A hashtag worth a thousand words

Giglietto, F. & Lee, Y. (2017). A hashtag worth a thousand words: Discursive strategies around #JeNeSuisPasCharlie after the 2015 Charlie Hebdo shooting. Social Media + Society 3(1): 1-15.

The above paper will be out any day now. It is another example of a blog post having evolved into a journal article. Two articles, actually. And it has been a demanding yet intellectually stimulating journey. Demanding because despite a finite set of data and time frame it felt “a lot like getting a grip on Jell-O”. I have borrowed these words from Steve Jones (1999: 12), who himself was paraphrasing his colleague Jim Costigan in order to describe the challenges of “doing Internet research”. I was writing my MA dissertation when I first read this book by Jones, in the summer of 2000, and thought it was the most apt way of putting it. Now internet studies have been much more structured and institutionalised than the book envisioned (p.12), but I think the challenges it identified are still valid.

My challenge this time was that the study had the potential to branch out into many new and substantial studies in their own right – especially with the world unfolding the way it did since. So, in a sense, this post is an epilogue to the paper. A few ‘avenues for future research’ are suggested below if anyone is interested in picking up the ball.

  • A comparative exploration between the Danish newspaper cartoon controversy in 2005 and the Charlie Hebdo case in 2015
  • How #JeSuisCharlie (and #JeNeSuisPasCharlie) users responded to Charlie Hebdo’s cartoon of Alan Kurdi
  • How #JeSuisCharlie (and #JeNeSuisPasCharlie) users responded to Charlie Hebdo’s “mask-droppingeditorial on Muslims
  • “A recently growing trend … [of choosing] a pithy phrase that serves as a ‘mini statement’ in its own right”: e.g. #BlackLivesMatter, #illridewithyou, #IStandWithAhmed, #portesouvertes, #ThisIsACoup, #PrayforSyria, #RestInPride, #내가메갈이다
  • Various functions of hashtags beyond folksonomy, including mention (as opposed to use), ironic and sarcastic use, and prompts for storytelling: e.g. #StopIslam, #myNYPD, #마음당_ series

Sliding on the participant-observer continuum

Denmark awaits Seoul’s extradition request for Choi Soon-sil’s daughter (The Guardian, 2 January 2017)

So the presidential scandal in Korea is far from dying down. On the contrary, it’s like peeling an onion; there is always more and it stinks.

Yesterday Chung Yoo-ra, the daughter of the woman at the centre of the scandal, was arrested in Denmark. It has been alleged that Chung herself has also been heavily involved in the wrongdoing. What is particularly interesting about this latest development is that this arrest was made possible by a Korea journalist tipping Danish police off Chung’s whereabouts. The journalist belongs to a cable station called JTBC. The station has been playing a crucial role so far, including this latest exclusive. JTBC’s news reporting division, led by the iconic journalist Sohn Suk-hee, has therefore been lauded by many as doing what politicians and law enforcers should have been doing but failed to.

Then an op-ed came out today. Written by a director in a media consulting firm, the piece has triggered a heated debate about whether it is appropriate for journalists to intervene. The author categorically argues the JTBC journalist shouldn’t have, citing Rachel Smolkin’s 2006 article on the topic. It’s like the criticism levelled at Kevin Carter and his famous photograph of a vulture and a child, but only inversely.

‘When to step in (if at all)’ is an age-old dilemma and not limited to journalism. I too discuss it extensively with our doctoral researchers, so I am adding this case to my metaphorical scrapbook. One I turn to most frequently in class is the following passage from Kenneth Good’s Into the Heart: One Man’s Pursuit of Love and Knowledge among the Yanomami (1991: 102-103):

I stood there, my heart pounding. I had no doubt I could scare these kids away. They were half-afraid of me anyway, and if I picked up a stick and gave a good loud, threatening yell, they’d scatter like the wind. On the other hand, I was an anthropologist, not a policeman. I wasn’t supposed to take sides and make value judgements and direct their behaviour. This kind of thing went on. If a woman left her village and showed up somewhere else unattached, chances were she’d be raped. She knew it, they knew it. It was expected behaviour. What was I supposed to do, I thought, try to inject my own standards of morality? I hadn’t come down here to change these people or because I thought I’d love everything they did; I’d come to study them.

