Accusations of rigging online opinions have been raised yet again, further marring a presidential race that has already been characterized by mudslinging, now in its final days.
The accusations follow a news report that revealed a recording file that could potentially damage presidential candidate Yoon Suk-yeol of the main opposition People Power Party, and its rapid spread online upon release Sunday night.
However, claims emerged that the ruling Democratic Party of Korea and campaign officials of its presidential nominee Lee Jae-myung are behind the movement, likening the development to the 2018 opinion-rigging scandal commonly known as the "Druking" scandal.
South Korean investigative news outlet Newstapa released a story at 9:22 p.m. Sunday that reported that Yoon covered up an investigation into an illegal lending case by the Busan Savings Bank in 2011 when he was a senior prosecutor with the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office.
The Newstapa story contained a video with a recorded conversation between Kim Man-bae, a central figure behind the controversial Daejang-dong development scandal, and Shin Hak-lim, former president of Media Today and a member of the expert panel for Newstapa.
Kim said in the conversation, which reportedly took place on Sept. 15, 2021, that he introduced Cho Woo-hyung, a broker who handled the illegal loans issued by the Busan Savings Bank, to Park Young-soo, who was appointed as the chief of a special counsel inspection into the case.
Park then leaned on Yoon to cover up the investigation using his personal relations with Yoon formed when Park was Yoon's superior at the prosecution, according to the Newstapa report.
The story immediately gained huge attention upon release, and by Monday morning it quickly grabbed the headlines of many news outlets, with search portals showing the story and follow-up reports as some of the hottest stories in their political news sections.
Yet a deeper look into the dispute and the background into how the story quickly grabbed attention raises questions, fueling accusations that the hype may have been deliberately forged behind the scenes.How the story quickly rose
The YouTube video featured in the Newstapa story had accumulated about 2.61 million views, 173,300 likes and 42,600 comments as of 9 a.m. Tuesday -- less than 36 hours after being uploaded at 9:40 p.m. Sunday.
The story and its video also gained immense interest in online communities, and many of the posts there featuring the story and sharing links had gained large numbers of "likes" and comments just hours after being posted.
Presidential candidate Lee’s clear support of the revelation possibly helped the YouTube video go viral, as he publicly shared a link to the video in a Facebook post at 10:22 p.m. Sunday and asked for support by seemingly highlighting the allegations his aides raised against Yoon.
"Please spread the news widely," Lee said in the Facebook post, which had garnered more than 7,300 likes and 1,800 shares by 12:30 p.m. Tuesday.
Lee shared the Newstapa story again in another Facebook post at 2:13 p.m. Monday, which attracted more than 2,800 likes and 138 shares as of 12:30 p.m. Tuesday.
"I give my trust to the wise determination from the great people," Lee said in the afternoon post.
Campaign officials with the Democratic Party also aided in spreading the news, issuing seven commentaries and holding two press briefings on the issue Monday and sending out text messages with links to the story.
Media outlets quickly picked up the story and added fuel to the criticism against Yoon, which also could have helped the Newstapa story gain greater attention.
Until the People Power Party held a press conference in the afternoon to refute the claims and raise suspicions of opinion-rigging, the story was seemingly the hottest political news topic in South Korea.Opinion-rigging allegations
The People Power Party immediately refuted the claims raised in the Newstapa story, saying Kim was lying to protect Lee and his chances to win the presidential election. The party also questioned why the recording was revealed just days before the election even though the file was made in September.
And at 4:30 p.m. Monday, the conservative party held an emergency press conference to accuse the Democratic Party of possibly staging a highly organized opinion-rigging project to undermine Yoon just before the Election Day, with the race still in a dead heat between Lee and Yoon.
Rep. Kwon Young-se, head of the People Power Party's presidential election campaign committee, told reporters that the claim is based on the reports that officials allegedly received from unidentified informants and what had recently happened on online community websites regarding the issue.Did it really happen?
A post uploaded at 3:14 p.m. Monday on dcinside, a popular online community in South Korea, alleged key officials within Lee's campaign team had organized the opinion-rigging and made orders to make moves in influencing the public opinion in favor of Lee upon release of the Newstapa story.
