[VIEWPOINT]Pitfalls in electronic populism

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[VIEWPOINT]Pitfalls in electronic populism

When backed up by broadcast media, the Internet can exercise great influence in creating popular opinion and mobilizing the public. Its clout grows bigger when a case that can ignite the rage of the underdog is spread through the Internet.
For example, civic organizations successfully triggered the energy of fury by Internet users against corrupt politics in the anti-election movement, which network televisions gladly encouraged on their stations. The combined effect has already proven to be surprisingly powerful.
During the campaign period for the last presidential campaign, the synergy of the Internet and televisions produced candlelight vigils and showed amazing destructive political force. The rage of the underdog protesting injustices committed by the United States was magnified in cyberspace into an extreme form. The populism expressed in the congregation in front of City Hall could be called a collaborated work of the Internet and broadcasting media.
There is a positive side about the online populism, though. Using the Internet as an intermediary medium, politically alienated groups can exercise political influence. Civic groups have taken advantage of the Internet effectively in order to expand their support base and spread the causes and beliefs they advocate.
But we should look out for the trap of this online populism. Some experts of “emotional politics” strategically exploit the complaints and fury of the voters and want to abuse online populism. If the demands of the voters for an improvement of the harsh reality are not addressed with visible policy results but are responded to with yet another scapegoat to take the responsibility, the voters are destined to taste bitter failure again. We should never let ourselves fall into the vicious circle of seeking an object of antipathy whenever we face a failure or setback.
By remaining in the position of the weak but aiming the arrow of the rage at the strong, the agitators could turn online public opinion to their side. In his discord with the opposition parties as well as his confrontation with some newspapers, President Roh Moo-hyun actively applied the strategy of assuming the role of a victim and an underdog. When the illegal campaign fund became the hottest issue, he slyly showed off how “less corrupt” he was by reinventing the image of the relative underdog, claiming that the size of his illegal political fund was only one-tenth of that of his opponent. He compared himself to a small, inexpensive car while calling the opponent a luxurious limousine.
To the “less corrupt” Our Open Party, the existence of the “more corrupt” Grand National Party is a blessing they can rely on.
Having already mastered the tactic of arousing the rage of the underdogs, civic groups are unfolding election campaigns for their choice of candidates as well as campaigns against those of whom they do not approve.
But this time, each organization made its own list of politicians based on whether they support or oppose a certain policy, and critics say the lists might lack fairness and credibility. Especially, civic groups with different ideologies are competing to obtain popular support with opposite sets of standards. It would be desirable if different groups competed fairly, compromised their different opinions and shared different point of views. That way, voters could shop a variety of anti-campaigns and selectively accept the necessary information to make their final voting decision.
The state-run KBS broadcasting network has already aired a debate program on the anti-election movement. But it failed to fulfill the real purpose, because only representatives from the Participating Citizens 0415, a de-facto support group for Mr. Roh, and Red Card 2004, an Our Open Party group, attended the debate. The program looked more like a promotional show for the groups supporting the president and the ruling party than a balanced debate.
Internet sites are the only outlets of other organizations to communicate with the voters. Thanks to the KBS program, the two groups can advertise their movements to the voters around the nation. Considering the fact that the two Web sites that appeared on the television had a sudden surge of visits by interested voters, the unfairness of the game is unmistakable. For the sake of the voters’ right to know, network channels need to schedule programs informing people of the different positions of each election campaign-related group and discussing the selection criteria used by the groups.
Broadcast television, which has the biggest influence on Korean society, must not be reduced to a tool that spreads views current in the online populism and is only favorable to one side.

* The writer is a professor of communications at Yonsei University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Yoon Young-cheol
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