How South Korean Agents Used Social Media to Manipulate Public Opinion and Subvert Democracy, and How the Public is Reacting
Author: Chan Woo
Originally Published at Peace and Conflict Monitor on: 07/02/2014
In South Korea, the national election commission promotes the presidential election as “the flower for our democracy”. After government agencies and the military were found to be involved in the manipulation of public opinion in the run up to last year’s presidential election, however, many South Koreans believe this flower has been stomped on. The blame is pointing towards the 18th president of South Korea Park Geun-Hye and former president Lee Myung-Bak. People responded by taking their voices and candles in the streets, demanding that the government answer accusations regarding election manipulation.
This paper looks at the government’s efforts to manipulate public opinion and sway the outcome of the election, as well as the peaceful social movement that has arisen in response. The analysis begins in Korea, but takes us to France and the United States, where activists have organized demonstrations to call attention to South Korea’s democratic process.
A Conspiracy Against the Public
Many historians and social scientists maintain that the old authoritarian elites who had long manipulated democratic politics in South Korea had finally been removed from the democratic process by the time Kim Dae Jung took office in 1998 (Rigen, Kwon, Yi, Kim & Lee, 2011). It was under his administration, however, that the state intelligence agency became the National Intelligence Services (NIS) and had its mandate specified to gathering data on counterterrorism and international matters (Rigen, Kwon, Yi, Kim & Lee, 2011). Instead of focusing on its mandate, the NIS is now being accused of writing online tweets and comments to change public opinion into making the general public vote in favor of Park Geun-Hye instead of the opposition party. This violates not only the law that prohibits government employees and military to be politically impartial, but also the fundamental idea behind democracy.
On December 11th, 2013, just a little over a week before the election, the Progressive Democratic Party claimed to the public and the police that NIS was interfering with politics by using disingenuous online accounts to post comments and tweets favorable to a particular candidate. Although the Democratic Party and police compiled over a hundred pages of evidence, the prosecutor made an abrupt announcement three days before the election that there has not been any evidence found to suggest NIS involvement. The issue was highly politicized, and Saenuri Party and Park Geun-Hye accused presidential candidate Moon Jae-In and the Democratic Party of making accusations and harassing a female NIS agent that was strongly tied to the case. December 19th passed and Park Geun-Hye was nominated as the 18th president of South Korea. The NIS involvement and other suspicious issues behind the presidential election were swept under the rug, and the new president was sworn in to the office on February 25th.
Even before the end of February, however, an NIS agent was fired after blowing the whistle on the issues regarding government involvement with the manipulation of public opinion through digital media. This started a renewed investigation with new information (PSPD, 2013). The reports found that during the presidential campaign, the NIS had posted over 1.2 million Twitter messages to sway public opinion in favor of Park Geun-Hye. It was also revealed that the South Korean Army’s Cyber Command personnel of over 15 soldiers have been working with online communities and tweets to promote similar topics as NIS. Furthermore, Ministry of Security and Public Administration, Ministry of Unification, Ministry of Patriots and veteran Affairs, and Veteran’s organization were all found to be implicated in the manipulation of public opinions, some by creating videos or other online materials designed to induce fear and sway public opinion towards Saenuri Party and Park Geun-Hye.
To further detail the manipulation tactics NIS utilized, it has been reported that 4 teams were involved, divided into 16 groups of 64-112 members, all employed in cyber security. Their duties listed on the NIS government page includes overseeing national cyber security policy, preventing cyber crises and detecting attacks, and investigating cyber violations and supporting recovery. However, the NIS seems to have forgone their duties and focused on twitter. On large Korean online portals such as Naver, Daum, Nate and forums known for political or social movements such as OhYou, Ilbae, DC inside, SLC Club, and other online cafés, news comment websites, and blogs, at least twenty NIS employees have been found to have created over 292 accounts. With these accounts, they created thousands of biased comments on campaign issues positive for Park and negative towards the opposition. They also mass tweeted and retweeted information and articles of a similarly biased nature (PSPD, 2013).
Even using conservative estimates from confirmed reports, the teams created approximately 1200-1600 biased posts a month, which over a one year period, mounts up to 17,000 posts plaguing the major news, blogs, and social media websites, the source of many people’s daily information. As mentioned above, on November 21st, the prosecutor also released to the press an additional 1.2 million tweets and retweets, that is on top of the over 55,000 tweets the prosecutors originally submitted to the court. NIS members used TwitterFeed and TweetDeck to link multiple accounts and automatically post similar tweets on a massive scale.
