Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Internet Witchhunts and Conflict Resolution

The 2005 'Dog Poop Girl' incident

Part 1: Internet Witchhunts and Conflict Resolution
Part 2: Riding the wave of 'cyber terror' articles
Part 3: 'Real Names' in Korean Cyberspace
Part 4: Portals and the Cyber Terror blame game
Part 5: Dog 'Poop' Girl Redux

Part 1: Internet Witchhunts and Conflict Resolution

This is from an article on Korean Internet Witchhunts, which can be read here.
On Monday, the hottest issue on some Korean Web sites was a photo of a woman in her 20s who got off a subway car without cleaning up her dog's droppings. As the photo circulated, the woman was dubbed the "dog dung girl," and some Internet users decided she was a public enemy.

They began visiting the Web site of the university they assumed the woman attended, and bombarding it with postings. The site's server went down because of the surge in traffic. Then people began calling the university, where a staff member finally looked at the photo and said there was no such student at the university.
Well, I did a little searching and turned up these:

You know, when I read 'droppings', I didn't picture splattered diarrhea. As far as I'm concerned, the public anger is a little more justified by the second picture, in which elderly people are cleaning up after this little princess. 'Hey, we only suffered through the war and built the country up from rubble to modernity with our sweat and blood - we'll be happy to clean up after you!'

There were a variety of responses to these photos, which ranged from angry posts, to being part of the cyber-mob out on the rampage, to constructing some clever (and some not-so-clever) parodies of the incident. Doing a search for 개똥녀 will turn up a plethora of posts by people on different sites weighing in with their opinions, as well as the few bursts of creativity:

The true story of a terror that will overturn Korean history
"Hey Lady! Is this the first time you've seen my dog? He's funny...really..."
Even now, the dog-dung girl is there...

Other such parodies can be found here and here, while an untouched photo of the event, worthwhile because you can see the reaction of the other people on the train, can be found here.

While the parodies are rather amusing, this is a little bit scary. Titled 'The next day', it's clear at least two photos were taken of this girl.

I'd guess that the person wasn't entirely certain it was her, but zooming in like that is a bit creepy. And those photos being on Daum, thousands, if not millions of people have seen them. Considering how the university it was assumed she goes to had its server crashed by netizens (followed up by phone calls) one might assume that the girl herself might be in danger of a severe dressing down (or worse) should she appear in public.

It's hard to make an informed guess about what treatment might await her in public, but precedent can be found in English Spectrum-Gate. In January 2005, the foreign English teacher site English Spectrum, which had posted pictures of foreign men and Korean women together at a club and had given tips on how to 'score' with Korean women, was shut down by, as Marmot put it, the "media-driven cyber assault" of Korean netizens after different media outlets picked up the story. As the internet witchhunt continued, it was seen as possible that the violence might move offline, but apparently this never happened (though it did prompt more searches by immigration for foreigners teaching English illegally). The targets of such possible violence would have been foreign males, however, who might not have seemed so easy to confront offline. Of course, foreign males were not the only targets of netizens; Korean women who dated foreign English teachers soon became targets - especially the women who had appeared in the photos posted at English Spectrum:

Online rage switched targets from foreign men to the Korean women in the photos. Some online media described the pictures as "scenes of women openly enjoying sex with foreigners." These stories were often accompanied by malicious comments like, "Whores, are Western bastards that good?" Even more frightening was that calls for the women's names, work places, email addresses and phone numbers to be made public were promptly answered.
The club manager describes the pain that followed as "trampling on her life." "I get anonymous threatening phone calls at the club all the time. 'Why don't whores like you just die quietly,' 'Foreigners' whore! Why don't you shut down your club?' 'We will hold a picket demonstration in front of your club'... I get nervous anytime I hear the phone ring."
The victims are suing the Internet media behind publication of the pictures. Their lawyer Im Sang-hyeok said, "Just as the tsunamis in South Asia left wretched survivors in their wake, Korean women were left as victims in the places swept by excessive Internet enthusiasm."
Foreign men are not known to have experienced offline violence as a result of the English Spectrum-Gate witchhunt, but these women did; that the 'Dog-dung girl' could face violence in person is much more likely precisely because she is female. It's worth noting that the netizens, of course, need a target for their cyber-attacks. In the case of the Dog-dung girl, the university someone assumed she goes to (and just who was that someone?) was inundated with traffic by angry users until the server went down, and then users resorted to phone calls. Phone calls seem to figure heavily in these cases as the second step, and are a more direct form of harrassment. Other examples can be found in the article I linked to at the top, which also has this quote:

Attorney Lee Yeong-hui said, "People tend to think that illegal acts committed online are not a serious matter. This is a big problem. Even if the content is proven to be factual, posting a photograph or spreading personal information can result in punishment for defamation, which is something Internet users need to know."
There are a lot of things that are illegal in Korea, but a good many people tend to think that the law doesn't apply to them; perhaps this is just another example. I do think, in such instances where a third party (often a very large third party) of netizens intervene to administer what they consider to be justice, that we are seeing traditional Korean conflict resolution played out on a massive scale in cyberspace.

