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Why Did More Than 200,000 Koreans Petition to Shutter a Popular Website?

Screen capture images from Ilbe website. The post is titled, “How to find out if a woman is marriage material”. It suggests that if one beats up his girlfriend and she still comes back to him, she is the right person to marry.

An online petition started on January 25, 2018, called for the South Korean government to ban a website called Ilbe Storehouse, claiming it is full of hate speech against women, liberals, and ethnic and sexual minorities.

The site was founded in 2010 as a daily collection of popular online information. Unlike other web forums in Korea, the site does not have a username system. Such a setting is designed to uphold the principle of anonymity. That, alongside its non-hierarchical structure among users, has attracted many young people who seek to defy mentorship and authority.

By August 2017, Ilbe had nearly 30.8 million visits per day and was the 24th most popular website in all of South Korea. Its popularity is viewed by some critics as representative of a “dramatic rise of South Korea’s angry young men”.

The online petition, signed by 235,167 people, demanded that the administration take action against Ilbe as the site is a major source of disinformation related to social and political issues. The petition said (via Korea Herald):

The language used there are foul and discriminative, and there are so many contents showing composite photographs defaming and sexually harassing others…

In response to the call for Ilbe’s shutter, the presidential office explained (via Korea Herald) that upon review, the Korea Communications Standard Commission does, at least in theory, have the power to shut down the website:

When more than 70 percent of the uploaded content is illegal information, the commission either shuts down or blocks access to the site…

Between 2012 to 2017, the website had received 1,500 orders from the government to delete offensive posts. However, the Communications Standard Commission also pointed out last year that there are no legal regulations restricting hate speech in South Korea.

On Twitter, many opinions about Ilbe were posted in favour of the petitioners. When answering a Twitter user’s inquiry about Ilbe, a reporter from HajinsunTV said:

This is not the first time Korean people signed a petition asking for Ilbe to be shut down. A petition was first launched in October 2017 after male users of the site uploaded photos of women, claiming that the women were their “cousins” during Cheosuk holidays. The photos attracted numerous comments that could be qualified as harassment. The October petition attracted 43,000 signatures.

In addition to posting photos of women, quite often the site's content suggests approval of sexual violence. For example, the top image in this post showing a man holding a baseball bat comes from an Ilbe post called “How to find out if a woman is marriage material”. It suggests that if one beats up their girlfriend and she still comes back to them, she is the right person to marry.

Ilbe is not only offensive to women, but also other marginalized and vulnerable social groups — foreigners, North Korean defectors, Chinese Koreans and even disaster victims.

Members of Ilbe often call Korean women, “kimchi bitches” and Chinese people, “cockroaches”. Some speech made by Ilbe members go as far as to support explicit acts of violence. In June 2017, an Ilbe member wrote on the forum that he would throw acid at female Kpop band Twice at the airport:

TWICE decided to abandon our country because they’re making so much money in Japan…Yeah sure, money’s great, money’s the best. You guys can abandon Korea but you better not return ever again. I’ll be waiting at the airport with 10 liters of hydrochloric acid [if you try to return].

Furthermore, some Ilbe members have taken action in real life. @AskAKorean gave some concrete examples concerning the Ilbe community’s hate culture:

In October 2014, about a hundred Ilbe members held a pizza feast next to a group of protesters who were on hunger strike to protest government’s inaction in the aftermath of the Sewol ferry disaster. The disaster, which took place on 16 April 2014, killed 325 people — the majority were secondary school students.

Ilbe members have made comments about other political issues. Petitioners have pointed out what they consider some of the most egregious displays, such as when in January 2018, Ilbe users mocked former President Roh Moo Hyun with derogatory billboard ads, transforming the late president into a Koala bear figure in Times Square NYC. Roh is nicknamed Roh-ala and the bear figure is an e-sticker, frequently used on Ilbe among many others images (see top image).

Roh had been a target of a right-wing smear campaign since he committed suicide in 2009 while under investigation for corruption by right-wing President Lee Myung-bak. Some political analysts believe the investigation and the online smear campaign led to the victory of another right-wing president, Park Geun-hye, in 2012. The current left-wing president, Moon Jae-in, was a close friend of Roh.

And on 7 March 2017, a vulgar banner was found hanging outside South Korea’s National Assembly, put there by members of Ilbe. The banner had four images that showed opposition Minjoo Party lawmaker Pyo Chang-won and his wife’s faces photoshopped onto various naked bodies, including two mating animals. The banner was a response to Pyo’s support of the exhibition of a satirical painting called “Dirty Sleep” at the National Assembly. The painting depicts former President Park Geun-hye in the nude after she was impeached by the national assembly and constitutional court on corruption charges.

Ilbe’s words and actions often outrage, but its supporters defend the site with arguments about free speech, labeling criticisms as the result of leftist bias.

Cultural critics point out that the popularity of Ilbe is symptomatic of a divided society — between the right and the left, the rich and the poor, the old and the young, women and men, the haves and have-nots. Shutting down the site may be able to block the spread of negative energy in the short term, but it cannot cure the collective psychology rooted in a divided political and economic structure.

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