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The Peninsula

The Growing Role of Social Media in South Korea

Published December 13, 2011
Category: South Korea

By Chad 0Carroll

Last week the hosts of the world’s most popular political podcast, Naneun Ggomsuda, spoke to a packed audience in Washington DC as part of a tour that also took them to Boston, New York City, San Francisco, and Los Angeles.  Focusing primarily on the satire of domestic South Korean politics, worldwide demand for the podcast is particularly noteworthy as the podcast now has six million listeners worldwide.  Their popularity is the latest evidence that younger South Koreans are using the internet more than ever before to explore their political views.  And as more of them do so, it will become increasingly important for political groups in South Korea to proactively communicate with younger generations online.

South Korea has emerged as the world leader in internet connectivity with nearly 95% of the population now having high-speed access.  This is the result of a significant investment in communications infrastructure, low cost access from intense competition in the market, and the ease of connecting South Korea’s high density population to the web.  But it’s not just households that are enjoying the internet; over twenty million smart phone users in South Korea (nearly half the population) now browse a highly personalized version of the internet on a daily basis.   Taken together, this is leading to fundamental changes in the way people communicate and receive information in South Korea.

Compared to the United States where Facebook remains the main forum for online communication, South Korea has long favored social media platforms that encourage an exchange of personal opinion over merely connecting with friends or competing for who has the most followers on Instagram.  As a result, the ROK is home to one of the world’s largest blogging communities (second only to China), while its Twitter community has an active user rate that is some two times higher than the world average.  In addition, there is significant use of online forums and bulletin-board systems, with many designed specifically to debate politics and current affairs. Deep internet penetration and huge demand for social networking platforms can thus quickly propel issues of relative insignificance onto center stage in South Korea.

A look at recent history reveals some very interesting insights into the interplay between the internet and politics in South Korea.  In 2000, following the shocking defeat of Roh Moo-hyun in a National Assembly election, an online fan club emerged called “Rohsamo” (people who love Roh).  Conducting volunteer work, fundraising and even a viral SMS campaign on the day of the election, the Rohsamo may have played a key role in contributing to Roh’s dramatic 2002 election win.  Another very important contribution to Roh’s victory came from internet news service OhMyNews, a liberal-leaning news service originally built to provide an alternative news source for younger generations “disillusioned with the biased reporting of traditional media”.   It put Roh’s electoral campaign center stage in front of a politically motivated audience that helped draw attention to his candidacy through a number of advocacy activities.

If 2002 represented the start of South Korean social media activism, 2008 marked its evolution with the protests against a resumption of U.S. beef imports.  As the resumption of beef imports was being negotiated, rumor and speculation regarding potential exposure to Mad Cow disease started circulating online, receiving considerable attention even in the mainstream press.  Social media platforms soon mobilized hundreds of thousands throughout the country opposed to the resumption of U.S. beef imports to participate in candlelight vigils, marking the biggest anti-government protest in over twenty years.  Although the vigils’ didn’t end-up stopping the importation of U.S. beef, they did end up leading to a commercial agreement  putting some restrictions in place and a universal offer to resign from Lee Myung Bak’s cabinet.

This year has seen the convergence of social media and political interests continue, with a Twitter campaign being credited with higher than expected voter turnout during the during the April 2011 by-elections .  And in the recent Seoul mayoral elections, social media campaigning may have been the reason political-novice Park Won-soon received three times more votes from younger generations than his GNP rival.”

With presidential elections around the corner in South Korea, the growing convergence of social media and political activism suggests that we should expect significant political interest amongst younger voters in 2012.  While the emergence of an online forum for activists is difficult to control, politicians in South Korea can learn much from the team behind President Obama’s election in 2008.  Their embrace of social media and commitment to reach out to younger generations played a large role in helping propel President Obama’s promise of “change” to young people not just in the United States, but across the globe.

Chad 0Carroll is the Director of Communications for the Korea Economic Institute. The views represented here are his own.

Image by Aslan Media

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