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Cyber-Maleficence: K-pop's Cyberbullying Problem

Picture Source: Nikkei Asia

Since artists and actors began to gain fame, groups idolising them inevitably began to grow. With the dawn of the internet age, these groups further grew into what we now call “fandoms” with various humorous and strange names, ‘Cumberbitches’ being the first to come to my mind. Alongside these large groups of fans, it takes only a second look at the Twitter comment section to find the ‘anti-fans’, the critics of these celebrities and sometimes those who take pleasure in antagonising the die-hard fans in any and all online discussions. While this can be seen as just a part of society, being that there will always be those with opposing views, some of whom enjoy a spirited argument, some just take it too far. That isn’t to say that the anti-fans are the only party that does this with many fandoms being just as quick to criticise the celebrities they were formed around. This is particularly prevalent and malicious in South Korea and the world of K-pop.

South Korea already exists as a relatively heavily conservative country, in terms of public moral outlooks and behaviour, when compared to other nations. From birth, many Koreans face strict regulations on their behaviour, dress, and body image. With it not being at all uncommon to receive ostracisation from their peers and communities for wanting, or just being a little different. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that those thrust into the limelight as K-pop stars or ‘idols’ receive even stricter and harsher treatment to appear as perfect to the outside world, and more malicious ostracisation when; as is part of human nature, they make a mistake. This is not to say that, ‘idols’ receive any kinder treatment for simply being different. When you consider the tremendous amount of pressure Korean idols face, not to say that idols in Japan have it easier, with training every day for sometimes as long as 9 hours with all the public appearances they have to make on top of this, its no surprise that many idols have simply cracked. Then into these already broken people, the public unleashes a veritable surge of malignant negativity and harsh ousting.

Many times, during my time on the internet, I have seen comments and posts mocking the younger generations for requiring a “safe place” however, just for a moment imagine how it feels to be either ridiculed or completely ostracised for being different or mocked for making a mistake. Then imagine not having even the comfort and sanctuary that a home should provide as you are constantly connected and bombarded by the internet. It is bad enough with a class or workplace of 20-30 people joining in on it, but imagine for all of the love, praise and support these idols receive from their fans when everything is going smoothly, they receive an equal or even greater amount of cyber-malevolence. The situation only worsens when the fans turn on them too, and this can be for something as simple as hanging out with a friend of the opposite sex sparking a dating rumour, or a simple expression of belief in something different than their constructed facade. This can be hundreds of thousands, or even millions domestically, and when considering the prosperity of k-pop in western markets today even more globally.

This rings even more true for those who attempt to openly oppose the tide and are outspoken like ‘Sulli’ (Choi Jin-Ri) of f(x). Fittingly the band was famous for its innovation and twisting of the convention, but amongst its members ‘Sulli’ was intentionally loud and outspoken about her beliefs, speaking on mental health, cyberbullying, and women’s rights (such as her involvement with the ‘no bra’ movement in Korea). The BBC published an article naming ‘Sulli’ as “The woman who rebelled against the k-pop world,” as she didn’t “fit the mould” with the image of idols in Korea being that of perfect and wholesome beings. The article mentions that in order to be themselves female Korean idols, more so than male ones, have to risk their careers. They would not only be receiving a torrent of bullying online from both fans and critics alike but also from their agencies and yet they’re expected to not really talk out about this. It is suggested in an earlier article and by fans that ‘Sulli’ took her own life after no-longer being able to withstand the pressures of her position, being bullied heavily online. This is not just speculation however as she had previously taken breaks due to comments following rumours that spread online.

This is not the only case where online bullying has led to the damage of idols mental health, and it is also not the only time it has led to death. Mina (Twice), Kangin (Super Junior), Goo Hara (kara), Jonghyun (SHINee) are just some of the more well-known cases in which cyberbullying and harassment has damaged idols lives. The Korean government has been taking steps towards combatting cyberbullying but the prevalent culture of victim shaming has made it hard to take legal action as many of the victims will not come forward for fear of further harassment. However, some agencies are attempting to challenge the vulnerability of their artists by taking legal action against harassment online, such as JYP Entertainment, TWICE’s agency. This is more prevalent amongst youths in Korea as they do not normally have the backing of something like an agency to support them through the reporting process. However according to the NCHS and other official bodies cyber bullying and crime has only been on the increase over the last ten years, not just in Korea, or Asia, but globally. In addition to this, there is some evidence to suggest that parents and teachers struggle to identify the victims in these cases as most of the bullying will occur over social media as opposed to openly in public or in the classroom.

It is then quite easy to imagine how the bullies and the bullied can take further action by hounding celebrities not as an individual but as part of a fandom or anti-fandom. Therefore, many fandoms around the globe, especially those surrounding idols and idol culture, have a duality within them; the positive and overly adoring side, as well as the obsessive and toxic underbelly that happily turns on the artist after a mistake, or aggressively attacks other rival artists and their fandoms online. This further asks the question should fandom accounts be monitored on social media for this type of behaviour? But there is one thing we can be sure of, despite the actions taken so far more needs to be done to protect the younger generation online, but especially in one of the most connected countries in the world Korea.

Jack Glidewell- Editor, Writer, and Podcast Presenter at Social Songbird

A self taught writer and news enthusiast, with a deep love for new and exciting developments around the globe. Aspiring Novel writer and traditional and pop Japanese culture lover. 

Cyber-Maleficence: K-pop's Cyberbullying Problem Reviewed by Jack Glidewell on Sunday, February 28, 2021 Rating: 5

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