As anthropologist Linda Louis writes in Laying Claim to the Memory of May:

As a social process, the Korean cultural scenario for conflict resolution involves the public expression of grievances by both sides, as a means of informing the neighbors, of shaping local consensus, and of mustering popular support for each side of the argument.

It is above all else also a process that relies heavily on the involvement of a third, mediating party for a sucessful outcome. In fact, it is through the public airing of the dispute that the antagonists solicit the intervention of others. Intense verbal aggression and the public expression of grievances serve not as a prelude to physical violence, but function to mobilize third party intervention, to prevent just such an escalation in the dispute.
If we apply this model to internet witchhunts, we most certainly see the public airing of grievances and the mobilization of a third party. In most cases, however, the dispute is already over. The girl had already failed to clean up after her dog. But, in that case, as in others, people on one side of a dispute which traditionally would have appeared to be over decide to air their grievances, such as in this case, which appears in the article linked to at the beginning:

Last April, relatives of a 30-year-old woman who committed suicide after her boyfriend broke up with her wrote about him online. Soon, the location of his workplace and even his cell phone number were being circulated. He eventually quit his job.
Here we see the relatives of the dead woman airing their grievances, and the third party who obviously intervened, but it was not to prevent violence but to harrass someone who was thought to be guilty. Also in that article was this quote:
A recent poll at an online community called Damoim found that 23 percent of its 1,805 members agreed with the statement, "When the law is not strong enough, the Internet must be the judge."
Obviously this form of conflict resolution is continuing, in a modified form, into the digital age. However, considering the sheer number of people on the internet in Korea (some of whom spend perhaps too much time on the computer), the degree of broadband penetration, and the organization of portal sites, the third party in such conflicts has grown to an immense size. Still, it's interesting to consider that anthropological research done 30 or 40 years ago in small Korean villages is applicable to the actions of thousands, perhaps millions of people on the internet today. As Vincent Brandt, who developed this model of conflict resolution wrote, in a village "the sound and fury of conflict is there for all to see." Go to any portal site and the issue of the day will be easy to find; obviously, it would be more correct to say not that "the Internet must be the judge", but that "the public must be the judge." Therefore it's worth considering this statement from a Gregory Henderson essay I read recently:
In the non-socialist world, I have so far sensed nothing comparable to the South Korean shadowing of the private by the public sphere.
Though he was referring to the role of the (authoritarian) government in 1985, the concept of the "shadowing of the private by the public" most certainly applies to South Korean cyberspace 20 years later. The degree to which the relationship between public and private in Korea has been replicated online in Korean cyberspace - the web of online forums, chatrooms, "mini-hompis", digital cameras and cellphones - is well worth studying further.

There does seem to be a growing awareness that these witchhunts are getting out of hand; I saw the titles of several Korean articles referring to this as the hunt for dog-dung girl raged. The Chosun Ilbo recently had an editorial about 'Online Terror':
Finding that there is no redress for online slander and abuse is no longer a rare experience. Anyone can be put on trial by Internet at any time and see their reputation sentenced to death... Most cyber terror victims have no alternative but to put up with the abuse. In extreme cases, victims lose their jobs and social life and attempt suicide. Cyber violence has long crossed the danger level, to the point where some are calling for the use of only real names online, a measure that could threaten many of the Internet’s benefits.
These cyber witchhunts tend to take on a logic of their own; it may well be that unless action like that suggested in the editorial is taken (wherein there would be consequences for such behavior) things will continue as they have. Of course, the Korean government has shown itself quite willing to interfere in cyberspace in the past (it regularly blocks sites it considers harmful to youth), so the measures suggested in the editorial aren't as far-fetched as they would be considered to be in other countries. I have my doubts that the sheer mass of netizens, who have been learning this behavior for some time, will change anytime soon without there being reason to.

This may be confirmed by Isabella Bishop's discription, in her 1898 book "Korea and Her Neighbors" of "Gusts of popular feeling that pass for public opinion". Over 100 years later, I doubt anyone could come up with a better, or more poetic, description of Korean internet culture.

(Hat tip to Lost Nomad)

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