Popular Organization

How social media elected and impeached South Korean president

Social Media serves as both an important means of political activism and censorship of free communication, especially in the context of public dissidents against the state on social media. This dichotomy slowly emerged from the initial rise of the world wide web that promised free cyberspace that turned into a more central, commercial and surveilled space.

The recent Korean candlelight protest that led to the first-ever presidential impeachment embodies this dichotomy of social media well. What started as a university protest against a bribery and nepotism in the summer of 2016 was able to trigger a nationwide, 4 months long protest attended by more than 16 million people to bring down a corrupt country’s president, her friend, and Samsung’s president and social media was critical in many ways throughout the process. For example, it helped spread the news about the scandal amongst a generation of citizens that no longer watched TV and the public broadcasting stations that were famously state-controlled. Many citizens in their 20s and 30s relied on a smaller, private news channel named JTBC that gained a lot of trust for frequently speaking out against the government in the past despite retaliation. JTBC was also active in emphasizing its humanity and empathy in their short, shareable videos of daily news, live broadcast of trials, and interactive Q&A on social media channels to engage and inform younger generations of voters, which I believe played a huge role in the active participation of the youth in weekly candlelight protests.

Another role social media played was organizing the weekly protests and popularizing the act of protest itself. Protesting weekly, even during the coldest weekends, was made accessible and communal by almost ubiquitous footages of friends, celebrities, politicians and even nationally popular athletes holding candles in public squares on Twitter and Facebook. The total toll of protesters exceeded 20% of the country’s population without any casualty or violence during main protests, because protests were portrayed as social and peaceful gatherings—not violent uproar—that united both the public and the police against the common enemy of corrupt leaders in both the government and the Samsung empire.

It is also interesting to note that social media, despite its active role in impeaching Park, was what elected her in the first place. The change of governments this May instantly led to the trial of a number of ex-intelligence members and their prosecution for public opinion manipulation during the 2012 election using social media. They admitted to posting favorable comments and re-tweets for the impeached Park when she was a running candidate in 2012 and shaming her contender Moon in numerous social media posts. While the allegations for NIS’ public opinion manipulation have been open for years, the previous government’s strong grasp of all executive and legislative branch didn’t allow for proper investigation of the matter.

Social media used by the state allowed Park Geun Hye to be elected in 2012 but it also quickly fired the first-ever impeachment in Korea’s democratic history. In “The Networked Public Sphere and Civic Engagement In Post-2011 Egypt” the author points out that with “more people and players coming online, online spheres started mirroring the offline ones, rather than informing and influencing them.” I find this to be an interesting assumption that the emergence of social media would naturally improve the organization of public discourse in physical space. The internet may have democratized access to information and public discourse, but this alone is not enough for a constructive popular organization. Rather, I believe that it is when social media can successfully create empathy among the public thus preventing polarization and opening up echo chambers that can spark exciting, decentralized and truly public decisions.