From 15th May 2020 till 15th June 2020, EMPOWER Malaysia organised an essay competition for aspiring writers aged 13 to 23 with the theme “The Freedom to Express Myself without Fear”. This essay by Alysha Joseph, aged 19, recalls the tragic fate of Choi Jin-ri and discusses the impact of cyberbullying and real-world consequences. Her entry was one of the Top 20 essays chosen in the competition.

“Why do you say that about me? What did I do?”

Choi Jin-ri had been described by one music critic as a person who “laughed when she wanted to laugh, and cried when she wanted to cry. She brazenly spoke out. She didn’t fit the mould.” Her fans remember her as a welcome voice on mental health, cyberbullying and women’s rights – all topics still largely considered taboo in South Korea. She often acted contrary to the ‘perfect and pure’ aesthetic of typical female idols, earning her criticism online.

She was found dead at her home, on the 14th of October 2019. She was 25.

Choi, better known by her stage name Sulli, rose to fame as a member of the KPOP girl group f(x). Two days before her death, she had streamed Instagram Live videos of her tearfully asking the public what it was that made her the target of so much online hate and attacks on social media, pleading with them “Don’t be so hard on me, I’m not a bad person.” In another video, she had been seen openly weeping. Before her death, Choi had hosted a show attempting to educate the public on cyber bullying, and read out some of the hurtful comments she received on air.

In an age where the entire world is connected by the mere tap of a finger, social media has quickly proven to be both a blessing and a curse. We live half our lives through screens, scrolling through endless pictures of perfectly plated meals, dazzling sunsets, and ‘#ootds. The Internet, whether we like it or not, shapes nearly every aspect of our daily lives, but the promise of anonymity on platforms such as Twitter and Instagram has revealed a darker side of its user base. What do we do when we know we cannot be held accountable, what do we say when we know our words cannot be traced back to us?

How many Choi Jin-ris will our generation see?

Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the right to freedom of expression states that “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas through any media, regardless of frontiers”. However, oftentimes such freedoms are a double-edged sword. If you have the right to express yourself freely, then should I choose to send you nasty comments on your profile? Am I not also simply exercising that very same right? Indeed, this seems to be the prevailing mentality of online haters, commonly referred to as ‘trolls’. What most of these trolls fail to remember is that their online actions often have real world consequences.

In 2015, Johor princess Tunku Aminah Maimunah Iskandariah quit social media after receiving nasty Instagram comments criticizing her for not wearing a tudung. The comments, she said, had hurt her feelings and she did not want strangers to judge her for how she dressed. She was quoted as saying “At first, I posted pictures off my cats, but then people started leaving nasty comments about not wearing a tudung that hurt me. It then started to go on and on until gradually, I felt that they were invading my private space”

“I felt as if they were invading my private space” but on the world wide web, where exactly does an individual’s private space begin and end? Existing measures to prevent cyberbullying are rarely as efficient as they are made out to be. Micro-blogging site Tumblr is infamous for its lax response to trolls on its platform, and pockets of child pornography blogs, as well as groups spewing alt-right and white supremacist speeches, have been allowed to fester on the site, despite repeated complaints by hundreds of other users. Twitter’s hateful conduct policy states that it ‘does not tolerate behavior that harasses, intimidates, or uses fear to silence’ but researchers from the University of Wisconsin found that approximately 15,000 bullying-related tweets are posted daily. Instagram brands itself as ‘the nicest place on the internet’ and has rolled out campaigns such as the #KindComments campaign, encouraging users to leave nice comments on each others’ photos, but enforcement of anti-harassment policies is disappointingly low. After flagging for harassment, users report that they simply receive a report stating that the offender is not in violation of any of Instagram’s policies. Even complaints about death threats and rape threats get swept under the rug.

While current measures prove ineffective, on the other hand, proposed new measures may put a strain on individual freedoms. Take the proposed ‘Sulli’s Law’, named for Choi Jin-ri after her death and proposed to fight cyberbullying. Debates around the proposed law suggest bringing back the mandate that was passed in the South Korean National Assembly in 2007, which made it such that an individual’s identity would be verified through their social registration numbers and real names in any online activities. However, this was declared to be unconstitutional in 2012. In effect, the law had little impact on cyberbullying, but instead resulted in an increase in cyber attacks, as the personal info and social security details of South Koreans was now being stored online.

We live in an age unlike any other. Our screens can show us the world and our words can reach millions within seconds. In this day and age, it is important that each individual be responsible of the content they consume and post online. Corporations profit off their userbase. As such, we as members of that userbase must take responsibility for our actions online. We must remember that every hateful word and every nasty comment has a real-world consequence, even if we cannot see it. We cannot know what will be the straw that breaks the camels back. As individuals, we must recognise the dangers of online bullying and harassment, and work to educate our peers where we can, so then and only then can we prevent another Choi Jin-ri.

The views, opinions and thoughts expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of EMPOWER Malaysia.

Photo by  Porapak Apichodilok from Pexels.

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