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(News Focus) Opinion rigging scandal stirs up heated public debate

2018/04/18 14:12

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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.

This photo, taken April 16, 2018, shows Rep. Kim Kyoung-soo of the ruling Democratic Party speaking during a press conference at the National Assembly in Seoul. This photo, taken April 16, 2018, shows Rep. Kim Kyoung-soo of the ruling Democratic Party speaking during a press conference at the National Assembly in Seoul.

Shortly 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."

   sshluck@yna.co.kr

(END)

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