News that two young people had taken their own lives shook South Korea early February.
Another was Kim In-hyeok, a 26-year-old professional volleyball player.
Both had been heavily, cruelly trolled online, and much blame was laid on so-called "cyber wreckers" (사이버 렉카)—South Korean YouTubers making a living out of commenting on current affairs.
Like wreckers (or tow trucks) that show up at an accident site as soon as the call comes in, these creators are quick to produce videos about a trending topic once they sense public interest, weaving their own tales of what happened. And the resulting clips aren't always concerned with notions of truth.
But their influence on public discourse has reached an alarming level, and the country ponders whether they should be allowed to operate with impunity and how to curb some of the worst excesses.
Jammi's trouble began in 2019 after she uttered a few expressions that appeared to originate from feminist communities. And she once emulated in jest the male habit of touching one's own penis unconsciously and smelling the hand afterward—a behavior humorously dubbed ggokain 꼬카인 (it combines the Korean slang word for penis—ggochu 꼬추—and cocaine, a drug that's often inhaled).
Such trivial antics were first noticed by male-dominated online communities, which bombarded her with insults and taunts to take her own life. But it was cyber wreckers who amplified the accusation that she was a man-hating feminist, and goaded larger segments of the public into joining the witch hunt.
Kim, on the other hand, was trailed by malicious gossip about his sexuality over his appearance and pictures on social media. So terrible and frequent the attacks became that in August he publicly appealed for them to end. "Please stop the hateful comments that have tormented me for the last several years. I cannot put up with them. Not any more," he wrote.
"I never once wore makeup, I am not into men, I had a girlfriend, I was never a porn actor."
Jammi's death came to light after someone claiming to be her uncle posted the news on a gaming forum four months ago. He blamed "countless trolling comments and rumors" for his niece's passing.
Kim left on Feb. 3 what seemed like another plea on his Instagram account: "please help me get up, I am tired / hold my hand again / please embrace me again one more time".
He was found dead at home the following day.
South Korea is recognized for being a wired nation. 97 percent of the population use the internet, and some 89 percent are on social media, of which YouTube is by far the most in demand. More than 43 million people—over 80 percent of the entire population— reportedly frequent the platform. The country also boasts the highest ratio of YouTubers earning an income in the world.
When so much of life is lived in cyberspace, the intensity of online trolling can be extreme, having contributed to the suicide of several pop stars, not least Sulli of the girl group f(x), Jonghyun of the boy group SHINee and Kara's Goo Hara, in recent years.
These two trends combined are exemplified by the cyber wreckers, also known as "issue YouTubers".
In a crowded race to make it as influencers, they attract attention by highlighting—or outright stirring up—controversies over social and political issues or well-known names. The goal is to stoke public rage against others, drive traffic to their channels and feed their advertising revenues.
The tendency has become pronounced enough to earn its very own Korean term—eogeuro 어그로, derived from the English word "aggressive". It describes doing or saying anything and everything for the sake of getting noticed.
Last December an infamous child rapist was released from prison after serving 12 years behind bars. Hundreds of YouTubers descended on his new address and attempted to capture him on camera, causing a commotion.
Issue YouTubers' next main target, in January, was Song Ji-ah, the influencer who came to fame in the Netflix reality show Single's Inferno and was hounded into stopping her professional activities after wearing counterfeit designer fashion.
Sensing that public opinion was turning against her, many issue YouTubers chimed in, regurgitating her alleged flaws and providing more fodder for her demonization.
But their undisputed king is PPKKa 뻑가, who has more than one million subscribers.
Ranked 22nd on Forbes Korea's list of highest-earning South Korean YouTubers, he's built a reputation—and a revenue stream—by picking on other influencers even while remaining completely anonymous (he wears a cap and black oversized ski goggles to mask his identity).
He published four critical videos about Song, each of which racked up more than one million views. He also hounded Jammi but took down his attacks after she died, and posted a quasi-apology to say he wasn't responsible for the death because others had jumped on the bandwagon before him.
"I am just someone who summarizes an issue after it's happened."
No wonder the apology rang hollow. After Jammi's suicide, followed by Kim's, the nation was plunged into a mood of self-criticism as it always does when trolling claims another prominent figure. MBC, one of the country's main broadcasters, labelled cyber wreckers "murderers who kill with their tongues". A petition to the presidential office calling for PPKKa's criminal prosecution received more than 230,000 signatures.
Authorities announced in response that the police opened an investigation into him, who has been laying low since then.
PPKKa didn't go after Kim, but many other issue YouTubers did, insinuating that Kim was an anomaly to be pointed out and condemned. After he died, Hong Seok-cheon, one of South Korea's few openly gay public figures and a friend of Kim's, didn't hold back his scathing criticism of this terrible internet culture:
"The cruelty of people who attack, discriminate against and push others toward death for no reason other than that they are different remains an everyday reality of this country in 2022."
The soul-searching may prove to be short-lived, but some see YouTube, accused of being an "accomplice by providing the platform for cyber wreckers", as having a lion's share of the responsibility for allowing the hate to spread.
Media outlets have also lamented the absence of regulation for preventing similar tragedies in the future. At least two pieces of legislation aimed at curbing cyber bulling have languished in the National Assembly for two years.
South Korea has a strong anti-defamation law that border on the draconian, but "cyber wreckers evade the law. They package speculation as facts but use words like 'controversy' or 'suspicion' to avoid being charged with defamation," the newspaper Chosun Ilbo asserted in an explainer about why the trend isn't easy to break.
But that description may well apply to the whole of the media industry including Chosun Ilbo. Even major papers and broadcasters justify printing allegations and suspicion as newsworthy, and they aren't any less likely to rehash gossip about public figures in trouble than cyber wreckers are.
Under pressure, YouTube at least acted on Thursday to censure a notorious rightwing pundit channel and a leftwing online media outlet using questionable journalistic tactics. Both revealed that YouTube halted their ad revenue streams for thirty days for "bullying and cyberviolence".
They had been hounding figures from the other side of the political spectrum, and YouTube appears to have finally woken up to the fact that it needs to be seen as doing something or it will go down along with the very content creators on its site.
Two channels, though, are just the tip of the iceberg. There is a lot more hate left to excise on this vast platform.
If you are in South Korea and having suicidal thoughts, you are not alone. Help is available (in Korean) at the following numbers: 1393, 1577-0199, 1588-9191.
Cover: PPKKa, South Korea's most successful cyber wrecker, hides his own identity by wearing black oversized ski goggles and a cap (source: his YouTube video)