[Viewpoint]The Internet’s undoing‘So, now that you have experienced it, you understand the pain we went through, right?”
A public relations executive for one of Korea’s large conglomerates jokingly asked me when we met about two months ago. The candlelight vigils had almost died down by then. At the time, Internet portal sites such as Daum were flooded with postings encouraging telephone attacks on companies advertising in three major newspapers, namely the JoongAng Ilbo, Chosun Ilbo and Dong-A Ilbo. I could not deny that I felt a certain resentment and had criticized Internet users who were inciting such attacks.
However, the PR exec had a different perspective. He said that a more fundamental problem was with the portals, which he said turn a blind eye and pocket profits from such attacks. “It has been a while since the portals were used as a tool to threaten corporations. This time, the newspapers became a target. When PR managers gather, we always complain that we suffer because of Internet portals.”
He told me a story. An Internet outlet that he had never heard of called one day, threatened to disclose a scandal, and asked for 50 million won ($44,730) to hush it up. The caller threatened that if he wrote an article, it would be posted on major portals, and the scandal could ruin the company.
“Was your company hiding something?” I asked. “There was nothing we were hiding, and the scandal was a complete fabrication. But no matter how groundless a story might be, you cannot stop it once it is posted on a major portal. You don’t even know if Internet users are children or grown ups but they post harsh responses before investigating what is really going on. If we clarify rumors, then, they attack us for lying.”
He was so furious that he recorded the call. He was determined to report the caller to the police, but I have not heard of the company suing anyone yet.
I am bringing up this issue now because I heard the same complaint from another PR executive working for a different corporation. The situation has not improved for the companies; if anything, it’s gotten worse.
“The Chuseok holiday season is approaching, and we are suffering more than ever. All kinds of media write absurd stories and ask us for money not to write more. Major portals post these groundless stories without verifying the facts, and they spread around the country and abroad in no time.”
He said that about 20 different media are threatening his company, but the company is helpless because the portal sites have such formidable shields. The damage comes from the portals, but they argue that the articles were written by other outlets and therefore, the portals are not responsible. Thanks to the portals, the threatening tactics that used to be aimed only at small businesses became feasible on large corporations as well.
I am not using these examples to condemn the portals and illustrate their negative aspect only. I myself use online portal sites every day. I am grateful for their convenience and believe that portals should grow even more. I am impressed by domestic sites such as Naver, which hold their ground against international giants like Google. Moreover, I am proud that Korea has emerged as an IT power.
However, it is about time the portal sites take a look at themselves. The portals are having it their own way these days. When you are overly dominant, you are bound to face problems. The portals do not need to repeat the failure the newspapers went through in the 80s and television soon afterward.
If the portals are to avoid a setback, there are certain things they need to keep in mind. Most importantly, the portals should not launder lies. According to the British intelligence agency M16, false information spread in cyberspace is a major threat to national security in the 21st century. We witnessed this threat when we went through the mad cow disease crisis. Panic created by exaggerated information can tilt an entire society in a certain direction. Moreover, people seem to accept even the most outrageous story as truth as long as it is posted on a major portal. It is hardly normal that respectable companies suffer because of portal sites.
Also, portal sites should not be passing on anger. Groundless fury, anger and antagonism expressed on the Internet contributed to the latest friction between Korea and China. I fear that someday, online confrontations could lead to actual war.
Today, portals have become a ground of illegal downloads that infringe on copyrighted music, videos and intellectual properties. The portals need to block this practice immediately. If portal sites fail to encourage development and coexistence of various media and become a black hole of destruction and piracy, they will be ruined along with the rest. The portals need to seriously review what they are doing and what they should become.
*The writer is the senior city news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Kim Chong-hyuk