Elections in the Internet eraThe hottest issue in the last phase of the Oct. 26 Seoul mayoral by-election was the rumors that Na Kyung-won, the ruling Grand National Party’s candidate for the post, was a regular customer at a skin care clinic that charges a whopping 100 million won ($89,000) for treatments. The suspicion, which quickly circulated in cyberspace, dealt a critical blow to her campaign by arousing massive outrage among voters.
As it turned out however, the rumor was wrong, according to an investigation by the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency. The police have found that Na spent only 5.5 million won on treatments for herself and her daughter. But the police can hardly hold a group of reporters with SisaIN, a local news magazine, accountable for circulating false information, because the director of the clinic suggested to the reporters in an interview that Na had paid 100 million won for treatment.
The fiasco attracts our attention because it is a typical case that vividly shows the enormous power of social networking services in an election season. It is also a testament to the immense repercussions that a spate of malicious attacks spread through the Internet could have on the outcome of an election.
In cyberspace, groundless information tends to spread at the speed of light and then quickly subside. And of course, the more sensational the rumor, the faster it spreads.
In the upcoming legislative and presidential elections in April and December, respectively, campaigns promoted on the Internet and other social networking platforms will be allowed thanks to a ruling by the Constitutional Court. That will most likely invite an unparalleled diffusion of unconscionable slander aimed at the candidates.
Yet there appears to be no effective way to curb the rampant disclosure of false information. Most importantly, it is impossible for the National Election Commission to intercept false information in cyberspace, as seen in the last Seoul mayoral by-election. Also, the election watchdog can hardly punish people who circulate false information, as long as they manage to provide credible circumstantial evidence.
All of these possibilities increase the risk that voters will make the wrong choice in an election season. This year will be a watershed for election campaigns promoted via social networking services. The authorities must find ways to avert ill-intentioned revelations aimed at misleading voters and penalize those who disseminate false information.