The author of the op-ed is of course entitled to his concern for the integrity of the field he cares about. I think, however, he has missed the point that ‘observer’ and ‘participant’ are not two dichotomous states. To draw on Junker (1960), it is a continuum along which we all slide back and forth, guided by our professional moral compass.

Busan holiday

About a week ago I saw a tweet that goes: “Go back through your diary for the year. You’ve probably achieved much more than you remember”. Although I am not sad to see the back of 2016, why not a little bit of a positive spin? So I thought I’d give it a go too.

The first things that sprung to my mind were, naturally, and sadly, work-related. Publications, conferences, teaching, tutorials, etc. By those measures, it looks like I didn’t do too badly, if I may say so myself. However, somehow, I didn’t feel that they characterise my 2016. So, I delved further into it.

I have done yoga for a year now. Well, I say yoga, but it’s more of stretching for around 10 minutes as soon as I get up in the morning. Nevertheless, the point here is that I have done it everyday! Well, almost everyday. Okay, 350+ days. My Habitica gold pot is my proof.

2016 also marks that I have been blogging for ten years. Ten years! I am fully aware that I write here infrequently and irregularly, and that I only have a few random unsuspecting visitors a day. This blog is, however, an invaluable space for me and has been helping me clarify my muddled thoughts all this time.

Hang on, the most important achievement is saved for the last. This year will always be the year when I made a perspective-altering discovery personally. In August, I had a two-week break in Korea. It was motivated by an invitation to deliver a talk on smart cities at an IT Expo in Daegu, so I can’t say it was purely for holidaying. The seminar proved to be super interesting and, in a sense, set the course for my research in the next one or two years. A separate post is in order. What I want to record here is that instead of immediately returning to the day job, I actually set aside a time after the event for a little bit of travelling. Very unlike me. You wouldn’t believe this, but I didn’t even take my laptop with me.

And there I discovered that I actually like holidays as much as anyone else does. Why was this even a surprise to me? Because I had been programmed to believe otherwise. I had always thought the Korean in me was so strong that I was incapable of enjoying non-working. It was liberating to realise that was bulls**t. It was almost like a Truman Show moment for me.

I have been eagerly inflicting this knowledge on friends and colleagues since. I don’t know when my next holiday will be, but I know I am looking forward to. And until then, I will flip through photos from my first-ever holiday.


(One of my favourite, taken at a 14C temple called Haedong Yonggungsa on a sea cliff.)

The walking wombs

Is your country also suffering from a low birth rate? The South Korean Ministry of the Interior knows what you need – a pink-shaded, interactive map by the number of “women of childbearing age” (which the Ministry operationally defines as 20 to 44 years old).


If you would like a little more detailed account in English, here is one in International Business Times. Since 2016 has already been exhaustingly depressing, I will spare you with what kind of vulgar comments this map has encouraged at the bottom of the Web.

The minefield that is being a woman

There is no winning for us. The internet keeps reminding me – in many brilliant ways.

The fear of being fooled [2]

Finding Bana – Proving the existence of a 7-year-old girl in Eastern Aleppo (Nick Waters & Timmi Allen, Bellingcat, 14 December 2016)

Reading this article reminds me that I left one important strand entirely out from my latest post below. It is the fear of being fooled by the fraudulent narratives of victimhood. Some high-profile cases, such as the blogger of “A Gay Girl in Damascus” and a Muslim college student who reported that she had been attacked by a Trump supporter on the subway, have indeed turned out to be ‘catfishers’. Observers have also voiced a concern over the seeming rise of “victimhood politics“.

Consequently, victims are increasingly pressurised to prove that the suffering is genuine. I personally find this most unstomachable. How many rape survivors, for example, are subjected to secondary victimisation in the name of countering “false rape accusations” – or even the imagined threat of “flower snakes” in Korean public discourse? And the most vulnerable in conflict zones, including 16-year-old Farah Baker in Gaza and now 7-year-old Bana in Aleppo, are to ‘reassure’ people with Twitter’s prestigious blue ticks when they are telling the outside world how bad things are around them.

Fake news and the fear of being fooled

It feels like everyone is talking about ‘fake news’! Other related buzzwords include post-truth, post-fact, misinformation, disinformation, filter bubbles, and echo chambers. Despite the temptation, I must accept that I can’t research everything that fascinates me. At the same time, with the term popping up wherever I look, I can’t help but wonder about it. Why the fuss, and why now?

