The phrase “bamboo forest” means a natural forest of bamboo trees to most people. But in South Korea, it can mean something very different because, there, the phrase also refers to an online community allowing users to post anonymously.
The community is a user-oriented platform. In most cases, it is operated as a Facebook page. Each “bamboo forest” page represents a specific group such as a university or a company.
The name “bamboo forest” came from an old fairy tale in South Korea about a vassal who happened to learn the king’s secret. The vassal could not resist the urge to share the secret with others, so he decided to visit a bamboo forest and shout it out there, thus releasing his frustration and assuming no one could hear him.
Inspired by the story, South Korea’s online bamboo forests offer a forum that allows users to visit, share their secrets, and discuss the issues that concern them. Of course, everything is done anonymously.
This all started as something fun. In particular, universities were at the center of creating bamboo forest pages. Posts used to be centered around gossip and jokes. Sometimes, the page operated as a channel for shy students to reveal their secret loves.
However, online bamboo forests have experienced a dramatic change as the movement against sexual harassment and assault, or the #MeToo campaign, was spreading across the world.
Online users of bamboo forest pages in South Korea have begun to share their stories as well, and the results have been powerful. Posts about sexual harassment cases on these pages have often gone viral and sometimes led to actual investigations and punishment.
In March, for instance, five professors at Seoul-based Myongji College were investigated for sexually harassing students after a post by a victim on Myongji College’s bamboo forest Facebook page, which pointed the finger at them.
In the same month, a professor at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies committed suicide amid a police investigation into him regarding sexual harassment accusations involving students. At that time, a post on the university’s bamboo forest page also played an important role in activating an investigation.
The two examples mentioned above are just the tip of the iceberg. Online users have been actively using bamboo forest pages as their channel for reporting sexual harassment. These online bamboo forests have become a focal point for the #MeToo movement in South Korea.
“Each bamboo forest is a community that is used by similar people with similar backgrounds such as alma maters, ages and occupations,” said Lim Myung-ho, a professor at Dankuk University’s department of Psychology.
“It is an ideal environment where victims who are extremely reluctant to expose their identities are able to feel more comfortable sharing their stories and get sympathy and receive support,” Lim noted.
Alas, every rose has its thorns. In some instances, people have taken advantage of that precious anonymity, causing a dispute among users and hurting people who are innocent. Some are spreading malicious rumors for the purpose of attacking a specific person, while others share and spread these rumors without verifying. Often these rumors go viral.
Recognizing the gravity of the situation, some bamboo forest pages have begun setting up a series of rules to tackle the issue.
For example, managers of the bamboo forest Facebook page of Seoul-based Hanyang University announced that it will not post information that cannot be verified or that targets someone specific.
Dongguk University’s bamboo forest page also said it will post stories about sexual harassment cases only when they are reported by verified users.
Managers of the page said this decision is designed to ensure the sites’ credibility because, otherwise, there can be a lot of baseless information.
Dankuk University professor Lim said such abusive cases are inevitable within online bamboo forests as they are still going through a “transition” period.
Koh Gang-sup, a researcher at Young Professionals Institute of Korea, shared a similar view but laid out a positive outlook.
“There are already some online campaigns to check if the posts are false, and some people are trying their best to discourage malicious comments,” Koh said.
“Bamboo forests pages are already showing signs of heading in a more positive direction,” he added.