Internet Vigilantism

Cyber-bullying and such has recently come into the consciousness and lexicon of the internet-using west. Incidents like the Star Wars kid or more tragically Megan Meier have made us more aware and wary of what us and our children are doing online.

In East Asia though, there is another type of cyber-bullying that hasn’t really been noticed so much here in the west yet. It’s called internet vigilantism, and this is where seemingly the entire internet attacks someone online, leading to real-life consequences.

There are cases of internet vigilantism in the west, but there has been almost no backlash against it because it’s almost always directed towards individuals that have committed fraud, theft, or pedophile crimes. 419 Eater is famous for baiting Nigerian scammers, and Anonymous/4chan (No link for 4chan. You don’t want to go there. Really, you don’t.) has baited and outed pedophiles in the past. Similarly there have been internet blitzes against people that have thrown dogs off of a cliff. Generally this kind of internet vigilantism results in people working to 1) identify the perpetrator 2) make their identity public, and 3) alert law enforcement. Especially in the case of the dog-throwing soldier there were also numerous death threats, etc., but overall the internet vigilantism served to bring the criminals to justice.

This isn’t how it’s been working in Asia, especially Korea. This article calls it ‘witch hunting’, which is perhaps a better term because many of these cases were not against criminals, but against normal people that had done something that people found offensive. The above article mentions the ‘loser girl‘:

Lee Do-kyung, a Hongik University student, appeared on a popular KBS TV show “Misuda,” or “Chatting with Beauties” on Monday and said, “I don’t like short men. Height is competitiveness these days, and I think short men are losers. Men should at least be 180 cm tall.”

Most people would agree that this girl is shallow and vapid, especially in a country where 180 cm (5’10”) is a full 2″ above the average male height (173.6 cm or 5’8″). She could have just said “I prefer taller men because I find them attractive” and nothing would have come of it. But because she called short men ‘losers’ she unleashed an internet firestorm upon herself. Soon she had been googled and all her personal information was made public, people at her school were constantly following her and posting her every move and action online, etc. Eventually the producers for Misuda and her school officials had to step in and ask people to leave her alone. As all memes do, eventually the firestorm died down, but I bet Ms. Lee wishes she had never been on that TV show.

Another incident in Korea back in 2005 is known as ‘Dog Poop Girl‘ where an attractive and well-dressed girl is riding the train with her expensive toy dog, who proceeds to poop on the floor of the train. She refuses to clean it up, even after (first helpfully) being offered paper towels, etc. and (later more angrily) given demands that she clean it up. Someone snapped a picture of her with their cell-phone, posted the picture and an explanation of the incident to the web, and the rest you can figure out on your own: people figure out her identity and she is hit with a hurricane of hate. (You can read details about the incident here) It only winded down when she posted online threatening to kill herself if it didn’t stop. Considering how hateful people can be when they are shielded by the anonymity of the internet, you would probably assume that the story ends with her killing herself. However, the Korean media had gotten wind of it and reported on the story. This seemed to bring it out of anonymity, so to speak, and so the firestorm died down. The girl ended up quitting her studies at her university, but did not do anything as tragic as taking her own life.

On a similar note, there was the girl in China, Zhang Ya, who posted a 4-minute video of herself whining about how much media attention the Sichuan Earthquake was receiving. From wikipedia: “An intense response from Internet vigilantes resulted in the girl’s personal details (even including her blood type) being made available online, as well as dozens of abusive video responses on Chinese websites and blogs. The girl was taken into police custody for three days as protection from vigilante death threats.”

I find these incidents interesting because I can’t really think of equivalent incidents in the west. Though there are of course numerous, nay, countless incidents of people committing similar social gaffes here in the U.S., I can’t think of an incident where a non-public person has been so thoroughly crucified for it.

An interesting consequence is that people in Asia are much more hesitant about disclosing any personal information on the internet. I can’t speak as well for other Asian nations, but this is especially true in Japan. As this survey shows, the vast majority (or at least of those on the internet) are ‘very reluctant’ to reveal their real name online, for any reason whatsoever. This survey was prompted by Facebook looking to do a full-scale launch in Japan, and their requirement for using real names. (My verdict: if facebook stood a chance in Japan, it would have caught on already. In Japan mixi is the king of social media). Asking my wife why Japanese are this way, it turns out Japanese are very paranoid about ID theft, cyber-stalking, and internet vigilantism that I’ve been talking about.

Case in point: I recently got around to getting an account on Facebook, and twice my wife has made me amend my info page because she thought I had put too much information on it: once because I had included the names of our daughters, and the second because I wrote a brief summary of what I have been doing after high school. If this were a post on my blog I wouldn’t have put that detailed of information there in the first place, but this was information that is only available to my friends! Even then she felt it was too much information.

(joke)So…. does anyone know how to change your settings on Facebook so that changes to your info page aren’t alerted to everyone on your friends list?(/joke)

Update: Here’s an internet vigilante incident that occurred (or at tried to) in Japan last year: when TV crews showed up to report on the incident last year where a man attacked 17 people and killed 7 last year in the Akihabara district of Tokyo, a bunch of people behind the news reporters were grinning, laughing, waving, etc. because they were on TV! 2chan (the Japanese website that 4chan was modeled on) quickly declared a vigilante war to identify and shame the people, but I don’t know if anything really came of it. I couldn’t find much else mentioned in English anywhere at least, and I don’t feel like going to the source and digging through 2chan archives in Japanese. Maybe they just had to be content to shame them in anonymity.

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1 Response to Internet Vigilantism

  1. Peter says:

    In the west there have been a few cases of internet vigilantism that run in more political veins. There were small-scale incidents in California during and after Prop. 8 in which donors were targeted. The Anonymous campaign against Scientologists comes to mind as well.

    As for Facebook, I generally concur with your wife: less is more. I use it almost every week, but I don’t give much information about myself. I definitely leave my kids out of it. It’s not that I don’t want my friends to see the info. The issue is that Mark Zuckerburger & Co. have a really poor track record on privacy issues. And from a legal standpoint, their ToS and Privacy Policies are deeply flawed and changed often without warning.

    Facebook is best dealt with at arm’s reach. Don’t install any apps. Ever.

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