Celebrity suicide spotlights symbiotic relationship between online slander and clickbait press

Posted on : 2019-10-17 17:08 KST Modified on : 2019-10-19 20:29 KST
Sulli received most Google Korea searches in 2017, despite Park Geun-hye impeachment
On Oct. 16
On Oct. 16

In 2017, Sulli was the most-searched person on Google Korea. That was one of the records set by this 25-year-old actress and singer, who was driven to take her life by cyberbullying on Oct. 14. Back in 2017, she had been the target of nasty comments filled with hate speech, triggered by photos posted on her personal social media account where she was apparently not wearing a bra. Even though that was the year when the presidential election was held early following Park Geun-hye’s impeachment, President Moon Jae-in’s name was second on the list, following Sulli.

Why did Sulli (Choi Jin-ri) receive so much attention from the public? Experts agree that this resulted from a vicious cycle initiated by clickbait media and perpetuated by cyberbullies. Experts say that reform needs to begin with the media who gave those trolls a platform.

When the Hankyoreh analyzed media big data using a tool called “Big Kinds,” provided by the Korea Press Foundation, on Oct. 16, it found 9,238 articles about Sulli in daily newspapers and specialized magazines between Aug. 7 and 13, 2015, when Sulli left the girl group f(x) and began her solo career. In other words, the article total was close to 10,000, even when celebrity-focused publications that carried the most gossip about her are excluded from the calculations.

Though that was when Sulli was breaking new ground as an actress with her role in the film “Real,” the main topic in media coverage was a scandal over Sulli’s social media activity. Related search terms from the time show that netizens’ attention was more focused on the gossip than her acting, because of media influence. Related search terms are “Instagram,” “Choe Ja” (Sulli’s ex-boyfriend), “social media,” “netizen,” and “online community.” Neither the media nor netizens paid any attention to the fact that Sulli had temporarily suspended her entertainment activity in 2014 because of cyberbullying.

Gossip draws in trolls, who write malicious comments that are repackaged as controversy

What becomes evident through such analysis is the symbiotic relationship between the yellow press and online trolls. Here’s how the rumor mill works: news websites print gossip about celebrities that draws in trolls, who then write malicious comments that are repackaged as a controversy. When Sulli used Instagram to live-stream a drinking party with her friends on Apr. 8, about 50 articles were run about the “no-bra scandal.” When she posted a picture of herself on social media on May 22, 25 articles were posted about how she was “walking down the street without any underwear on.” Some media ran nasty comments about Sulli in their articles verbatim, characterizing them as “back and forth” or “internet buzz.”

Experts say that media companies need to take the first step in ending their symbiotic relationship with mean-spirited commenters.

“Indiscriminately including slanderous comments about celebrities in articles makes readers believe that those remarks represent valuable opinions and propagates violent viewpoints. In fact, it’s the media that created the venue and provided the trolls with an opportunity to write their malicious comments in the first place,” said Mimyo, editor of “Idology,” during a phone call with the Hankyoreh.

“The cycle of malicious comments is like quicksand — once a celebrity is caught in it, it’s nearly impossible to escape. This can’t be stopped by suing or prosecuting individuals or through an online ‘real name’ system. Media websites need to declare to society that they’re going to shut down the trolls, and there needs to be a public discussion about standards for reporting,” said Kim Eon-gyeong, secretary general of the Civic Coalition for Democratic Media.

“The psychological pain and damage inflicted on mass entertainers and cultural figures by cyberbullying has become a prominent social issue. We will be taking radical measures to protect the entertainers who belong to our member companies in order to prevent the harm caused by baseless slander online,” the Korea Entertainment Management Association said in a position statement on Wednesday.


By Kim Min-je, Jeon Gwang-joon, and Shin Ji-min, staff reporters

Please direct comments or questions to [english@hani.co.kr]

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