SEOUL, April 18 (Yonhap) -- A sprawling online opinion rigging scandal in South Korea is stirring up a heated debate over the morality of polemic writers, the credibility of cyberspace discourse and whether to restrain the online freedom of expression to curb politicking.
Over the past several days, the scandal involving an influential blogger, who goes by the alias Druking, has roiled politics with the ruling Democratic Party (DP) quickly severing ties with the former party member, and the rival parties suspecting its possible link to his alleged misdeeds.
On Tuesday, the prosecution indicted Druking, surnamed Kim, and two others for allegedly using a computer program in January to jack up the number of "likes" or "feel the same way" clicks for two comments critical of the liberal government on a news article carried by the online portal Naver.
The article was about the government's decision to have the two Koreas form a joint women's hockey team for the PyeongChang Winter Olympics in February. The trio are suspected of using 614 different IDs to increase the number of the clicks.
They reportedly told police that they wanted to make it look like conservatives manipulated the comments, as they tried to test the program, known to be often misused to rig rankings for most searched commercial products.
The case attracted keen political attention, following the revelations that DP Rep. Kim Kyoung-soo, one of the most trusted confidants of President Moon Jae-in, has known and communicated with the key suspect through meetings or social media since 2016.
Although the lawmaker denies any involvement, the revelations have triggered speculation that Druking, with a large following in cyberspace, could have rigged online opinions even in the lead-up to the 2017 May presidential election.
The suspicion was reinforced as Kim Kyoung-soo admitted that he came to know Druking since mid-2016, visited the blogger's publishing firm upon request in the autumn that year and met him again before Moon's presidential primary last year.
The lawmaker also revealed that after Moon's election victory, the blogger asked him to recommend his acquaintance for the consul general post in Osaka. He delivered to the presidential office the demand, which was turned down. The blogger later made another request for a post in the presidential office, but it was also rejected.
"He expressed a very serious complaint, which was close to blackmailing, (after the requests were rejected)," Kim told reporters Monday.
hortly after the scandal erupted, the ruling party deprived the two suspects of membership, stressing the case was triggered by the "aberrant behavior" of its former members. The party also decried the opposition bloc's attacks as the "coarse" political offensive ahead of the June local elections.
The main opposition Liberty Korea Party, however, submitted a bill to launch a special counsel probe into the case. Other parties defined the scandal as a case that has "shaken the foundation of the country's democracy."
The case has gained intense political attention, as the Moon administration has been hammering away at the alleged online political interference by the state entities of the former conservative governments under the name of "eliminating accumulated ills."
Moon's foes and rivals have sought to draw similarities between the two cases to apparently discredit the ruling bloc, though the latest scandal involves private citizens, not public servants that are required to maintain political neutrality.
"There are some reports that treat the act of general citizens expressing their political views online as identical to illegal acts," Rep. Kim said. "That is an affront to citizens who actively participate in politics."
However, if private bloggers had operated under the directive of a major political entity, the scandal could develop into a major political firestorm, observers noted.
Political watchers said the Druking case is no surprise, given that bloggers, armed with their online followers and under the disguise of "volunteers," have been extending their political reach often in pursuit of personal interests.
"Bloggers who supported a particular candidate often demand something in return (after his or her election). If that demand is not met, they become his or her detractors or in some cases, they stage a campaign to thwart the lawmaker's bid for another term," a political source told Yonhap News Agency on condition of anonymity.
"They often ask for employment favors for their relatives or close acquaintances, or even make monetary demands. They sometimes ask the lawmaker to attend their personal events to flaunt their social influence, a demand often rejected by his or her secretaries," he added.
Politicians often find it increasingly difficult to resist the temptation to rely on renowned bloggers for their election campaigns amid the growing influence of social media on tech-savvy voters, he pointed out.
Another source echoed his view.
"(Some bloggers) approach politicians to support them online, but they always make calculations inside as to what to get in return. In a sense, they are professionals," the source wryly said.
Kim Hyung-joon, a politics professor at Myongji University, noted that the ongoing scandal appears to have resulted in part from political forces' proclivity to foster positive online opinions about them.
"Political parties appear to be inordinately sensitive to online comments or public opinion on social media. This case was in part born out of parties' such obsession," he told Yonhap.
"If it is found to be true that a power blogger used his influence to manipulate social media opinion, this is an element that threatens our democracy," he added.
The scandal has added to the growing public distrust about views and comments in cyberspace.
"Some comments in a portal are churned out to defend a certain political force, while others are being circulated to back another," said Kim Soo-won, a 37-year-old office worker. "Now, I am full of doubts about their intentions."
Inside ‘Druking’ scandal: Between freedom of expression and illegal opinion rigging
When reading the news in the morning, Kim Jeong-ah, 28, habitually checks the most popular comments.
