars like Sulli to lesser-known figures like a volleyball player who killed himself earlier this month, South Korea’s cyberbullying crisis is spreading and victims have no way out, activists say.
In a country where sexism is entrenched, a leading presidential candidate can vilify feminism, and misogynistic posts are a defining feature of Reddit-like forums, cyberbullies have the power to ruin people’s lives — and face few repercussions.
YouTube is a key platform for such attacks — one video attacking activist Kim was watched hundreds of thousands of times, and garnered thousands of comments, including violent death threats.
“I always feel unsafe,” Kim, who also works as a nurse, told AFP.
“I feel like this is never going to end unless I take my own life and disappear.”
Earlier this month, South Korean volleyball player Kim In-hyeok killed himself after being brutally ridiculed online, suffering a barrage of hateful comments and online rumors that he was gay.
In January, YouTuber BJ Jammi ended her life having endured years of abuse after South Korean online trolls accused her of being a “man-hating feminist”.
Her uncle blamed the suicide on “severe depression caused by malicious comments and rumors”, according to a post on her Twitch account announcing her death.
Jammi’s mother had taken her own life in 2019, which her daughter blamed on the cyberbullying, saying in an emotional Twitch stream that she was struggling with her mental health.
“Those of you who leave me malicious comments, is it fun to make me suffer and destroy my life?” she said, fighting back tears during the 2020 livestream.
Anti-feminist South Korean YouTube accounts, some of which have hundreds of thousands of followers, are profiting from the harassment, experts say.
“Famous YouTubers gain more attention by uploading videos denouncing feminism and feminists,” Jinsook Kim, a University of Pennsylvania postdoctoral fellow, told AFP.
Women or minorities in the public sphere are particularly vulnerable to attacks, experts say, and South Korea’s lack of an anti-discrimination law leaves victims uniquely exposed.
“They were not just targeted and assaulted randomly,” but were singled out and accused of being “feminist or gay”, Jinsook Kim said, referring to the cases of volleyball player Kim In-hyeok and BJ Jammi.
Other women in the public eye have been doxxed — had their personal information published online — by male YouTubers who accuse them of being a “misandrist”, or man-haters.
Some of the YouTubers even live-streamed as they tracked down a victim and issued rape and death threats — with the hateful content generating more clicks and advertising revenue.
“They continue to produce sensationalist and hateful content for a profit,” Jinsook Kim told AFP.
There have been few successful prosecutions of online trolls over any such attacks.
South Korea is a deeply wired nation with the world’s fastest average internet speeds and female celebrities have endured online harassment for decades.
In 2008, top actress Choi Jin-sil took her own life after enduring cyberbullying over claims she worked as a loan shark.
In 2019, K-Pop star Goo Hara killed herself after being the victim of “revenge porn” threats by a disgruntled ex-boyfriend, and her friend and fellow singer Sulli took her own life after online attacks that accused her, among other things, of not wearing a bra.
No help for victims
High-profile suicides after cyberbullying attacks typically prompt nationwide hand-wringing and petitions to the Blue House calling for change, but little has been done to help.
Known for its high-pressure and competitive society, South Korea has the highest suicide rates in the developed world, and online character assassination can be extremely damaging.
Anyone who is “perceived to be different from the norm” is at risk of an online attack, Seoul-based freelance journalist and online commentator Raphael Rashid told AFP, and it’s difficult to recover.
Cyberbullying victims feel “they have nowhere to escape” after having their public profile ruined, and that “society cannot tolerate their existence”, he said.
Activist Kim said that the doxxing and cyberbullying attacks had made he contemplate suicide. “It feels like the whole world has turned its back against you,” she told AFP.
Unless laws and prosecutions catch up to the online trolls, more suicides are inevitable, she said. For now, “cyberbullying only stops when the victims die”.