[Viewpoint] The danger of ditheringPublic opinion spreads online the way an epidemic spreads in the real world. The opinions travel through a computer network in much the same way as a biological virus follows the movement of people.
The influence of the opinions and virus are magnified as they move through their complicated, intertwined networks.
As we live in a world of networks, we encounter unforeseen events. As an individual runs into other individuals and as a rumor gets mixed with other rumors, an unexpected explosion can take place.
For instance, it might have been quiet until yesterday, but suddenly, tens of thousands of Internet users flock to a certain Web site and create a social issue. Network researchers call the moment when public opinion erupts like this a critical point, or critical mass state.
This year marks the 40th anniversary of the birth of the Internet, which was first developed for military purposes. The network was exclusively used by scientists and government employees, and it spread very slowly for the first 20 years.
In 1994, a critical change came about. The number of users exceeded 20 million for the first time, and the number began to increase by two to three times every year.
The critical mass in the Internet world dominated by experts and specialists served to ignite the information revolution. Those who saw the opportunities made a mint.
There also was a critical point for the candlelight vigils last year, and online media played a crucial role bringing people out to the downtown streets.
Let’s trace the number of replies on the U.S. beef import story on the online portal site Daum.
On April 15, an article about lawmaker Kang Gi-gab raising suspicions over the U.S. beef trade deal raised 400 replies. In the next 15 days, the number of replies increased to 4,000. The trend suddenly changed on April 30 as the number of replies jumped to 8,000 replies in one day. In a few days, the article had garnered a total of 40,000 replies.
Until right before the online fever was translated into a large-scale urban protest, authorities were reluctant to respond.
If the police had not missed the moment of the “critical mass” and not responded in a timely manner, we could have been spared the noisy, hot summer of street rallies.
Now, let’s look at the A(H1N1) flu. From three months ago to the first week of October, the number of flu cases grew gradually to a total number of 900 reported flu patients. In the second week, the number suddenly jumped to 1,500, and patients have been doubling ever since. The number of schools with outbreaks increased from 137 schools in the first week to 346.
The second week of October was the critical point of the flu outbreak. The government was one step behind in its response to the outbreak. Mothers of sick children had to line up for hours outside clinics, and the government plan was announced in the third and fourth weeks of October despite the shortage of Tamiflu.
The policies behind school shutdowns confused schools as well as students and parents. The Korean Medical Association called for a complete closing of all schools, but the virus went over the critical point while the government was still contemplating whether to go for complete, localized closing or voluntary closings. If the moment is missed, closing down schools becomes less effective.
Fortunately, the number of deaths from the virus is not significant, for now. But the related authorities need to pay attention to the critical point of deaths. If the critical moment is determined, the government must raise the level of response to the epidemic to the highest and make the necessary preemptive moves.
We are living in a society of networks. Seizing that unexpected moment will determine the fate of the organization and individuals. There are usually signs that a storm is brewing and we need to pay closer attention to the timing of the impact.
*The writer is the senior city news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Lee Gyu-yeon