Sunday, June 15, 2008

How is IT Transforming Korea

The dark side of Internet groupthink The seventh in a ten part series By Matthew Weigand and Chun Go-eun

The Internet has enabled a lot of social changes - events that were not possible twenty years ago happen all the time now. It is difficult to measure and catalogue all of the myriad changes this medium for instantaneous communication has wrought, but people try - on the Internet, of course. Korea has been no exception, and some say is in fact affected more than other countries. The "flash mob" is one of the new kinds of Internet-organized phenomena. As defined by Wikipedia, a flash mob is a large group of people who assemble suddenly at a specific place, perform an unusual action for a brief time, and then quickly disperse. They are a combination of art performance, prank, and social experiment.

The first flash mob was organized in 2003, and involved strangers, who were organized on the Internet, gathering together to pretend that they were a hippie commune shopping for an expensive rug at an upscale rug store. The event was over in 15 minutes, and was mildly amusing. However, in Korea, the internetorganized mob has gone to the next level. This reporter first encountered the new power of the Internet when speaking to the children of a Korean friend. When asked why they looked so sad, the children looked like they were almost going to cry. They said their president, Lee Myung-bak, had doomed the entire Korean people. When asked for details, the two children, approximately 12 years of age, detailed that their president was going to import 30-month old American beef, which was at high risk of carrying mad cow disease.

This diseased beef would be sold in supermarkets and eaten by innocent Koreans such as themselves, who would then get Creutzfeldt- Jakob's Disease (CJD). These Koreans would get it because they had a genetic susceptibility to the disease due to their unique genetic heredity. It would be contagious, pass through the population, and everyone would eventually die from it. The entire Korean race was going to die. Evil American beef exporters did not care, President Lee Myung-bak did not care, and shifty Korean beef importers could not be trusted to correctly label their beef. Or, actually, they could be trusted to mislabel cheap American beef as Korean or Australian to make a profit. Additionally, the child emphasized, Americans did not even eat 30 month old beef, so Koreans were going to die by eating America's rejected meat.

Then they explained that there was no cure for Mad Cow Disease, it was certain death after being contracted, and the death was painful. Being a little stunned by hearing the potent mix of current event fact and malicious fiction from these students, I asked where they had got all this information from. From the Internet, of course, they said. From Daum, a popular Korean Internet search engine and portal site. When asked if they believed it, they said, "Of course, it was on the Internet." They were asked if their friends had also heard about that news, and they nodded emphatically. They also said that their friends told of something more sinister they had read on the Internet, which was that Korea was doomed to be destroyed according to an ancient prophecy.

They heard that when Namdaemun, the former south gate of Seoul during the Joseon Dynasty, was built, a prophecy was written on the wooden beams of the gate. This prophecy stated that nothing bad would happen to Korea as long as Namdaemun was protected. The Internet said Namdaemun had been slightly damaged shortly before Japan annexed Korea in 1905, and that was a terrible time for Koreans. Now, the gate had burned down entirely, and they were all going to die from Mad Cow. When questioned more closely, these children said that they did not really believe that it sounded fake. They were slightly skeptical of ancient prophecies preaching doom, but were convinced that Mad Cow Disease would take them all anyway. In the days following, there were a few articles from major newspapers refuting several claims of the rumor.

The claim that US beef was still at risk for carrying Mad Cow Disease was challenged by saying that only three cases of Mad Cow Disease were ever reported in the US, and not in cattle bred for consumption. There was a little emphasis put onto the tenuous link between human CJV and bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), the cow variant of the disease. It was mentioned that nobody had ever died from Mad Cow Disease in the United States. And, finally, the scientific paper which was used to say that Koreans had a genetic weakness for mad cow disease was found to only be speaking about the susceptibility of Korean people to the spontaneous CJV variant, not the BSE-induced variant. In any other place, this would have been the end of a minor food scare.

However, in Korea, things instead took a surprising turn into protests and violence. On May 2nd, 10,000 Korean protesters showed up in the center of Seoul to hold a candlelight vigil in opposition to resuming US beef imports. An online petition calling for the impeachment of the Korean President had reached 600,000 signatures by that time. The entire month of May was full of US beef import controversy. Korean university, high school, and middle school students were the majority involved in the protests, which may mark this as the comingof- age event for an entire new generation of Korean protestors. One bombastic student got up onto a stage at a protest in downtown Seoul, the capital of democratic South Korea, and said "Has the United States taken everything from us? It seems North Korea's Kim Jong-il is stronger. Wouldn't it be better to stand up to the United States like North Korea? 'Doing it our own way.' Doesn't that sound nice?"

