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Social media's limited effect

Online influence falls short of expectation when compared to previous polls

Social media's limited effect
Father Bartholomew Choi Gi-hong, Seoul

April 17, 2012

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The country’s general election has ended. The conservative ruling party took 152 seats out of a possible 300 up for grabs, emerging victors in an election the opposition parties were expected to win. The influence of the social media was a key talking point, as it had proved a major factor in deciding the outcome of provincial elections in 2010 and the polls for Seoul’s mayor last year. This time around its influence was not as strong. It showed its possibilities again but also its limits too. On election day, April 11, social media were full of postings from people saying how they had expressed their disapproval of the present Lee Myung-bak administration by voting for the opposition. Many uploaded their "confirmation" that they really participated in the election in order to encourage other voters to cast their ballots. Celebrities promised to do charitable and humorous things if the turnout exceeded 70 percent. But it did not -- it only reached 54 percent. Considering the outcome of the election in general, we can question if the social media is so influential to the degree that I imagined. However, if an analysis is done on the turnout by people in their 20s in the Seoul metropolitan area, it may be said its power has not decreased when comparing it with the Seoul mayor election. A survey showed that 64.1 percent of them went to the ballot box while around the country as a whole only 40.5 percent of voters in their 20s showed up. Social media came to the fore in 2008 along with various social issues, and it changed how public opinion could be influenced in South Korea. With it, those in their 20s and 40s could organize themselves into a political force, exchanging diverse opinions in the online social media community. It immediately influenced politicians. In choosing candidates, political parties consulted the social media index to find out how much candidates for public offices were using the social media. Actually some candidates seemed to have used it wisely, so much so it greatly helped them win. However, it is also true that this election revealed the limits of social media. In some areas and age groups, it did have significant influence, but otherwise the conventional media played the major role. The main thrust of the social media was that the election must be used to condemn the Lee administration, but it failed to overwhelm the influence exerted by the pages of newspapers and TV broadcasts. As some experts say, social media is a medium to spread information, but cannot be the one to set the agenda itself. It is because the mainstream media still held sway over public opinion that the ruling party won the election outside the Seoul metropolitan area. The main opinions circulated on social media criticized the immoral behaviour of candidates from the ruling party while the traditional media focused on the alleged wrongdoings of opposition candidates. The outcome was that the ruling party could defy the odds and win. So, we must not think that social media is only supportive of liberal and progressive parties anymore. Recently, conservative forces have also made its presence felt on social media, and it is growing. At the same time, we need to give attention on the disfunction of the social media. Negative or false information can be spread through the network so quickly, the damage cannot be repaired. We need legal measures to protect people from malicious activities that destroy trust in the social media arena, while respecting free expression. It would help if it became the agora (the ancient Greek gathering place) for Korean society, including the political area, as a forum for progress. Father Bartholomew Choi Gi-hong is director of the Culture and Communications Department of Chunchon diocese      
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