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[Kim Myong-sik] Internet leviathan serves as hotbed for political virus

Living in the 21st century we owe a lot to the geniuses and entrepreneurs who have played a part in the development of the computer technology and mobile communications. Everyone breathing in the contemporary world saves a lot of time, energy and money in obtaining information and data that he or she needs for everyday life -- far more than actually needed.

Our family is well familiar with the time-worn story of the young father spending agonizing weeks waiting for a letter from his wife after writing to her from a lonely room in an American campus town. But times have changed. Several years ago, I stopped sending Christmas cards to friends overseas or New Year’s greeting cards to acquaintances in the country and have in the meantime lost the pleasure of finding the colorful envelopes in my apartment mailbox at the year’s end.

Email and ever-expanding social media platforms can bring her reply in a few minutes nowadays. The other day on a long subway trip, I enjoyed reading William Somerset Maugham’s short story “Rain” after a few clicks on my smartphone, not from an e-book but via Google. I could text a short message in German to a friend who speaks the language with the help of a translation app. Of the thousands of ways to use the magic instrument, I too use it for reading news from Naver.

In the morning, I read The Korea Herald and a Korean-language newspaper delivered to my home. Outside during the rest of the day, sitting in a coffeehouse or in a neighborhood clinic, or riding a subway train, I open my smartphone to check if any call or text message has come that my dull senses failed to notice the alert for. Then I lead my finger to touch the green Naver icon almost without thinking.

By my own survey, 8 to 9 of every 10 subway passengers are glued to their smartphones.

Occasionally, I try to read a book on the train, just to be different from other passengers. Within a few minutes, my eyes feel sore and I close the book. If I still have several more stops to my destination, I succumb to the temptation of my smartphone. Strangely, its little screen causes much less irritation to my eyes.

The first page on the Naver news app has five headlines chosen by the staff of the giant internet portal. After reading an article or two that Naver relayed from local media outlets, my eyes often travel down to the bottom section of readers’ comments. Naver is so kind to classify commenters by gender and age in addition to providing the ratio of the five different standard responses to the story: “like,” “encouraging,” “sad,” “infuriating” and “follow-up story wanted.”

The exposure of the “Druking” incident, in which three members of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea were arrested for trying to rig internet public opinion, I lost much of my appetite for Naver news, which unfortunately served as the playground for the dark angels working in the shadow of local politics. And the portal service, while condoning the new type of political crime, made huge sums of money as a wholesaler of news, though it absolutely has no newsgathering function.

“It can be compared to polluting potable water, or poisoning it to say more candidly,” a retired journalist friend of mine condemned the act of manipulating public psychology by producing false statistics about pro and con opinions on social and political issues. Using illegal methods to artificially multiply the number of “like” responses to an internet article, the cyberspace hooligans fabricated majority opinion on certain political matters under the cover of anonymity.

If some people are led to change their political choices by their subconscious tendency to follow the majority, this kind of psychological ploy seriously disrupts the democratic flow of public opinion. During the latter days of the Lee Myung-bak presidency, the National Intelligence Service and Military Security Command illegally operated teams for internet monitoring and online opinion-rigging in the name of protecting national security. More than a dozen people have been indicted for this clandestine operation.

We still vividly remember the scene in 2012 where a group of angry opposition lawmakers pounded on the door of a downtown apartment office where a NIS agent and a few hired hands were working to attach comments to internet news articles to boost support for the then ruling party candidate Park Geun-hye. Now we suspect that the Druking team copied the NIS and MSC operations, technologically upgrading them.

The ugliness of the Druking incident is seen in the apparent absence of true loyalty on the part of its leader to the party that he worked for. Kim Dong-won, 49, is known to have posed as an investment counselor whose financial premonitions contained in a few books mostly turned awry, before he chose to invest his career in political gambling. When his demand for a reward after the 2017 election was rejected, he began firing at his own camp.

In a rather comic turn of events, the leadership of the ruling Democratic Party pressed charges against the cyberspace assailant with the internet ID of “Druking,” without knowing his connection to Rep. Kim Kyoung-soo, a protege of President Moon Jae-in. Police dragged their feet on the investigation until the liberal daily Hankyoreh exposed the affair earlier this month, another point of irony.

Opposition parties now have ample opportunity to attack the Moon administration, just as it is exalting itself with the fast progress in inter-Korean detente. If they want to rise from the miserable state of today and regain a little bit of public trust in the lead-up to the crucial local elections in June, the divided opposition force needs to provide an effective means to vaccinate our society against the viruses spread by the likes of Druking.

Legislation is urgent to uproot the weeds in internet communication. The plural opposition parties with a combined strength of 160 seats in the 293-member Assembly should make joint efforts toward substantial results instead of staging boisterous demonstrations outside the Blue House.

Many of the millions of internet users, meanwhile, must be blaming themselves for their absolute dependence on the online news that eventually created the 21st century leviathan called Naver and gave birth to the Druking group.

Kim Myong-sik
Kim Myong-sik is a former editorial writer for the Korea Herald. He can be reached at -- Ed.