Die-hard conspiracies

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Die-hard conspiracies

Lee Hyun-sang 
The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo. 

“Sheep shearing” in the international financial context refers to harvesting assets cheaply or easily. It was mentioned in Song Hongbing’s best seller “The Currency War,” in which the Chinese author argued that western capital lent money cheaply to developing countries in Asia, Latin America and Eastern Europe and then called in loan, causing economic crises that could be exploited: by buying lucrative assets and companies at fire-sale price. The 1997 Asian financial crisis in which Korea suffered a lot was a typical example in Song’s conspiracy theory. The theory gave some comfort to Koreans who witnessed big enterprises crumble over a short period during and after the currency crisis. It gave a simple cause for a complex economic crisis, and a bad guy to boot.
Conspiracy theories often stem from defeatism. There are many such conspiracy theories, and few have been confirmed. That’s all part of the conspiracy, say the people that believe them. Still, conspiracies have a powerful appeal. They can sometimes explain incomprehensible outcomes and events. They make it easier to find a scapegoat to pin the blame on, as any discrepancies and ironies can be waved away as irrelevant.  
“The ballot box opening is supervised under the gaze of CCTV cameras. Can they be tampered with even with the lights and CCTV cameras on?” “Yes, they can be.” “Are you saying the post office was involved in the delivery of the ballot boxes?” “A group of girls who seemed to be hired by the post office arrived there.” These were some of the remarks that came out at a debate on the theory of tampering in the counting of votes during early voting for the April 15 parliamentary elections. The debate was held by Lee Jun-seok, a senior member of the main opposition United Future Party (UFP).  
The UFP may not have been able to recover from its crushing defeat in that election. Logic and reason may be of no use against the belief in vote fraud. The farcical theory floated among ultra rightist YouTubers has been gaining ground.  
Logic can hardly win against conspiracy theories. “A good conspiracy is unprovable. If you can prove it, it means you screwed up somewhere along the line,” says a character in the film “Conspiracy.” Conspiracy theorists cannot be easily won over. It is nearly impossible to keep everyone in the rumor mill silenced in the social media age. Korea today is not ancient China like in the Qin Dynasty, when laborers forced to build the tomb of the first emperor Qin Shi Huangdi were buried along with him to conceal its whereabouts.  
Conspiracy theorists’ arguments are often laughable. But sadly, our society has become vulnerable to conspiracy theories. Leftist podcaster Kim Ou-joon even made a movie by employing so-called “Secret number K” after the 2012 presidential election when current president Moon Jae-in lost against Park Geun-hye. Many of Moon’s followers shared his theory. One liberal online media outlet called the phenomenon “suicidal” for the liberals. At every tragic event — the sinking of the Sewol ferry and Cheonan warship and the impeachment of Park Geun-hye — conspiracy theories arose.  
One ongoing theory is that prosecutors were out to victimize Cho Kuk, a former justice minister and close confidante of Moon, for political reasons. The theory has backing from the intelligentsia. The controversy divided our society with pro- and anti-Cho groups holding separate rallies in downtown Seoul and in front of the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office in Socheo District, southern Seoul. The divide remains deep even after the election.  
According to a book by Harvard University Professor Cass Sunstein, conspiracy theories tend to surge when a society is split by an ideological divide. Censorship or clampdowns to suppress them are dangerous. A democratic society must allow them to be filtered out in the flow of diverse opinions and arguments. But the principle of democracy can be upheld only when each individual is not swept away by dangerous ideas. A society slips into a greater risk if the intelligentsia helps spread such outlandish theories. The conservatives’ speculation about vote tampering can help distinguish the reasonable from the extreme in their camp. The extreme should be shunned.  
JoongAng Ilbo, May 8, Page 30 
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