Recently there has been a fascinating media circus over the referral to prosecutors (charged without being physically arrested) of 18 internet users on suspicion of making false accusations towards a fairly minor comedian. While this may be the first case of several individuals charged at once for so-called enjo (炎上) flame attacks, the case relies on the same-old “the internet is scary!” whining from mass media dinosaurs.
For almost a decade now, internet users have been falsely accusing comedian Smiley Kikuchi of involvement in the horrific “concrete girl” murder/burial in 1989 (I previously mentioned the murder case on MF here). His talent agency was forced in the past to shut down a “bulletin board site” due to the flood of misplaced malice directed toward the tarento.
Kikuchi was mistakenly accussed of being one of the murderers due to being a similar age to the criminals (born in 1972) and hailing from the slummy areas of Adachi-ku where the crime happened. According to Smiley himself, the rumors showed up verbatim in a “taboos of the entertainment industry” book, which his tormentors then used to back up their claims. It did not help Kikuchi that he has based his whole comedy career on being a jerk. His own jimusho bills him as “a suspicious person you’ll never forget once you’ve seen him,” and Wikipedia summarizes his comedic stylings as “getting laughs by saying mean things with a big smile on his face.” Not exactly a charmer.
Now after setting up a new blog with Usen-affiliated Ameblo earlier last year, Kikuchi enabled comments between January and April, using a system specially designed for celebrity bloggers. All comments appeared immediately on the site but were then subjected to moderation, usually resulting in harmful comments being deleted after 15 minutes. During this time Kikuchi was apparently still inundated with the age-old accusations in the comments section, until he finally suspended blogging in May (it is back up now). Though Ameba initiated a pre-clearance moderation system in May, typical of blogs for websites such as the New York Times, Kikuchi has explained that he filed a complaint with the police after he started receiving threats offline and began fearing for his life.
Before I start throwing around criticism, let me first express general support for the idea of holding people responsible for these obviously libelous comments (of course, this assumes that there is no chance these commenters are somehow right). And those arrested sound like they deserve the treatment they are getting: they acted like “net stalkers” who made it the mission of their extremely petty lives to torment a minor comedian with no regard to the facts.
By all appearances, the 18 flamers were fingered because Smiley went to the police for help with the general problem of death threats, and the comments section of his blog happened to be where this group of alleged idiots left behind clear evidence. In other words, these people were arrested not because of the internet, but because they were a core group of stalkers who caused real harm.
But because the words “internet”, “anonymous”, “defamation”, and “jimusho talent” appeared in the same sentence, the mainstream media has decided to indulge in willfully-ignorant paranoia. Right off the bat — possibly out of deference to the Ota Production, who represents top talent including girl-group AKB48 — major media acted in unison to refuse to even name the celebrity the 18 people had defamed. But the open secret became an open fact when Smiley himself admitted to being the one behind the charges and offered a detailed explanation on his blog, simultaneously posted on the top of the Ota Production website. As evidence of the mass media’s take on the issue, I present this Feb. 6 Asahi Shimbun editorial in its near entirety — a masterful example of the typical attitude:
What if you become a target of groundless defamation and are labeled “a murderer” on the internet?
The damage would probably spread beyond cyberspace. Perhaps others might eye you with suspicion in everyday life, and the situation could affect your work.
Tokyo’s Metropolitan Police Department decided to send papers to prosecutors on 18 people across the nation on suspicion of libel for posting messages on a male comedian’s internet blog wrongly calling him a murderer.
Apparently, the police move is meant as a warning against such serious slander.
Furthermore, police sent papers on a woman on suspicion of intimidation for posting a message threatening to kill the comedian.
It is extremely unusual for police to collectively target individuals over entries on a blog. The situation underscores the extent of malicious messages in cyberspace.
Some people start groundless rumors to abuse and defame others close to them. Others may attack a well-known personality on the internet because they don’t like what he or she has said. Sometimes, what starts out as fun escalates into hostile attacks. The situation is all the more troublesome because there are others who incite such action.
But the people targeted are helpless.
One disturbing trend is that a broader range of people are irresponsibly posting slanderous remarks. The 18 people facing charges this time include a female senior high school student and an employee of a national university.
In 2007, police across the nation received nearly 9,000 reports of Net-based defamation. In South Korea, an actress who was slandered on the internet committed suicide. The situation can no longer be overlooked.
