[Viewpoint] Digital divide in the SNS age

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[Viewpoint] Digital divide in the SNS age

“The communist states ... fear this information revolution perhaps more than they fear Western military strength,” said former U.S. Secretary of State George P. Shultz.

He said that 26 years ago, and Shultz had a keen insight into the effects the information revolution would have on the world, even before the Internet changed everything. There was a lot of disagreement with his prediction, with some arguing the opposite case: that the information revolution could lead to more control and surveillance more like George Orwell’s “1984.”

Now, in 2011, Shultz’s prediction is generally accepted. Earlier this year, waves of pro-democracy movements spread across the Middle East and northern Africa. The Jasmine Revolution of Tunisia, which started it all, and the revolution in Egypt that ended the 30-year rule of President Hosni Mubarak, were driven by Twitter and Facebook. Hence the reason why the latest democratization movements are called “SNS revolutions,” for social networking services.

Korea attained democratization in 1987, way before the advent of the digital age. Is the Internet helping Korea’s democracy after its democratization? In the long run, the Internet certainly contributes to democratization. But a series of recent events illustrates the adverse effects of the Internet.

Let’s look at the rallies demanding lower tuition at Korean universities. It was not on television that comedian Kim Je-dong impressed the public with words. He displayed extraordinary eloquence in a nine minute speech at a candlelight protest for lower tuition in Gwanghwamun, central Seoul on June 2. But then a video of his speech spread across social networking services and it became the talk of the town.

Kim Je-dong is not the only celebrity to gain influence through the Internet. The digital age has been flooded by videos created by Internet users. Many of them are sarcastic ones about the government. They are one-sided and provocative, yet creative and fun enough to inspire protests and demonstrations.

“Buses for Hope,” a movement championing the cause of workers laid off from Hanjin Heavy Industries and the striking workers who support them, is a more extreme case. Yeong Island, off the coast of Busan, has been roiled by the demonstrations, and their focal point is Kim Jin-suk, Busan committee director of the Korea Confederation of Trade Unions, who has been protesting in a crane for six months. She is better known as “Salt Flower Tree.” More than 7,000 supporters paid 30,000 won ($28.40) to gather at the port in the rain, staging an all-night demonstration.

The power of Kim Jin-suk comes from Twitter, where she has more than 18,000 followers. While in a crane 35 meters (115 feet) above the ground, she has been communicating with the world unimpeded. The social networking service has been broadcasting her protest live for six months. Kim Jin-suk’s tweets, her followers’ retweets and live video broadcasts are the Hope Buses’ engine. On the day of the demonstration, live broadcasts on the Internet continued through the weekend and tens of thousands of people watched it.

Clashes with law enforcement are not uncommon during student demonstrations and labor struggles. We have also seen politicians and activists visit protest sites to fan the flames with unrealistic and sensational remarks. As a result of the information revolution, digital culture, especially social networking services, has become ubiquitous. If Kim Je-dong’s speech or Kim Jin-suk’s message were just tossed into the fathomless void of cyberspace, few would have noticed or paid attention. Social networking services have delivered those messages to people who care. Information no longer flows in a single direction. People pay attention, respond, forward things. The network spreads the information in every direction at the speed of light. The power of information is inconceivably stronger than before the invention of such social networks.

The problem is the digital divide. Whether it is among countries or individuals, there’s a gap between those with more information and those with less. The cases of Kim Je-dong and Kim Jin-suk lead to another digital divide of polarized public opinion. The group with more access to digital information and the group with less will end up with different ideas.

This gap aggravates division of opinions and social discord. Moreover, the digital divide overlaps the generation gap. The younger generation is familiar with digital information, while the older generation uses the Internet less. And young, passionate minds are easily swayed.

The people in Busan were surprised by the event. They are used to demonstrations at Hanjin Heavy Industries. But in the middle of the night, people from Seoul suddenly rushed in, made a great fuss and left just as abruptly. Such lightening protests are likely to increase. It’s about time we contemplate the social impact of our digital divide.

*The writer is the senior editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Oh Byung-sang
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