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Sunday, Sep 27, 2020

What the ‘death by text’ of an Asian-American college student and Sulli’s K-pop tragedy say about toxic social media

The death of Filipino-American Alexander Urtula, whose South Korean girlfriend sent him thousands of abusive text messages, has shocked communities on both sides of the Pacific. His case should force a rethink of laws and attitudes to social media and gender-based bullying, experts say

The death of a Filipino-American Boston College student who took his own life after being subjected to repeated psychological, verbal and physical abuse by his girlfriend highlights a need to re-examine laws and attitudes towards social media and gender-based bullying, experts say.

In a case that has grabbed headlines in both Asia and America, the South Korean national In-young You, 21, has been indicted by prosecutors in the United States on an involuntary manslaughter charge after sending tens of thousands of abusive text messages to Alexander Urtula, who jumped to his death from a parking garage in May shortly before his graduation ceremony.

In America, the case has been seized upon as the country’s second so-called “death by text” case, compared by some to that of high school student Conrad Roy III, whose long-distance girlfriend Michelle Carter was sentenced to 15 months in prison for encouraging him to take his own life. That case prompted the introduction of a bill calling for a “Conrad’s Law”, which would punish those guilty of “suicide coercion” with up to five years in prison.

In Korea, meanwhile, You’s home country and where she is reportedly living pending a request by US prosecutors for her to return to America for trial, parallels have been drawn to the death of K-pop star Sulli, who took her own life in mid-October after receiving malicious abuse online.

Sulli’s death prompted the Korean government to suggest a “Sulli’s Law”, which would give internet service providers the ability to delete hate comments and restrict the IP addresses of those posting them. The Korean assembly member Park Dae-chul has also proposed a law that would require the IP addresses of online users to appear next to their online ID.

Companies, too, are showing signs of action. Kakao – one of Korea’s most popular social media firms – has for instance decided to terminate the comment section on news articles relating to celebrities by the end of October. It has also vowed to screen out abusive terms used in word searches by the end of the year.

Experts say Urtula’s death has highlighted the need to expedite such legal measures, with some saying even more needs to be done to ensure legal systems keep in step with the fast-changing world of social media.


“Legal deterrence will save lives and deter abusers,” said Sung-Yoon Lee, a Korea expert at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.

Lee said that while the concept of suicide coercion was relatively new, sayings such as “Go kill yourself” – one of the many abusive expressions You had sent to Urtula – were “often and flippantly used” in society.

The problem was that modern technology enabled such emotional abuse on a greater scale, said Lee, and it had also made collective bullying much easier.

Tommy Tse, a media sociologist from the University of Hong Kong, said “The problem of online communication is that it eliminates the kind of non-verbal communication we have in person, which often leads to misunderstanding and meaning distortion.”

Tse said text and cyberbullying could lead to people getting stuck in a loop of negative messages, rereading them over and over again, which only exaggerated and magnified the psychological harm.

“It is wrong to assume that the virtual world, online communication or texting is less real or impactful than real-life encounters and communications. In this case, marginal physical investment and considerable mental investment coexist,” he said.

Tse added that these “death by text cases may seem to be extreme and exceptional but in many ways they echo the potential detrimental impact of such compulsive ‘detached attachment’ in the contemporary world.

Among the safeguards various experts have called for are updating harassment laws to include cyberbullying, as well as greater resources for police investigations into such cases.


Urtula’s death has also ignited debates over race and gender, especially online, where news of the case has gone viral.

On Subtle Asian Dating, a popular Asian-American Facebook community, a news article on the case prompted more than 4,600 reactions, many of which were discriminatory remarks regarding You’s ethnicity and gender that prompted widespread opprobrium.

One user summed up the mood: “Race has nothing to do with this. Attacking her and Koreans does not help at all.”

Meanwhile in South Korea, news of You’s actions triggered a wave of misogynistic comments on Korean news sites, blaming both feminism and women generally. The comments prompted some to point out the cruel irony of the comments, given that the late K-pop star Sulli had been targeted for her feminism and that hate speech had been cited as a contributing factor in her death.

Lee at Tufts said this not only showed the hypocrisy of cyberbullying, but highlighted misconceptions that gender played a role in domestic abuse. Men too are vulnerable to such abuse, he said.

“Most people have a hard time comprehending that men, too, can be victims of domestic violence committed by women,” he said, adding that about 25 per cent of all domestic violence cases in the US and the UK were acts of violence by women against men.

“The shame factor deters most male victims from disclosing it even to friends and family,” he said. “Male victims are all the more hesitant to come out… Greater awareness of male victims of domestic violence – whether by male or female perpetrators – is necessary.”

Of the many offering their thoughts on Subtle Asian Dating, one user had this advice: “Recognise red flags, manipulative, and toxic behaviour and talk to your friends who need your help and support. This is a tragedy and we should work together to put an end to toxic relationships.”
The South China Morning Post was unable to reach You or her legal counsel.


Quote of the Day

An eye for an eye will ultimately, leave the whole world blind.

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