My tentative conclusion is that it is a new face to an age-old fear – the fear of being fooled. And the internet makes a perfect environment that brings out that fear and even heightens it. This post is an unofficial and totally personal recollection of the history of various discussions and debates pertaining to that topic. Once again for my own record.

I would probably start it with the famous, “Nobody knows you’re a dog” cartoon in The New Yorker in 1993. The 1990s were also when that idea of connecting with somebody without knowing who they really are were numerously played on in popular culture but overall in two opposite directions: it can be a seed for either the ultimate love (e.g. The Contact, 1997; You’ve Got Mail, 1998) or mortal danger (e.g. The Net, 1995).

In the first decade of the 2000s, I ran again into the pursuit of ‘authenticity’ in the faceless online world while I was writing my PhD thesis. Through the American jargon “Astroturf campaigns“, to be precise. Come to think of it, it is quite a judgmentally loaded term, reminding me of Andrew Potter’s book The Authenticity Hoax (2010). (I liked the Korean front cover more, by the way.)

Information literacy and digital literacy were gaining more and more importance in the meantime. In 2007, funded by the Asia-Europe Foundation, Han at Yeungnam University and I conducted a small-scale study comparing online information search behaviours between South Korean and British university students. Exploratory in nature, the study provided us with very interesting pointers. British students tended to rely principally on the provenance of information sources (e.g. BBC), whereas Korean students were found to place a significant weight on peer users’ inputs (e.g. Naver’s real-time ranking of popular search terms). I bet the landscape is quite different now though.

Along the way I have also come across the CRAAP Test, the PROMPT mnemonic, an abundance of advice on how to stay critical in the era of social media (e.g. Pierre Lévy’s presentation on the topic in 2013), the “nutrition labels for the news” project at MIT, and various attempts to sort real photos from doctored ones in crisis reporting (e.g. one by The Atlantic during Hurricane Sandy in 2012; an ESRC-funded project led by Ella McPherson on “digital human rights reporting by civilian witnesses and the verification problem”). Considering all these efforts, it was quite discouraging to read that according to a 2016 study from Stanford University most middle school students couldn’t tell ads labelled “sponsored content” from real news stories on a website. Have things gotten worse?

I don’t think ‘fake news sites‘ were considered to be much of a concern until this year’s US election. There were not that many to begin with, but I also recall most of the earlier ones, like The Onion and DDanzi, were perceived as socially conscious satires. Merlyna Lim has made an interesting point lately that dirty campaigns goes all the way back to year 1800 where two founding fathers of the US, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, competed for the presidency. The New York Times has also made a similar point that the newness of fake news has been exaggerated. However, it’s just that this time fake news farms created a powerful synergy with an army of pro-Trump chatbots, eventually overwhelming the election.

Not with fancy bots but with cheap human labour, manipulating online content during an election has a longer history in other parts of the world. At a Freedom on the Net regional meeting earlier this year, going around the table we compiled a list of such examples, ranging from China’s “50-cent party” to Malaysia’s “cyber troopers”. (And I have learnt some more such as Ukraine’s “i-army” and Turkey’s “AK trolls” since.) The 2012 presidential election of South Korea was one definite case. The extent of manipulation has been evidenced by news reports and court hearings, but incidentally it has also been captured in a paper I co-authored on the popular political podcast Nakkomsu, its explicit endorsement of the liberal opposition, and the systematic counterattacks from members and supporters of the conservative party it faced on Twitter in 2012.

It looks like the ‘fake news’ discourse has expanded further. Now it’s about knowing about types of misleading information, how it spreads, what the bigger problems surrounding the phenomenon are (e.g. bias, propagandadesensitisation to lies, and series lack of critical digital literacies), what responsible citizens should and should not do (e.g. fact-checking and taking the time to correct misinformation) to counter those problems.

My fangirl’s heart

I adore fan art. I have never created anything that qualifies for that label myself, but something about the genre always speaks to me. Perhaps that’s because I have always been a fangirl. My idols have changed over time :), but I think being a fangirl is an attitudinal identity. It has certainly been one of mine.

