Internet: Double-Edged Sword
By Kim Young-mi
The penetration of the Internet in Korean society is usually seen as a positive development, perhaps even a model for other countries; more efficient bureaucracy, more political figures making use of political blogs, and greater opportunities for citizen participation seem to connect government and citizens in a mutually beneficial way.
Discussions of the role of the Internet in politics (and society) have dominated the Korean media during the past few months. Surprisingly, the debate has yet to reach academia. We know little, however, about how populist movements and leaders make use of the Internet for political ends.
This paper constitutes an explorative attempt to make sense of the type of behavior-primarily the candlelight vigils in the spring in 2008-that took place in Korea. By doing so, this paper also seeks to conceptualize ``digital populism'' as a new type of political behavior marked by the political use of the Internet as both a form of political participation and an instrument of mobilization.
In early April 2008 the United States and Korea agreed on resuming shipment of American beef to Korea after a weeklong intense negotiation.
The deal sparked a large wave of nationwide strikes, rallies, and demonstrations. While street protests have led to clashes with the police (which continued until late July 2008), what is interesting to note is the role played by the Internet in mobilizing ordinary people against the deal and, as a result, against the government.
South Korea is among the most wired societies in the world, and the importance of online networks has gained increased prominence not only in social elations like online games, PC rooms and cyber blogs but even in public life.
The 2008 protests started similarly through an Internet-fueled mobilization. Popular participation and direct action grew as a result of the facilitating role of the Internet and online networks. But is this direct democracy or is it Internet-induced street mobbing?
The lack of popular participation in public life is often lamented in modern democracies. At the same time, however, the current wave of protests and the modus operandi of the protestors have worrying implications for democratic systems. The Internet allows quicker and easier contacts among citizens of any country.
More crucial, and troubling, is that the spontaneous, uncontrolled flow of information and prompt response have two important consequences: first, reliance on official sources of information dramatically decreases as people tend to rely on unverified information freely available online; second, an emotional approach to politics replaces a more rational one.
This new type of politics, hereafter called digital populism, calls for a renegotiation of the putative contract between electors and elected.
The issues of direct representation and popular participation lie at the very center of populist appeals because ``deliberations and secret elections are redundant impediments to a direct expression of the popular will.''
Europe and Latin America have a long history of populist leaders and parties, and even East Asia has had its fair share of them: former presidents Chen Shui-bian (of Taiwan) and Roh Moo-hyun (South Korea) and former prime minister Junichiro Koizumi (Japan) have been characterized as such, often more because of their style of leadership than out of substance.
Abts and Rummens argue that populism is mainly concerned with direct participation of ``the people.'' In this light, ``deliberations and secret elections'' are ``redundant impediments to a direct expression of the popular will.''
Defining populism is by no means easy. The concept of populism is ``difficult and slippery.'' As a type of behavior, populism has involved various segments of the population, ranging from elites to ordinary people. Often they are not united by strong or cohesive ideological glue ― values or interests. The term populism is used to highlight movements and phenomena that occur from the extreme left to the extreme right end of the ideological spectrum.
Abts and Rummens identify three main characteristics of populism. First, it entails an antagonistic relationship between ``the people'' and ``the elite.''
Second, populism calls for the restoration of popular sovereignty. Populism favors direct democracy, as populists believe democracy should be derived from the power of the people.
Finally ``the people'' are understood as constituting a ``homogeneous unity.'' The people are a ``non-plural, virtuous, and homogeneous group(s) that are part of the `everyday' and the `normal' core of the country.''
Effects of Digital Technology
When populist activities take place in a highly developed information technology environment, populism acquires a critical tool that can ease recruitment of like-minded people and mobilize them as well as further intensify social antagonism and witch-hunting behavior. So, when populism meets digital technology, the meeting engenders three main effects that are politically relevant.
First, for the politicians or populist activists the use of the Internet as a political tool provides low-cost (or even free) access to the grass roots ― potential ordinary supporters and voters.
Second, the unmediated nature of the means (open discussion boards, chats, and blogs) can lead people to freely and promptly respond to an event or make a comment without pausing for reflection or, more crucially, pausing for acquiring sufficient information or double-checking the information provided.