Its author claimed to be a member of a secret group under the Democratic Party's presidential election campaign committee, revealing captured images of a Telegram chat room with 22,050 members.
The group was organized and directed by a subcommittee under the campaign committee called the Brighter Future Committee, which was officially launched on Jan. 18. Upon its launch, the Democratic Party described the Brighter Future Committee as a voluntary group of Lee's supporters that aims to highlight Lee’s accomplishments and presidential capabilities.
The author of the post said that senior members of Lee's campaign team directed members of the chat room to concentrate efforts on sharing news stories on Newstapa's revelation to online communities and in other places, specifically providing links to new stories written by various well-known media outlets.
The post claimed key campaign officials, including the head of the online communications team for the campaign committee, issued orders Monday to disseminate the news reports seen as damaging to Yoon and his chances to the presidency.
Members were only allowed to enter the chat room by providing their names, addresses, phone numbers and home addresses to the subcommittee, the author claimed, adding applicants had to undergo secret educational programs on social media prior to joining.
The communications team was formed on Feb. 17 with the purpose of disseminating "positive" news on Lee up to the day of the election, according to past statements released from the Democratic Party.
The Democratic Party on Monday afternoon refuted what was claimed on the dcinside post, saying the Brighter Future Committee has never made any binding orders to disseminate news reports against Yoon and that the subcommittee is a purely voluntary group of Lee's fervent supporters.
"The chat room seen in the dcinside post was made to share news stories on the election, and there were no secret rooms made to stage any opinion-rigging," Jeong E-soo, an official with the Brighter Future Committee, told The Korea Herald on Monday evening.
"Anybody can enter the Telegram chat room upon request, and there weren't any illegal actions taken among its members. I emphasize again that the chat room is purely composed of fervent supporters of candidate Lee Jae-myung who really believes in his vision towards improving the country."
The author of the dcinside post refuted the claim in a follow-up post on the online community at 10:19 p.m., saying orders were directly made in the chat room and that some key legislators and city council members with the Democratic Party are included in the list of members.
The post backed the claim by sharing additional captured images of the chat room, where a member is seen asking for support in sharing select news reports with others responding that they had completed the task.
Jeong could not be reached for further comment on the follow-up post.Claims further raised by opposition
Key figures with the People Power Party also backed their accusation of opinion-rigging by questioning how the age groups and sex proportion of commenters could be perfectly evenly divided on news reports made in regards to the Newstapa revelation.
Kwon of the People Power Party mentioned that a pro-Yoon online community named MLBPARK caught an attempt to rig public opinion from a post that hid its source code automatically, directing those who click on the post to also "like" unrelated posts written in favor of Lee in light of the Newstapa story.
MLBPARK management deleted the problematic post and announced it would report the user who uploaded the source code-embedded post to police. People Power Party officials claimed there were other online communities that had experienced the same issue.
Rep. Kim Eun-hye of the conservative party questioned how the proportion of comments from those in their 20s and 40s reached the same 27 percent and how the male-female breakdown of commenters was even. In most cases, political stories are more popular among men in their 40s and 50s, she claimed.Deja vu of Druking?
Fresh accusations on opinion-rigging have spurred some to wonder if the Democratic Party is behind a repeat of the Druking scandal, a highly controversial online comment-rigging incident involving a power blogger named Kim Dong-won and a former member of the liberal party in 2018.
Former South Gyeongsang Province Gov. Kim Kyoung-soo was sentenced to two years in prison for colluding with Kim Dong-won and illegally generating favorable opinions about President Moon Jae-in ahead of the 2017 presidential election.
Computer software was known to have been used in influencing public opinions by increasing the number of "likes" on political comments to benefit Moon in presidential polls.
While campaign officials and supporters are legally allowed to rally support for their candidates and publicly write posts in regards to the election, it could be legally troubling if campaign staff members and select interest groups strategically orchestrate opinion-rigging projects.
The People Power Party accuses the Democratic Party of possibly doing so in the latest election, and as the conservative party vowed to follow up with legal proceedings, further revelations could be crucial in determining whether any laws were violated since the Newstapa story was published.
By Ko Jun-tae (firstname.lastname@example.org