It is true that in a democracy, it is ultimately up to individuals to look beyond any tweets, comments, blogs the writing and have thought processes of their own. However, the fact of the matter is that national agencies sworn to protect the country’s democracy failed in their duties, and focused their efforts instead on clouding the judgment of the citizens. In a potential cover-up, the Korean National Police Agency issued a press release three days before the election that their analysis of the digital evidence showed that no comments or tweets were created for or against presidential candidate, a statement which was later found to be false. They have also been found to have delayed the hand off of the evidence to the prosecutors regarding a NIS member who was suspected of committing the actions. The Ministry of Justice then delayed a review of the related report for over two weeks so that no other agency could inspect the evidence during that time. The investigation was delayed and key witnesses and investigators faced personal harassment (PSPD, 2013).
This online campaign, which involved so many government agencies, cannot be excused as an individual’s freedom of speech or opinion towards the party and presidential candidate; it was a systematic operation carried out by elements of the government against the citizens of South Korea without their prior knowledge, designed to sway the public vote. Prosecutors have indicted several top intelligence officials, including Won Sei-Hoon, the former director of NIS on charges of organizing the online campaign. However the prosecutors claim that they cannot clarify how the operations by different groups affected the result of the election. President Park maintains that she neither ordered nor benefited from such a campaign, but the opposition party argues that she and the conservative government of her predecessor, Lee Myung-bak, colluded to manipulate the election results (Choe, 2013).
Despite these claims by the prosecutor, the president, and other government agencies, when 700 citizens were asked by JTBC, “with new findings of over 1.2 million tweets and retweets, do you believe these are NIS members’ individual’s action or organized action?” 56.4% answered that it was organized action and the pure amount of number shows that it is impossible for any individuals to perform such action. They also noted that it had a large impact on the election and it is nonsense to turn these organized actions as individuals performing their own actions during working hours. However, it is also important to note that 17.4% did agree with the prosecutors and that it is possible that it was actions of individuals and they did not see it having any significant impact on the election (Son, 2013). When three times as many respondents agree that it is impossible for individuals to tweet, post, or perform such actions online, and facts and the findings point towards similar direction, actions need to be taken by the government and the people to find truth and justice for true democracy.
An International Grassroots Social Movement
Since the election, there have been many social and civil movements (Porta & Diani, 2006) rising to address the issues, requesting clarification, and seeking justice. There has also been Declaration on the situation by numerous groups, including major university students and faculty, religious groups, civil societies, laborers, media personnel, as well as high school students, condemning the current administration’s inability to strongly seek justice and truth. The organized social movements for democracy and truth, has been spreading and candlelight vigils and peaceful protests have been ongoing in South Korea. Many of the movements conducted are “conflictual collective actions”, in which “social movement actors are engaged in political and/or cultural conflicts meant to promote or oppose social change” (Porta & Diani, 2006). The Korean diaspora of expats, students, and residents in various countries has also taken a stand in these social movements via candle light vigil or peaceful protest to voice their concern for democracy and the legitimacy of President Park’s election campaign as well. These voices are being heard on the streets and online daily throughout Korea and abroad as the situation continues on without explanation or action taken by the current administration. South Korea’s Civil Society is very active in political advocacy and the policy making process, aiming to check the power of the state, and promote liberal democracy (He, 2010). Therefore, these protests, like social movements in general, are not necessarily limited to presenting specific demands to decision makers, but also express a fundamental critique of conventional politics, shifting their endeavors from politics itself to meta-politics (Offe, 1985).
Ironically, what has brought movements outside Korea to be acknowledged and present on the media were comments made by Representative Kim Jin-Tae of the Saenuri Party and a National Assembly member regarding peaceful protestors holding a demonstration in Paris on the occasion of President Park’s visit to France, raising the issue of campaign manipulation. In response, Representative Kim posted on social media that “I will make the people who held demonstrations in Paris pay the price in full. I will have the Justice Ministry submit the photos (of the protest) as evidence to the Constitutional Court […] Anyone whose ‘blood does not boil’ after seeing that picture is probably not a citizen of Korea”. He also claimed that the demonstrators were members of South Korea’s Unified Progressive Party, which have been accused of pro-North Korean activities (Yoon, 2013). The lawmaker added that he did not actually see the protest. Kim’s remark on the demonstrators being UPP members had no legitimacy and evidence and the comment poured fuel on the already heated issue and brought to question the rights of Korean citizens to protest, and their rights to freedom of speech, and democracy.
