What happens when blog bullies get hot under the collar

by Tomoko Otake

In April last year, Jiji Press technology reporter Tsuruaki Yukawa felt as if he had enemies all around him.

Yukawa, 48, is one of a growing number of journalists and others in Japan who publish Weblogs, or blogs, which are frequently updated Web-based journals that combine text, images and links to other blogs, and can accept comments from anyone. His Japanese-language blog, titled “Yukawa Tsuruaki’s IT Choryu [trends]” (it.blog-jiji.com/0001/) has a unique place in Jiji, which has endorsed it as a journalistic experiment but doesn’t edit any of his entries. Yukawa himself is solely responsible for its editorial content.

It was soon after Yukawa published an interview with an “office lady”-turned blogger/journalist named Ai Izumi that his blog was swamped with angry comments from other Web users. That avalanche of visitors to Yukawa’s blog, who mostly used pseudonyms, took issue with the way Yukawa interviewed the female blogger, who they alleged might be sympathetic to Aum Shinrikyo, the now-outlawed religious cult whose members masterminded a series of sarin poison-gas and other terrorist attacks in Japan in the 1990s. Yukawa says he interviewed Izumi because he was interested in her approach to citizen journalism, and has not investigated if she is linked to the cult.

The blog’s corporate sponsors also received complaints and asked him to “do something.” Consequently, Yukawa pulled the interview from his blog “temporarily,” to contemplate his next move.

Sincere and prompt action

“From my earlier experience, I had learned that the key to handling things on the Internet was sincere and prompt action,” Yukawa said recently, noting that, back then, he didn’t think that withdrawing the content from the blog for a few days would cause a big problem.

But it did. On another private blog, Yukawa later explained in minute detail his reasons for removing the interview, and asked for understanding from viewers. The viewers, however, weren’t satisfied. They swarmed that blog with even more harsh comments, including snide comments on Yukawa’s character.

“It’s tough,” Yukawa recalled. “You feel as if the whole world is against you.”

While there are no statistics, so-called enjo (literally, “going up in flames”) experiences like Yukawa’s, in which a blogger’s action or comment inadvertently draws dozens, hundreds or even thousands of angry and slanderous comments to their blog in a few days — to the extent that the individual feels unable to respond — seem to be on the rise since they first began occurring in Japan about two years ago.

Regardless of content, the volume of e-mails sent to blog operators is intimidating enough, says Shinichiro Inaba, professor of social philosophy at Meiji Gakuin University in Tokyo, who considers enjo a form of violence. Currently, there is no regulation to curb enjo against Japan’s estimated 8.68 million blogs, said Yuko Fujii, an official in the information policy division at the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications.

Inaba added that technological advances have made it possible for an enormous number of individuals to gang up on one person through the Internet without crashing the computer systems.

Critique and fact-checking have always been part of the blogging culture, and the mainstream media have been favorite targets, not just in Japan.

Bogus information

Bloggers in the United States, for example, virtually forced Dan Rather, the high-profile anchor of the CBS TV network, to step down in March 2005 after the program aired bogus information six months earlier.

In Japan, however, Web users seem to take offense at minor details, experts suggest. For example, Toru Toridamari, a freelance journalist who has written mostly on medical and healthcare issues, believes that Japan is in a “premature” state for a Net-based public debate on truly controversial issues.

In fact, in June 2006 Toridamari saw his blog “burnt down” after he tried in vain to host an open dialogue with doctors over the arrest four months earlier of an obstetrician at a hospital in Ono, Fukushima Prefecture, for alleged professional negligence leading to the death of a woman after she gave birth. The doctor’s arrest sparked a nationwide outcry from the medical establishment, with more than 5,500 doctors submitting a petition to the government.

Toridamari called on doctors to engage in an open, evidence-based dialogue through his blog, but the medical/legal debate quickly turned into raucous accusations of Toridamari’s integrity as a journalist after he exposed a participating doctor’s Internet Protocol address (four groups of numbers assigned to each computer in order to identify it) for about three hours by mistake.

“What really made me want to call it quits was the kind of abusive and slanderous language used,” Toridamari said. “The Internet, as it is now, has ended up being a place where people just vent their frustration . . . and I realized how important it is to have time to think. With blogs, messages are exchanged so fast that you don’t have time to think deeply about the opinions of others, which makes it easy for emotions to heat up.”

Takehiro Ohya, associate professor of the philosophy of law at Nagoya University Graduate School of Law, said the tendency for Net-based debate to veer to extremes is not limited to Japan. In particular, he referred to the phenomenon of so-called cyber-balkanization, identified by Cass R. Sunstein., professor of jurisprudence at the University of Chicago School of Law.

“With highly advanced information technology, citizens (can) easily find a certain group of people who share their likes or opinions,” Ohya wrote in a recent paper on enjo. “Since there may be no chances to encounter different views that might make them change their opinion, those groups will become isolated.”

But the popularity of enjo might have something to do with the fact that most people in Japan post their opinions anonymously, Ohya said. “Those anonymous writers who make comments on blogs know that they won’t be held responsible,” he added.

No escape route

While anonymous writers have long used third-party online bulletin boards such as “2 channel” to criticize individuals and corporations in a phenomenon known as matsuri (meaning “festival”), the difference between matsuri and enjo is that with enjo, there is “no escape route” for those under attack, as it is their own blogs that are being targeted, Ohya noted.

Inaba, meanwhile, argues that the frequency of enjo suggests that people in Japan still have a lot to learn about how to socialize with people they meet through the Internet.

“In present-day Japan, many of us don’t know how to socialize,” he said, noting that, since the traditional neighborhood network and extended family system began to break down rapidly during the economic boom times of the 1960s and ’70s, people’s ties to the community or relationships with people other than their immediate co-workers or friends have weakened.

“Then came the Internet, and people suddenly found a way to connect with a wide range of people and learn new things,” Inaba said. “Enjo is one example of blogs causing friction in human relations.”

For his part, Jiji’s Yukawa says his experience of enjo has made him realize that he can’t make friends with everyone.

“All my life, I had believed in the power of communication,” he said. “Now I know I can’t communicate with everybody. No matter how many times I explained things, some people would always find fault with me. I realized that they are not visiting my blog to communicate.”

See related story:
Power to the Wikipeople