Hyo-won Lee: The madness of Korea's online crowd

Hyo-won Lee: The madness of Korea's online crowd

The E Ji-ah scandal once again highlights the cyber-lynching mob mentality of Seoul netizens. And it scares me

In this wired country, nothing’s considered newsworthy unless it ignites feverish online crusades by netizens.

A recent example and target of this online Salem witch hunt was actress E Ji-ah, whose secret marriage and divorce with singer Seo Tai-ji took the country by storm when it all became very public this April.

The media called the incident “the biggest scandal of the century” -- all the more since E had recently admitted dating actor Jung Woo-sung.

People just couldn’t get enough of the media portrayal of E enjoying exotic getaways with one of the country’s biggest movie stars while demanding alimony and division of property -- a whopping ₩5.5 billion -- from a pop icon.

And when people started wondering how Jung was coping with this, the actor’s agent told the press the guy discovered his girlfriend’s past when everyone else did, via the news a day before his birthday. The poor guy.

Befitting the size of this earth-shattering news, highly efficient, organized mob activity took momentum online.

Seo’s official website was unavailable for days due to heavy traffic, and websites dedicated to E and Seo began to emerge. 

Users posted hundreds of threads in an attempt to track down “the truth,” and these civilian detectives were meticulous to the point of deciphering the alphabet motif on a dress E had designed and worn, claiming the words spelled out Seo’s name backwards.

These sites even featured commercial advertisements and financially benefited from the matter. I myself felt torn, being part of the media that what was sensationalizing the whole thing.

Do public figures deserve privacy?

Many netizens argue that celebrities are “obligated” to share their personal details. It’s what they must endure for being in the spotlight.

Sacrifice is a big virtue here, and a movie star’s integrity is often measured by how many life-threatening stunts she pulls off herself in a big budget project.

Though I can’t blame fans for wanting to know everything about their favorite stars, I sincerely want to congratulate the two for keeping their relationship under wraps for 14 long years -- for keeping their private matters, uh, private.

E Ji-ahE Ji-ah (in this 2008 file photo) had a bit of explaining to do to the men in her life. Korea's netizens did a lot of it for her.Besides, Seo was a retired man during the short marriage, which virtually ended before he made a comeback to the Korean music scene in 2000.

Yet the truly disturbing part is that netizens went as far as revealing personal information and profiles of not just E, but her friends and family. What were they thinking? That, in order to carve out a rotten part of a fruit, it’s necessary to “sacrifice” the perfectly good parts that surround it?

As I write these words, however, the entire incident is quickly vanishing into oblivion. People have lost interest in E, particularly since she withdrew the suit against Seo and supposedly apologized to Jung. 

The number of visitors to the notorious E website may have decreased tenfold but the dark allure of online anonymity still remains. Netizens are on the prowl for new distractions.

Victimization in cyberspace 

The “culture of sadism,” as digital guru Jaron Lanier put it, has long been become rooted in cyberspace -- people readily make vehement, anonymous remarks and attacks against individuals, including non-celebrities.

When a young woman failed to pick up after her puppy on the subway, another passenger recorded the act. The clip began hotwiring the web, along with reports of the “dog dung girl’s” name, age and college.

When School A proved that it had enrolled no such student by such description, netizens went on to make claims to another institution. College B’s website server crashed as the online mob switched destinations, and the incident made it to the 9 o’clock news and the pages of every major daily.

Even offline, there are photography schools that teach disciples how to stalk ordinary Joes. They learn how to scan the streets and threaten smokers spotted taking a puff in a non-smoking area and the like.

It’s an Orwellian world we live in where Big Brother is out to aid these online Salem witch hunts. And truth be told, I am scared.

It’s not just because anyone can easily become a victim of cyber-lynching. What I truly fear is how the madness of crowds seems to gain frightening new momentum on the web -- how truth and basic humanity become utterly dispensable in the face of the collective.

The opinions of this commentary are solely those of Hyo-won Lee.

A member of the UNESCO International Dance Council, Hyo-won Lee writes for The Korea Times while contributing to The Hollywood Reporter and appearing on English radio programs. In her free time she can be spotted ordering “jajangmyeon” during a picnic by the Han River, snooping around vintage boutiques or trying to compose tone poems.

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