Finally, immediacy and the lack of mediation ― increasingly common in South Korea ― allow verbal violence and witch-hunting. After netizens identify a target, a true online war against the enemy can be waged.
Moreover, the fact that at present Internet users can hide behind nicknames and hidden identities leaves these attacks mostly unsanctioned. So, how does this all translate in the Korean context?
The case of former president Roh Moo-hyun's presidential election in 2002 well illustrates the increasing role played by Internet in Korean politics.
Roh Moo-hyun was a charismatic leader who became a leading politician despite being only a high school graduate in a country where a university degree is a must for supporting ambition.
His sources of support lay outside the party system, in the ``Rohsamo,'' in other words, the society of people who love Roh Moo-hyun. Rohsamo was a movement consisting of young progressive netizens who helped raise funds to support Roh. A bottom-up political campaign orchestrated through chats and online discussions contributed to elevate Roh to the presidency.
More recently, new protests started with expressions of disapproval at President Lee's initiative, soon after his election, to introduce a key reform in Korea's education system. The committee working on the reform announced that by 2010 most high school education would be conducted in English.
April's government announcement on the resumption of U.S. beef imports said it was an opportunity for Korean businesses to gain even greater access to the U.S. market, but frustration and anger were boiling among the people.
One particular issue that most captured the public's imagination and attention concerned the implications that beef imports would have for the health of the Korean population. Korean objections were based on the possibility that the beef could have been infected by mad-cow disease.
While one may dispute the benefits or disadvantages associated with the measure per se, what was striking was that the protests grew out of rumors such as ``Korean genes are especially exposed and make Koreans vulnerable to mad-cow disease,'' ``Americans do not eat American beef; instead they import beef from Australia or New Zealand'' and ``In the United States there are five million Alzheimer's patients; among those, 250,000 to 650,000 patients are assumed to be suffering from mad cow disease.''
These rumors received considerable attention, one may say support, from the Korean media in, for example, the major current affairs TV program, PD Sucheop (Producer's Note) on April 29, when it aired a broadcast on mad-cow disease.
Online discussion boards were dominated by this one issue, and the program circulated more and more, gaining an even wider audience receptive of the groundless rumors.
The real origins of the rumors that stimulated the candlelight vigils ― PD Sucheop; or the mainstream conservative media such as Chosun Ilbo, Donga Ilbo, Joongang Ilbo; or even inexperienced government officials ― are still disputed.
The three dimensions of populist behavior referred to earlier lead to the hypothesis that what happened earlier this year in the streets of Korean cities well conforms to this type of political phenomenon.
Protests were articulated along a line that set into opposition ordinary citizens and elites, whom incidentally the citizens had elected a few months earlier, in a way that construed the two groups as enemies and thus available for all possible attacks.
In addition, the populist narrative could count on a powerful instrument: the Internet. Spreading news and recruiting additional protesters were made easy and cheap via the popularity of blogs and chats that reduced significantly the cost of getting out the news of meetings, times and venues.
One Person's Populism Is the Other's Democracy
A paradox is becoming increasingly common in South Korea: the more widespread the access to information technology, the more opportunities citizens have to participate in politics, make their voices heard and become politically active.
This is certainly positive in cases where political campaigns recruit and mobilize those who would not otherwise take part, let alone vote. However, the riots associated with candlelit vigils and the acrimony that has accompanied online debates also show a less benign face of this phenomenon.
As I noted elsewhere, the South Korean political party system suffers from a low level of institutionalization, and the Internet offers an opportunity for direct, unmediated participation.
The decline in the linkage role of representative organizations and the availability of an immediate and low cost instrument for voicing unrestricted opinions pose a challenge to representative democracy, as Mudde notes, citing Ralf Dahrendorf when he says, ``one's populism is someone else's democracy, and vice versa.''
In that regard, digital populism seems to bring revolutionary direct participation into politics. As Abts and Rummens note, some scholars have analyzed populism ``as a means to reveal and even amend the shortcomings and the broken promises of the representative system.''
Policy debates are now ongoing as to how to tackle the issue most effectively, but there appears to be no easy way to address the challenge that digital populism poses to a democratic society that is caught between the choices of imposing restrictions to freedom of speech and dealing with the emotional and often abusive behavior of an unchecked minority.