Kim Min Seok, a representative of the South Koreans in France protesting against President Park, was interviewed by KookminTV to talk about his role and reasons behind the movement. He first wanted to point out that, in light of recent statements by Representative Kim Jin-Tae, he is not part of the Unified Progressive Party, and that people involved in the protest were students, office workers, and expats located especially in Paris, concerned about democracy in South Korea: “as a member of a democratic country and as a citizen of South Korea, I felt that it was my duty to sign petition and join others who was working towards the same cause, and her visit to Europe led to the candle light vigil”. When asked if he considers himself a “peace builder”, he laughed and said many will disagree and others, especially older generations have told him not to talk about Korea’s in-house issues outside, it’s embarrassing; “I do not consider myself as a peace builder but just a concerned citizen that must voice out what is wrong where ever I may be”.
A New York candlelight vigil held by the Koreans, Korean Americans, and other stakeholders raised similar issues regarding “fraudulent election” and call for impeachment of President Park. This was organized in association with the Coalition of Koreans in America and the Rev. Chang Ho Jun. A quick background on Rev. Chang is that he is the son of famous Korean democratic movement leader Chang Jun Ha. He was a freedom fighter, the main member of independence movement and provisional government. In the early 70s, Chang Jun Ha fought against former president Park Jung-Hee (Father of President Park Geun-Hye) and his military regime in the name of democracy and died under suspicious circumstances. With this being said, as a minister for the Storrks Korean Church on weekends, school bus driver for Connecticut public schools by day, and an organizer for the Coalition of Koreans in America, Rev. Chang had in depth perspective and thoughts in light of recent events. Coalition of Koreans in America seeks to be a voice for Koreans and Korean Americans in America and to protect individual and organization’s rights. Also, they are working for teaching “correct” history and to bring a sense of community and pride for Koreans and Korean Americans, equal opportunity, and justice for generations to come. When asked about the protest by Ohmynews, Rev. Chang responded that:
President Park Geun-Hye’s administration did not appear out of nowhere. Since the military dictatorship, there has been advances in democracy, but remnants of the former administration and power lingered. What is more is the first thing current administration is doing is rewriting history and distorting facts. They are trying to justify the past actions and change what it means to have democratic country. Especially, in light of recent events surrounding the election, it is clear even to Koreans abroad that there is something wrong. Also abroad Koreans are just as much a stakeholder since the last administration granted abroad Koreans to have the right to vote for president. Many do not wish to see their ballot and votes be distorted (Chun, 2013).
The Coalition of Koreans in America started their own Declaration on the Situation to hold the South Korean government and security services responsible for their actions, with street protests and candlelight vigils in San Diego, Washington D.C., Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, Dallas, Atlanta, Boston, and more. In terms of the movement’s limitations, he mentioned the lack of unity. “Even in United States, there are many who are oppose to the idea of freedom of speech and right to voice our opinions and demands”. He told about conservative groups, especially former South Korean military, who often protest right across from the Coalition of Koreans in America, who consider any criticism of the government to be traitors sympathetic to North Korea.
Many conservatives believe South Korea’s rapid economic development to be work of President Park Jung-Hee. This idea of strong, militant government, requiring the giving up of basic democratic rights, is still imbedded in the beliefs of some Koreans. Rev. Chang argues that:
[…] economic gain or daily survival is not the issue here. NIS and other party involved in an election is shaking the core of democracy and countries ideology it’s founded under. We are all going through tough times and hardships, but we must hold on to each other and carry on. The perpetrators are waiting for us to tire, but people in Korea and others around United States needs to know that Korean Americans and Koreans in America are here and work together to be the light that sustains (Chun, 2013).
A key theme in this grassroots peacebuilding process, mentioned by both activists, is the search for solidarity, unity, or oneness. As Rick Wallace has put forth, “solidarity and negotiating power relationships also involved developing overlapping agendas that respect differences while supporting similar interests. This approach produced a synergy and system of parallel beliefs that reinforced their common understanding”. The examples discussed above illustrate peacebuilding through peaceful, non-violent actions to demand and voice their rights despite geographical location and settings. It also shows that democracy is not something that is given but needs to be constantly claimed and defended.
Bio: Chan Woo is an MA candidate at the United Nation’s mandated University for Peace in Costa Rica. Chan has spent his life in both United States and South Korea. He graduated from the University of Georgia in Dec. 2008 with a degree in International Affairs focusing on comparative politics and human rights. He has also worked for the UNESCO category II organization in South Korea, Asia-Pacific Centre of Education for International Understanding under the auspices of UNESCO. His research interest is grassroots peace building and online ethnography, especially in North East Asia.