Behind the trend is the characteristic of Net society in which people can easily say anything without identifying themselves. But it is an act of cowardice to hide oneself and make abusive or untrue statements one-sidedly without giving the targets a chance to defend themselves.
Of course, we wish to recognize in a positive way the role of the internet itself. Everyone can express his or her opinions to the world. Thanks to this medium, opportunities for expression and speech have opened up extensively. We must firmly protect such opportunities.
But that is all the more reason why we need to be responsible for our words. Abusing others without reason is different from properly expressing one’s opinion. If we want to criticize others, we must calmly state our ideas based on facts. Unfortunately, such a custom has yet to take root in the ever-expanding Net society.
This time, police moved in response to a complaint filed by the victim of abuse. But to create a sound Net society, the public as a whole must make an effort. It is time for both schools and homes to properly teach how to use the internet and drive home the responsibility of message writers.
There you have it — whenever someone says something mean on the internet, the target becomes a “helpless” victim, even when the cops step in and arrest 18 perpetrators. Most TV commentators expressed nearly identical views about where our sympathies should lie.
What might not be immediately clear to the middle-aged men at the editorial board who have never held employment outside their firm, vicious comments and abuse simply come with the territory. If we are going to have an internet, we have to deal with the bad eggs who want to muck things up. And without (1) discussing the particularly pernicious nature of this case and (2) mentioning that rowdy commenters are common and need to be moderated, you paint a picture of a completely unruly and incorrigible internet population, which just is not the case.
If blogs and the internet consisted of nothing but nasty comments and abuse, no one would enjoy reading it. Most people find their own most comfortable way to use the internet, even without blogging, but there always exists the risk of some unpleasantness, not too far from everyday life.
In addition, the operators of blogging tools work tirelessly to try and balance the desire for active and open discourse (and blog-based brand promotion) while managing the inevitable bad apples who spoil things for everyone else. Ameblo clearly messed up here, but they have been working to improve. But to fan fears of the internet without considering this balance is just short-sighted. With the growing importance of online ad revenue to the likes of Dentsu (who just announced it is taking on a 100% stake in its online ad subsidiary), I am sure it is only a matter of time before the mass media are asked to call off the dogs.
Some often claim that there is no “custom” of rational, fact-based argument on the internet, but I disagree. My Google Reader is full of great Japanese bloggers, and just about all the major Diet members are actively arguing their positions on their blogs (often with comments turned off). Quite the contrary, the mainstream media tends to report rumors and float politicians’ and bureaucrats’ trial balloons at a very marginal service to the public. Why should we sit here and listen to lectures from people who carry the water of the rich and powerful and actively aid a highly closed and non-transparent governance system?
Dealing with irresponsible anonymous commenters is one of the great challenges of the internet age, and in Japan the enormous forum site 2ch has been symbolic as a hotbed for this sort of behavior. The Japanese legal system’s flaws have been exposed as those harmed by 2ch have attempted to seek justice. Despite dozens of civil judgments against 2ch founder Hiroyuki, he has yet to pay one yen in damages or make any serious effort to stop the flow of libelous content. It has been recently rumored that Hiroyuki quietly shifted ownership of the site to a Singapore-based company to avoid future headaches. One area where 2ch has been cooperative is in open threats to commit murder or other serious crimes, but that’s about it. So considering the wide berth given to commenters on 2ch and similar sites, regulating comments can seem ineffective. In fact, police cooperation in prosecuting the most egregious cases of harassment is a positive sign that the internet is getting safer, but that’s a point that would likely fly over the heads of the mainstream media internet-phobes.
When editorial writers and TV commentators rush to criticize the internet at every turn without first stopping to understand, they are only trying to protect their own short-sighted business interests. Simplistic internet paranoia was behind Mainichi’s boneheaded reaction to the WaiWai scandal, and it’s this behavior that will further alienate their audience. While the internet has often been a negative development for the mainstream media institutions themselves, the free flow of information has undoubtedly positive influences on society as a whole. There may be unfortunate side effects such as the Smiley Kikuchi episode, but the day the TV stations and newspapers realize that the internet is their friend will be a major step forward.
(Thanks to J-CAST, which got this story spot-on, for most of the facts underlying this essay. Keep outperforming the mainstream media and one day the same people who disparaged the internet will be begging you for a job!)