The Internet has remained the focal point for most of the reactionary responses to US beef imports. In the second week of May several user-created videos on Korean video sites featured photos of President Lee Myung-bak with President George Bush and various shots of protestors, interspersed with a kung fu fight scene between a cow and a martial arts expert from the 2002 movie "Kung Pow: Enter the Fist". Other photo montages featuring inspiring music and shots from candlelight protests spread around the Korean Internet, keeping the protest feelings alive and well in the minds of citizens. Reports from major news sites cited a press conference in Los Angeles around the middle of May where Korean immigrant community leaders tried to assure South Korean journalists that US beef was among the safest in the world and fears about Mad Cow Disease were baseless. Korean internet users, already with the reputation for being a little over the top, and with the nickname 'netizens' to give them coherency, blasted the report in online discussion groups and blogs, accusing the Korean immigrants of betraying their mother country and being a lapdog of the American government.

Editorials in major newspapers such as the Chosun Ilbo called for reason and rationality, and accused various people of basically trying to set fire to the country with sensationalistic and inaccurate news reports. However, their traditional media voice was drowned out by online photos of police arresting crying middle school girls who were taking part in the increasingly frequent candlelight vigil protests. In fact, on May 27th, 211 people were arrested for participating in the protests, according to leading Internet news site, One girl was reported on the site as screaming "I want to go home", while being hauled away in a police van. This was a tragic and heart-wrenching tale on the Internet. The next day, the Seoul Metro Police's cybercrimes division identified a 32 year old Korean-American named Jang involved in an online crime - posting a fake video on the Internet. Jang, who has lived in the United States since 1992, posted a video showing riot police using water cannons, and close up shots of an infamous "White Skull Unit" of riot police attacking anti-US beef protestors in Gwanghwamun.

The video included a call for protestors to hit the streets against US beef. The fact that the police were wearing winter coats was possibly ignored by most viewers, who took it as accurate. Since Jang has been living outside of the Seoul Metro Police's cybercrimes division's remit, it is unlikely he could be arrested and tried for defamation, with which he is charged. Despite this public protest, South Korea's agriculture minister passed the US beef agreement on May 29th. This did nothing to stop the candlelight vigil protests, however. In fact, protestors began to use the Internet in another way, to ridicule police efforts to stop them. More photo montages were posted on the Internet referring to a "chicken cage car tour." The white riot police busses with barred windows that authorities have been using to arrest protesting citizens are called "dakjangcha" in Korean, which literally means chicken cage cars. Citizens, spurred on by anonymous Internet posts, began to turn themselves into the police to get the chicken cage car tour. They would then take photos of themselves on the bus with their mobile phones and upload them as a badge of honor onto web sites.

There have been accusations by the right-wing conservative government that left-wing losers in the recent election have been stirring up the people. However, ring leaders or protest organizers have yet to be found. Instead, most participants say that the protest formation is spontaneous and leaderless, with advertisements and requests for volunteers going up on popular portal sites like Daum and Naver. Protest crowds are also becoming more organized, with tough, militarylooking citizens forming a buffer between police and protestors. Volunteer medical workers are also organizing themselves and seeing over protest crowds. The protests also include a wider range of participation, with children as young as eight and grandparents as old as eighty being reported there. The flash mobs are growing, and becoming more intelligent. The tone of the protests is changing now, after one month. Protestors are becoming bolder, with a group of 20,000 marching up the road to Cheong Wa Dae, the official residence of Korean President Lee Myung-bak on Saturday night. They were stopped with water cannons after vandalizing and passing riot police busses set up as a barrier.

Images of bleeding protestors and police using water cannons against aged protestors have quickly appeared on Daum's Agora Web site. The protestors are now saying that US beef is no longer the only issue. Some say that the indifference of Lee Myung-bak, who was elected in the largest landslide in Korean democratic history just three months ago, is the larger issue now. There are rumors that the President will let go some of his cabinet as a sacrifice in an attempt to appease the flash mobs. At the time of writing, it is not sure what the outcome will be, but what is sure is that the Internet, as a connecting and communicating force beyond any other, has enabled the quick and efficient organization and sustainability of this month-long protest. And perhaps only the Internet can put it to rest.

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