“If I do, will people love me?”
So went a haunting exchange between pro-wrestler and star of Netflix’s popular reality show “Terrace House” Hana Kimura, and one of her many online critics, who in the weeks before her death had flooded her social media accounts with posts that included calling her a “gorilla;” criticizing her for the darkness of her skin, her lack of femininity and her outgoing personality; and, worst of all, telling her to “go die.”
Tragically, on May 23, after weeks of such abuse — she stated she was receiving up to 100 hate messages a day — Hana Kimura took her own life. Perhaps more devastatingly however, is that by now such stories are well-trodden earth.
Last year, K-pop stars and good friends Sulli and Goo Hara both died by suicide within six weeks of one another, after vicious online hate campaigns were directed at the pair. Before her death, Sulli had received relentless abuse online after she was wrongly identified in a sex video, as well as a barrage of trolls criticizing her support of a feminist campaign advocating for women to go braless. Hara, on the other hand, had her Instagram flooded with people abusing her for her appearance, the fact that she had had plastic surgery, and for suing her ex-boyfriend — despite the fact he had abused her throughout their relationship and was blackmailing her by threatening to release sex tapes that, in South Korea, could ruin her career.
Due to their places in the spotlight, the tragic deaths of celebrities such as Kimura, Sulli, and Hara draw attention to something not exclusive to celebrities — although the close scrutiny of their everyday lives surely magnifies and can make it worse — but something most, if not all of us, have either experienced first hand, witnessed, or even partaken in: cyberbullying. It is universal. For example, since 2014, there have been 80,537 reports of cyberbullying in South Korea.
An ACCC digital inquiry into cyberbullying in Australia in 2019 found that cyberbullying had increased 32 percent over the past decade. The inquiry also found that cyberbullying is the cause of at least three suicides per week in children aged between 5 and 17 years old — with around 750 suicides in total per year in children between the ages of 13 and 17, and that across all ages groups it is estimated that cyber-bullying is responsible for up to 10 suicides a week.
A 2018 study conducted by the Pew Research Center found that 59 percent of U.S. teenagers had been bullied and harassed online.
A 2012 worldwide survey sponsored by Reuters found that 80 percent of responders believed cyberbullying was a serious problem in their country and a 2018 IPSOS/Reuters survey found that nearly 1 in 5 parents reported that their children had been victims of cyberbullying.
In a 2020 paper published by The Lancet, the authors found that non-fatal suicidal behaviors, which are associated with higher rates of suicides, are increased in the setting of, and directly influenced by, bullying and cyberbullying. They concluded that there is a pressing need to establish and strengthen programs and policies aimed at decreasing bullying and cyberbullying in order to reduce suicidal behaviors and associated suicides.
The above examples highlight the reality that cyberbullying has become a global phenomenon, which not only poses serious risk to the mental health of both children and adults alike, but has also become a major contributor to suicides around the world. So the questions is, what can we do about it?
In the wake of Kimura’s death, Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) met and discussed proposals for a law that would help unmask anonymous internet trolls by requiring internet providers to disclose information related to users found responsible for anonymous and targeted hate messages posted online. The Japanese offices of SNS giants Facebook, Twitter, and LINE also stepped in, releasing a joint statement quickly after the news of Kimura’s death broke, vowing to reduce people’s abilities to post personal attacks on their platforms. Steps could include blanket bans on users who intentionally attack and post derogatory comments toward other users.
In South Korea, similar attempts have been made to push through laws that could assist in the stemming of cyberbullying and its often tragic consequences. The centrist Bareunmirae Party late last year devised plans for a bill that would make cyberbullying education compulsory in school and businesses. After consulting with school teachers across the country, lawmakers in South Korea came to the conclusion that precautionary education would be the most effective counter to the rising trend.
Yet, while countries and governments are moving to curb cyberbullying in their respective populaces, an impasse has been reached in regards to how to go about it. Even within governments there remains significant debate — the biggest surrounding censorship and freedom of expression. More specifically, there are concerns about where to draw the line between free speech and criminal culpability. For example, in 2014, 18-year-old Michelle Carter encouraged her friend Roy Conrad to kill himself via texts and was consequently charged and convicted of involuntary manslaughter. Despite Carter’s lawyers claiming that she was protected by the first amendment and her right to free speech, the residing judge rejected her appeal and ultimately held her complicit in Conrad’s death. The case sets an interesting precedent, but one that treads on very thin ice.
In most other cases nothing happens, no charges are made, no investigations are done, and those affected are left to fend for themselves. That is why, Justin W. Patchin, who is director of the Cyber-bullying Research Center and professor of criminal justice at the University of Wisconsin, said,“The bottom line is that we need to sort this out. There are certain things that people shouldn’t be able to say online. There definitely is a line somewhere, but the courts haven’t really defined where that line is.”
Thus, without much precedent set regarding the legality of hate speech — especially targeting an individual — nor any concrete laws, guides, or examples for countries to follow, governments around the world are left to wade through perilous and uncertain waters, and like an acrobat crossing a tightrope, are forced to intricately juggle both the rights of their people and their obligation to protect them.
But perhaps this is mostly a job for each and every one of us: to simply remember that behind every display picture and username, there is a real person, and that real person, no matter how they may come across online, has real feelings. In all honesty it should not be up to governments and social media conglomerates to make sure we are, if not being nice to one another, are at least being civil — it should be up to us. Being kind is one of the easiest things to do.
Hayden Marks is an English teacher and curriculum developer in Tokyo, Japan. Marks has a Bachelor’s degree in global politics and currently pursuing a Master’s degree in information management.