Like many Koreans, she reads the news through the Naver, the country’s dominant Internet portal and search engine, on her smartphone. She clicks the stories that interest her among the ones selected by the portal on its main page. Once finished with a story, she checks the comments posted by the readers — she says it gives her a sense of how each issue is being perceived by the general public.
This, she says, is her daily routine during her commute to work.
“Reading the comments is just something that I do — and I’m sure everyone does it as well,” she told The Korea Herald. “And I guess it’s fair to argue that I’m very often forced to read the most popular comments, they are the ones that are placed at the very top of the comment feeds. Even if you don’t want to read them, sometimes you can’t avoid them.”
South Korea is one of the most wired countries in the world, with more than 80 percent of the population owning a smartphone as of this year. In a 2013 survey by Gallup Korea, which surveyed 835 Koreans, 86 percent of respondents said they consumed the news through portal sites, such as Naver, rather than directly visiting the websites of media companies.
This provides an important context to the recent online comment-rigging scandal involving a power blogger and former members of the ruling Democratic Party. They are suspected of rigging support for online criticism of the Moon Jae-in administration, allegedly after the presidential office refused their requests.
Punishing people for posting critical online comments might sound like a violation of freedom of speech, but what the members of the party and the power blogger, nick-named “Druking,” have allegedly done, is more subtle — on top of writing comments, they deliberately made people believe that certain comments were the most popular opinions.
And how did they do that?
According to the police, the blogger and ex-members of the ruling party, all currently in custody, allegedly used a computer program that artificially ramps up the number of clicks on “agree” — the Naver equivalent of Facebook’s “like” — for comments on news stories on the Korean portal Naver. The portal automatically puts the comments that get the most “agree” responses at the top of the comment section, thereby giving them the most exposure to online viewers.
The comments at the center of the allegations were heavily critical of the Moon administration.
Police have confirmed that non-politicians like the former members of the ruling party will not be punished for simply writing comments online. What would be illegal, the police said, is borrowing other people’s online IDs for the purpose of posting comments to sway opinions, as well as utilizing computer software that artificially ramps up the number of “agree” and “like” clicks on certain comments.
This is not the first time that the country has been swept up by an opinion rigging scandal. In 2013, prosecutors concluded that agents from the National Intelligence Service, South Korea’s spy agency, posted some 1.2 million Twitter messages in 2012 to try to sway public opinion in favor of Park Geun-hye, who was a presidential candidate at the time. She eventually won the election that year.
Experts say that the latest scandal takes a more complex form than the one in 2012, and arguably has more influence on the general public. While the spy agency kept posting Twitter messages with a certain political intention, the ex-members of the ruling party deliberately gave more exposure to the comments that they thought were important.
Lee Eun-joo, a professor at Seoul National University’s Department of Communication, says although a news story is relatively impartial, if the top comments are in favor of certain views, many readers would easily think that such comments reflect the main argument or tone of the story.
“Most people read the top — or the ‘most read’ — comments on the top of the feed, as they don’t have the time to go through them all,” the professor told a local newspaper. “And two is not a big number. But many will think they have an idea of what the most popular opinion is after reading two or three comments.”
Indeed, Kim Jin-won, a mother of two in Seongnam, Gyeonggi Province, said she was disturbed by the ongoing scandal, especially because she knows how influential the “top comments” on Naver can be.
“I guess I can’t say I’m not influenced by the so-called most popular comments, even if I don’t necessarily agree with them,” she said.
“I mean, like many others, I try to fit in with the majority. I want to know what the majority is thinking about the issues that surround us. Regardless of whether you agree or not, there is a big difference between knowing what the majority is thinking and not having a clue at all. People care about these things, and in this digital era, Naver is where we get that information from.”
Some experts, including Kookmin University professor Son Young-jun, say powerful internet portals like Naver should disable their comments section. Last year, MSN, a US-based web portal, removed commenting on its websites, saying it was “finding better ways” for its users “to carry out discussions on the issues they care about.” It has been reported that the portal’s decision was prompted by “abusive and offensive posts.”
In spite of the ongoing scandal, Jeong Ki-hyun, a 32-year-old working professional in Incheon, said he could not imagine a world without Naver’s comment feeds. He believes the online comment feeds, such as the ones run by Naver, function as a media watchdog in South Korea.
“I think the ongoing manipulation case is disturbing. Those who were involved should be punished,” he told The Korea Herald.
“But that doesn’t mean the comments section should be regulated or censored. Personally I don’t trust the local media. Many stories contain factual errors and biases. And it’s often the comments that inform you of the errors and provide the necessary context of the issues being covered. And I appreciate the comment feeds for that reason.”