In South Korea’s democracy, the most proven ways for politicians to get their message across are either holding a press conference at the National Assembly or making comments to the crowd of reporters that often surround them.
But a new, more efficient method has emerged: Facebook. Liberal and conservative politicians alike now rely on social media to broadcast their thoughts on issues ranging from nuclear armament to economic policies.
According to data from the Assembly’s Research Service released in August, among the 253 lawmakers directly elected to represent constituencies in April’s general election, 9 out of 10 incumbents used Facebook during the election campaign.
“One of the strengths of Facebook is that it allows politicians to promote their views regardless of time and place,” said Yoon Hee-woong, a senior researcher at Opinion Live, a Seoul-based political consulting firm. “It helps attract a lot of feedback and prompts media to reproduce their messages.”
Moon Jae-in‘s facebook page (The Korea Herald)
Spearheading the trend are presidential hopefuls seeking to raise their political profiles by distancing themselves from partisan tit-for-tat at the legislative body and weighing in on contentious issues with more measured and informed tones.
Moon Jae-in, a standard-bearer of the main opposition Minjoo Party of Korea, is one of the most Facebook-savvy politicians. Most recently, the former presidential candidate wrote an article on his Facebook account urging President Park Geun-hye to temporarily halt the procedure for deploying a US advanced missile system.
His critical comments about the government’s decision to install the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense battery here attracted 3,457 likes as of Wednesday afternoon and has been covered extensively by major media outlets.
“We prefer communicating via Facebook,” an official working at Moon’s office told The Korea Herald requesting anonymity. “Public statements or press releases are only available to media outlets. But Facebook can reach out to the general public and draw various feedback.”
The king of Facebook politics is undoubtedly Seoul Mayor Park won-soon, whose account has been updated on an almost daily basis and contains clips featuring social events sometimes broadcasted by himself.
The activist-turned-politician is also said to attract the biggest number of Twitter followers among local politicians. As of Wednesday, his account has gained some 1.65 million followers and, according to the Seoul city government, the number is bigger than any other politician in South Korea.
The popularity of Facebook extends to conservative politicians in the ruling Saenuri Party and centrist lawmakers in opposition parties, such as 76-year-old former Minjoo Party leader Rep. Kim Chong-in who created his account in August and vowed to “communicate boundlessly” using the platform.
The ruling Saenuri Party’s former leader Rep. Kim Moo-sung as well as its former floor leaders -- Reps. Yoo Seong-min and Won Yu-chul -- have updated their Facebook accounts with posts about their daily lives and observation on contentious issues.
But social networks do not always work in favor of the politicians using them. When being offered without proper context, their messages have often thrusted the politicians into the center of controvery.
For instance, the third-biggest People’s Party former leader Rep. Ahn Cheol-soo drew criticism for what critics viewed as an “insensitive” comment on Twitter about the death of a subway worker in June. He said, “The worker would have found a less dangerous job, if he had had more leisure time.”
For such reasons, South Korea’s politicians prefer social media that target selected audiences who “like” their Facebook accounts or share their thoughts via mobile messengers, rather than Twitter, where messages are often widely available to the public, experts said.
“Twitter as a political platform has been somewhat corrupted in South Korea,” said Yoon Tae-gon, a senior political analyst at Moa Agenda Strategy. “Outside of energizing their staunch supporters or informing (about) events, Twitter does not do much justice to election campaigns.”
The trend offers a stark contrast to the 2016 US election campaign during which Twitter has been one of the most favorite platforms used by both Democratic and Republican presidential candidates -- Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.
Analyst Yoon attributed the difference to South Korea having a less diverse spectrum of voters and constituencies than the US, geographically and demographically. “In South Korea, short messages like Twitter are not as effective for the election campaign as Facebook,” he said.
In the meantime, social media’s influence on politics is expected to grow, as more and more people use online platforms to get information about politicians’ positions. The censorship of such platforms has also been gradually lifted.
The Constitutional Court ruled in 2011 that election campaigning that uses social networks or other online platforms does not violate the election law, which forbids candidate from campaigning from six months before Election Day until the official opening of the campaign period.
By Yeo Jun-suk (firstname.lastname@example.org)