(Yonhap Feature) Twitter to become newest election campaign tool
By Kim Eun-jung
SEOUL, Jan. 3 (Yonhap) -- Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon had no formal affiliation with a political party and no experience in running for public office. The lawyer-turned-activist was an underdog when he went into the mayoral race against a two-term legislator from the ruling party on Oct. 26. But he won with a comfortable lead, thanks in a large part to new, vibrant and youthful social networking services (SNS).
The mayor's case was yet another example of, and a catalyst for, making full use of Twitter, Facebook and the likes in political campaigns, which until last week was heavily restricted.
Election officials prepare public campaigns for the parliamentary election slated for April 11. (Yonhap)
The Constitutional Court ruled six to two that the current interpretation of the election laws that categorizes SNS as equal to election campaign publications was unconstitutional. The decision has opened the floodgates, allowing politicians to use social media to court voters well before the official campaign period when distribution of print material is banned.
The ruling was made with fewer than 100 days left to the general elections in April, whose results will impact the presidential race in December.
Given its direct, unfiltered and real-time features, Twitter and other popular SNS have long been an attractive, and sometimes inevitable, means among politicians to reach out to their constituencies in a country rated as having the highest Internet usage and with 20 million smartphone users. This is more so in 2012, the first time in two decades that general and presidential elections will take place in a single year.
"Traditional campaigns by mail, phone and e-mails are not effective tools to communicate with young voters who carry mobile phones and tablet PCs. They prefer two-way communication in social media," said Im Sang-ryol, director of polling agency Research Plus.
"In past elections, candidates needed a lot of money to place advertisements and mobilize people for their campaigns," he said. "This year, candidates will find SNS a powerful tool as a fast, cheap and convenient way to rally support and raise money."
Mayor Park, for one, was able to raise 1.5 billion won (US$1.3 million) on the first day of his official campaign from some 2,000 contributors through Twitter and a series of retweets, surprising even his staff, not to mention his rivals.
Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon has over 325,000 followers on his Twitter feed. (Yonhap)
Social media can also turn viral. Park's rival from the ruling party, Na Kyung-won, became fodder when a podcast alleging she frequents an exorbitantly priced spa went on SNS and was retweeted at lightning speed before being picked up by main stream media.
"The social media campaign was in its infancy in the last parliamentary votes. Now, more politicians are serious about what they can do with the new media tools in their campaigns," said Ko Sung-kook, a Seoul-based political analyst.
The jitters, however, are that SNS campaigns favor the young, who tend to be on the liberal side, tipping the political scale in unintended ways.
"Those in their 20s and 30s use social networking sites to connect with each other and share information. The nature of interactive social media could change voting patterns among young voters, who have been relatively apathetic to politics," said Kim Wook, a politics professor at Pai Chai University in Daejeon.
A list of the top 10 most followed politicians on Twitter displays how liberals are better than conservatives when it comes to communicating online -- nine of them are from the opposition camp.
Rhyu Si-min of the minor progressive Unified Progressive Party has over 300,000 followers, followed by former opposition lawmaker Chung Bong-ju, one of the hosts of the podcast "nakkomsu" that attracted a mass audience disillusioned with the conservative establishment, and the show that aired the spa allegations.
Rep. Park Geun-hye, the ruling camp's leading presidential hopeful, was the only one on the list from the ruling bloc, registering at fifth place with some 140,000 followers.
Social media will also place candidates under unprecedented scrutiny, without restrictions in time and place, people stand ready everywhere at all times with their camera phones. Political watchers worry that voters will be inundated with rumors that have not been vetted, mudslinging between supporters of rival candidates and smear campaigns dragging in the candidates' families.
"More information about candidates is good so long as it is about their qualifications and policies, not about groundless rumors and slurs on the candidates and their families," professor Kim said.
Officials say the court's ruling on SNS use, however, does not give immunity to those who run illegal election campaigns.
"The court's decision does not affect other election law violations, such as not abiding by the set campaign period and damaging others' reputation with false information," a senior prosecutor at the Supreme Prosecutors' Office said. "Such activities will be still punishable by law on charges of illegal electioneering."