So, naturally, coming across this brilliant illustration and witnessing what followed it (i.e. it being brought to the attention of J. K. Rowling herself on Twitter by a fellow user, and the author looking out for the original source, locating its creator in Japan, and expressing her appreciation personally – and all this within the space of an hour) simply made my heart sing. ❤

Politics of counting

So, this is happening in South Korea at the moment. A mass candlelight rally calling for President Park Geun-hye’s resignation. Every Saturday since 29 October. Started in central Seoul but has spread into other cities of the country – even the most conservative ones like Daegu – and the crowd keeps growing.

The whole affair has been simply too much to take in so I will need more time to process it myself before writing anything about it. In the meantime, here’s something that has spoken to the methodologist in me.

In staging this kind of protest, the size of crowds matters. As Molly Sauter pointed out at the 2013 Media in Transition conference, “collective actions, like marches, sit-ins, occupations, and activist DDOS actions, don’t primarily rely on the discreet, performed identities of participants to be effective. Rather, they rely on manifestations of “presence””.

It has been observed that the police tend to underestimate it while the organisers tend to overestimate it. Both parties would deny that was deliberate. The discrepancy is instead attributed to the difference in methods for counting.

Nevertheless, the numbers have been way too apart. After the rally on 12 November, for example, the police said 260 thousand citizens participated in it while the organisers said there were as many as one million participants.

A few alternative approaches have followed.

#1 Applying physics (See also Watson & Yip, 2011, How many were there when it mattered?; Weiss, 2013, How reporters can estimate the number of people in a crowd)

Byung Mook Weon […] 물리학에서 움직이는 입자나 멈춰있는 입자를 물질의 ‘상태(state)’로 이해한다. 고체는 입자가 고정된 위치에서 움직이지 못하는 상태이며, 액체는 입자가 주변 입자와 약하게 붙어 있어 움직일 수 있는 상태이다. 기체는 입자 사이에 아무 상호작용이 없어 마치 공간에 홀로 있는 듯한 상태이다. 어제 광장에 모인 시민들은 액체와 고체 사이를 오가는 상태변화(phase transition)를 경험했던 것이다. 집회가 열린 시간이 오후 4시부터 밤 10시까지로 보고 (6시간) 대략 한 사람이 한 공간에 머문 시간을 ‘2시간’ 정도로 본다면 3명의 유동 인원이 같은 공간에 다른 시간 동안 참석했다고 유추할 수 있다. 그렇게 추산하면 Mosh-pit 밀도로 추산한 34만명의 3배를 하면 된다. 어림잡아 100만명이 되는 것이다. […] (13 November 2016)

#2 Using underground passenger data

“100만 촛불집회”…지하철 승객 통계로도 증명돼 (Yonhap News, 13 November 2016)

#3 Based on mobile signals  

IT로 측정한 서울 촛불집회 참가자 ’74만명’ (ZDNet Korea, 20 November 2016)

#4 Generating a code for image processing

Inkyu Park […] 광화문 광장에 몇 명이 모였는지를 놓고 주최측과 경찰의 추산이 5배나 다르다고 합니다. 경찰은 직접 촛불을 세서 발표했다고 하더군요. 근데 이걸 어찌 셌을까 하는 생각이 듭니다. 물론 사진을 쪼개 의경들에게 나눠주고 세라고 했겠지요. 아니면 인공지능 컴퓨터에 넣고 세보라고 했던가. 그래서 포샵이나 몇몇 이미지 프로세싱 프로그램을 들여다보니, 이미지 처리에 관한 여러가지 알고리즘은 많이 있는데, 막상 촛불 갯수를 세주는 기능은 없더군요 (혹시 페친 분들중에 아시는 분 있으시면 알려주세요.) 경찰은 정말 어떻게 셌지그래서 간단히 코드를 짜봤습니다. CandleCounter.C. 몇줄 안되는 코드지만 어제 반나절 코딩을 해서 만들어 보니 나름 잘 작동하네요. […] (22 November 2016)

+ [Literally minutes after publishing this post, I found that the scientists featuring above (and some others) joined the forces and came up with a ‘formula’.]

#5 Triangulating the above

“촛불 숫자=경찰 추산 4배” ‘촛불 방정식’ 나왔다 (OhmyNews, 22 November 2016)