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[Feature] Will shutting down comments section curb abuses online?

Portals ban comments on sports news after volleyball player’s death

A computer screen shows the comments section under a news article on Naver. (The Korea Herald DB)
A computer screen shows the comments section under a news article on Naver. (The Korea Herald DB)

The country’s three major online portals -- Naver, Kakao and Nate -- announced earlier this month that they were temporarily closing the comments sections under their sports articles until they could come up with a system to protect athletes from abusive language.

“Comments that target particular players, defaming their reputation and degrading them, continue,” Naver said on Aug. 7. “We acknowledge that the malicious comments and the pain suffered by the athletes is at a level that cannot be overlooked and we have decided to tentatively close the sports news comments section.” The portal stated that the new policy would take effect within the month.

The same day, Kakao announced that it too was closing its comments section as a way of fulfilling its “social responsibility.” Kakao closed the comments sections for both its online portal, Daum, and the mobile platform KakaoTalk. Another portal site, Nate followed suit the same afternoon.

The moves came less than a week after a former professional women’s volleyball player, 25-year-old Go Yoo-min, was found dead in her home on Aug. 1. Go, who played left backup for Hyundai Engineering & Construction Hillstate, left the team in March and the Korea Volleyball Federation later announced she had voluntarily withdrawn from the organization.

Go’s diary showed that she had long been the target of cyberbullying, broadcaster MBC later revealed.

“Comments and direct messages came all at once and I wasn’t in the right frame of mind. Please stop with the hateful comments,” one diary entry read.

This is not the first time the portals have banned comments. Following the suicides of singers Sulli and Goo Ha-ra last year -- both of whom had pleaded for kinder treatment from the public -- Kakao banned comments under its entertainment news in October. Naver did the same in March.

Despite skepticism, with many people saying that shutting down online discussion sections would not stop hateful comments and others accusing the platforms of suppressing freedom of expression, Naver’s policy proved a partial success.

According to Naver, compared to January, the number of comments deleted for violating the company’s guidelines plunged by 63.3 percent in June. The number of “dislikes” on comments fell by 21.5 percent and the number of reports about malicious comments dropped by 53.6 percent in the same period.

However, malicious comments have not vanished from cyberspace.

Restrictions on portal comments led to a “balloon effect” -- the number of vicious comments exploded on other parts of the internet, such as anonymous communities and social media platforms.

According to police data, the total number of reports filed for online libel and “insult,” both criminal offenses under the law here, totaled 8,093 in the first half of 2020, up 5.6 percent from the same period last year.

Celebrities, famous YouTubers and even ordinary people with large numbers of followers on social media have complained of attacks by individuals who not only leave hurtful comments, but also send personal messages they cannot ignore.

Famous meokbang YouTuber Tzuyang, who had over 2.6 million subscribers, announced on Aug. 7 that she was quitting, saying she was exhausted from all the hateful comments and false accusations.

“It was scary and burdensome to see the hateful comments spreading uncontrollably about all sorts of misunderstandings,” she said in an online statement.

Kwak Geum-joo, a psychology professor at Seoul National University, says comments on social media pose bigger threats than those on portal news sites.

“The comments are more direct and thus have a stronger impact on the victims. It’s delivered instantly, whereas, for the portal comments, they (the victims) could at least avoid them by not looking up the article,” Kwak told The Korea Herald.

“And social media such as YouTube stimulate mob psychology among the commenters. A small source of discomfort for an individual will feel like a huge problem when shared by a collective group, and the amplified power of such hatred makes the violence more spiteful, whereas each of those individuals will feel less guilt over their act due to dispersed responsibility,” Kwak said. “It could be considered worse than physical violence. That’s why some even resort to suicide.”

Some have called for stricter regulation and heavier penalties. Under the current law, online libel is punishable by three to seven years in prison or a fine of 30 million to 50 million won ($25,300-$42,200). The crime of insult can result in up to a year in jail or a fine of up to 2 million won.

“We must adopt a real-name online comment system and impose heavier punishments. Korean society has not matured enough to enjoy (complete) freedom of expression. The technology has advanced fast, but people’s maturity is failing to catch up,” Kwak said. The Constitutional Court ruled the internet real-name system stipulated in the Information and Communications Network Law unconstitutional in 2012, on grounds that it undermined freedom of speech.

Ruling Democratic Party of Korea lawmaker Jeon Yong-gi on Aug. 9 proposed a revision of the network law to establish online insult crime and, in cases where the victims have taken their own lives, to stipulate punishment of the person who wrote malicious comments for aiding and abetting suicide under the criminal law.

Experts argue that a fundamental solution lies in a change in public perceptions of online harassment -- recognition that it is a serious crime.

“Like how we learn to write, schools must introduce media literacy education starting in elementary school. There is suggestive content on YouTube, and there are provocative comments, and children must now learn why this is dangerous,” said Yun-Kim Ji-yeong, a professor at Konkuk University’s Institute of Body and Culture.

Meanwhile, although the effects may be limited, Yun-Kim said the portals’ tentative ban on comments sends a significant message to online users.

“Before, many may have thought that online comments were something the celebrities had to endure because they are famous. The unfortunate deaths have warned us of real dangers, and with the closed comments tab, we’ve come to think once more about how our comments could affect their subjects,” Yun-Kim said. “Although there may be concerns about the ‘balloon effect,’ I believe it is part of the process of making the internet space clean.”

By Choi Ji-won (jwc@heraldcorp.com)
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