A polluted debate
*The author is a columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.
Democracy does not crumble from the sudden ascent of a dictator and his acts of unjust violence. Joseph Goebbels, the minister of propaganda under the Nazi regime of Adolf Hitler, declared that the Nazis did not impose anything on the people and that the people of Germany had chosen the Nazis.
Hitler indeed was elected to power and his totalitarian regime had mass support. His party was a legitimate institution of the Weimar Republic, deemed as the most democratic system after the end of the World War I. The Nazis gained less than 3 percent in the national election in 1928, then 18 percent in 1930 and 37 percent in 1932. In an election six months later, the party secured a dominant 288 seats after winning 43 percent of the votes and became the largest political party in Germany.
Hitler was able to rise quickly from 1928 to 1930 because the country was saddled in a deep depression. He offered millions who lost jobs a better future. While the opposition was mired in lethargic political convention, he pitched the Nazi vision for working and cooperating with the weak and workers. The so-called Nazi value of national restoration spread across the academy, culture and region.
Through clever command and work through media manipulation, the transition looked peaceful and civilian-led instead of forceful and oppressive. Hitler came to full power after the parliament handed over the lawmaking authority to his regime, enabling a single-party state by decree without legislative participation.
Goebbels’ propaganda campaign was aimed at planting “voluntary illusion” into the people’s minds and augmenting scapegoats for hatred and rage through repeated and blatant vulgar rhetoric and slogans. Lies and falsification distorted truth and generated vile illusions. Arguments, protests and restraints stood no chance in the fabricated realm.
It would be outrageous to compare today’s democratic Korea with the impotent Weimar Republic that allowed the creation of a monstrous Nazi regime. South Koreans displayed civilian power to end a military regime through the democratization movement in 1987 and removed an undemocratic leader through the candlelight vigil protests in 2016.
Many Koreans are self-confident enough to express their opinions through social media and are by no means foolish enough to be deceived by Nazi-like propaganda. But we all must be fully aware that democracy can be destroyed from inner fissures when the role of public debate breaks down.
In fact, Korea’s realm of public debate cannot be deemed healthy. The essence of recent scandals — one involving a social media influencer named Druking and his relationship with Kim Kyoung-soo, a confidant of President Moon Jae-in running for South Gyeongsang governor, and the other involving an alleged former extramarital affair between Lee Jae-myung, who is running for Gyeonggi governor, and an actress — should be focused on whether invisible hands meddling with public opinion were at play to protect influential politicians.
Kim Kyoung-soo might just have been unlucky to run into a schemer. But he nevertheless committed a serious crime if he colluded in an online public opinion rigging and manipulation campaign during the presidential election. Huh Ik-bum, the independent counsel in charge of leading a special investigation in the Druking affair, said, “Public opinion is the foundation of democracy. Manipulating it is a crime graver than any form of corruption.” What should be more important than whether Lee had an affair is whether there had been lies, distortion and an organized scheme to cover up for Lee online.
Public debates are like currency. As fake money can wreck market trust, manipulated opinion can undermine faith in democracy. The public debate space must be free and fair. Oppressing the expression of minority voices or forcibly manipulating opinions to one’s liking can be signs that the debate environment has become contaminated. Anyone polluting the public debate space is an enemy to democracy. Small cracks in the dam must be located and fixed immediately. Regret after the dam crumbles is useless.
JoongAng Ilbo, June 11, Page 30