Cablegate: Web Portals Aid "Smart Mob," Stymie Korean

DE RUEHUL #1354/01 1900711
R 080711Z JUL 08



E.O. 12958: N/A

1. (SBU) SUMMARY: During the ongoing protests about U.S.
beef, new means of disseminating information and networking
internet users created what is being called a "smart mob."
These new capabilities allowed protestors to use their
cellphones to instantaneously upload video, pictures, and
information to the web. Particularly younger Koreans used
these online forums to learn about the issues, watch the
protests, spread rumors and misinformation about government
policies, and share tactical information about police
deployments and blockades. Websites like DAUM Agora, Afreeca
Broadcasts, and the Naver Portal demonstrated their influence
in the recent candlelight protests by encouraging mass
participation and broadcasting from the protest scene. These
news sources -- thought by many to be more reliable because
they are "independent" -- are the primary source of
information for young Koreans, who are unlikely to read print
media and tend not to watch television news. Government
efforts to hold portals responsible for misinformation are
still in the formative stages but are already being derided
as state interference in freedom of the press. End Summary.

The Features of New Media

2. (SBU) New internet capabilities in Korea have enabled a
new level of interconnectivity and information sharing among
the Korean youth, in particular. Through these sites,
individuals can post reports on blogs and online discussion
boards and broadcast live events such as the recent
candlelight vigils. The influence of the new type of media
is possible due to widespread public access to high-speed
internet and the active participation of Korean internet
users in online activities. (NOTE: According to OECD
statistics, 94 percent of Korean households use the internet.
END NOTE.) On June 19, for example, within just 30 minutes
of President Lee's special press conference, more than 2,000
responses (more than 1 per second) were posted on DAUM Agora,
the largest online discussion board. Such prevalent use of
online media had a significant influence on public criticism
about President Lee Myung-bak, especially among those in
their teens to early 30s.

3. (SBU) This user created content (UCC), lacking
journalistic rigor, reported on supposed flaws in the beef
negotiations and spread other information about the safety of
U.S. beef -- some of it fact, but most of it fiction. These
users also reported on events as they were happening; the
reports swiftly circulated through the tens of thousands of
users who were watching the broadcasts or reading the reports
from a home computer, internet cafe or cell phone. This
ability enabled protesters to evade police and thwart
blockade attempts, giving rise to the "smart mob" moniker.
Netizens seemed to unquestioningly accept such information
and scorned traditional print media, which protesters alleged
had been co-opted by the government.

DAUM Agora: Campaign Starter

4. (SBU) Korea's second largest web portal, Daum, hosts an
online forum called Agora on which netizens can discuss a
wide range of topics. Agora was instrumental in initiating
the candlelight vigils and the boycott of the mainstream
daily newspapers for their criticism of the protests and
support for the beef imports. Agora users have also posted
the names and telephone numbers of the firms that buy
advertising space in the newspapers, encouraging citizens to
call the firms in protest and start boycotts. In early July
the Korea Communication Standards Commission ruled that the
boycott threats were illegal, and Daum started removing
postings promoting such boycott campaigns. Subsequently, on
July 7, Daum announced that it would no longer host content
from Korea's three largest newspapers, which have accused the
portal of routinely editing news stories and making value
judgments about content.

SEOUL 00001354 002 OF 003

5. (SBU) Agora's appeal stems from its real-time
capabilities, a large audience, and policy focus. During the
weekly broadcast of a political affairs television show
called the "100 Minute Discussion," Agora simultaneously
hosts an online discussion with Korean citizens voicing
opinions and commenting on the actual program. The most
heated discussions in recent weeks centered on the beef
imports, candlelight protests, and criticisms of Lee
Myung-bak. In the past months, Agora's content has become
increasingly emotional, and postings that attempt to support
Lee Myung-bak, the mainstream print media, or abandonment of
renegotiation demands receive open contempt and abusive
language. Metrix, an online survey agency, conducted an
analysis of all messages posted on Agora from April 1, 2008
until June 18, 2008. They found that 71 percent of all
articles posted on the site were written by 10 percent of
users. Further, of the top ten users, who are responsible
for over 21,000 posts, seven are anti-government. These
findings seem to imply that rather than a mass, collective
opinion, the site is dominated by a few.

Afreeca: Live Candlelight Vigils

6. (SBU) Afreeca is an online television portal through
which users can view programs that are broadcast live by
video jockeys (VJs). Broadcasts vary from Premier League
Soccer, animation, movies, and music depending on the tastes
of the broadcaster. Afreeca played a prominent role in
broadcasting and advertising the mass candlelight vigils;
dozens of VJs broadcast the protests live from the scene
using their cell phones. From May 25 to June 1, as many as 4
million people watched the protests on Afreeca with 1.2
million views on June 1 alone. The numbers are likely to
have skyrocketed during early June when the protests reached
their height. Its appeal is derived from the on-the-scene
feature, unlimited access, and lack of censorship.

7. (SBU) The live broadcasts are a means for two-way
communication -- users can type their opinions in the
chatting window while watching the reports, and broadcasters
are then able to focus their reports on what the viewers
want. Thus, Afreeca has become an interactive broadcast
between viewers and reporters, a capability that is
impossible for most television media. There is no censorship
of the site, enabling the spread of false information. On
May 7, it was discovered that users were posting old footage
of riots and police action and passing it off as images of
the current protest. Afreeca is considered to be free from
any ideology -- broadcasters report the scene as neutral
citizen reporters -- but its open and unrestricted user base
combined with a complete lack of editorial intervention
enable participants to advance their own social agendas.

Naver: "Dinosaur Portal," Main Source of News

8. (SBU) Naver is the largest Korean internet portal which
boasts 16 million daily visitors (about 30 percent of the
population) and an internet-search market share of
approximately 70 percent. More than 60 percent of Korean
internet users select Naver as their home page. Naver
provides news reports from various media including the
conservative mainstream newspapers as well as the more
liberal Oh My News, Hankyoreh, and Kyunghyang, which support
the protests and criticize the negotiations. People could
compare stories from different media through Naver's grouping
of articles on hot issues. Until recently, Naver had the
ability to position news articles, control their size, and
change the headings to fit the webpage. The portal announced
on July 1, however, that it would stop editing articles
posted on its main page and leave the news selection to the

9. (SBU) Naver does not provide an open forum to discuss
controversial issues and has come under criticism in the past

SEOUL 00001354 003 OF 003

two months for excluding candlelight vigil reports from its
news page until early June. Consequently, Naver has lost
much of its user base and popularity to Daum Agora. Naver is
seeking to create an open portal option for the website by
the end of this year to address the complaints.

Direct Democracy, "Videocracy?"

10. (SBU) Some pundits predicted that these new portals
would create the possibility of a direct democracy, or a
"videocracy," that would complement the current "indirect"
democracy. The rise of this new media has brought
politically aloof citizens to discussion boards. A professor
at Sung Kyung Kwan University, Sung Dong-kyu claimed, "the
rise of (these portals) widened the scale of democracy --
anyone can participate -- and the strengthened social network
produces new social agendas." This mass media is completely
open to abuse, however. Unverified reports and rumors are
easily spread. False reports of police rapes and murders
appeared on these sites and government officials seem to be
unsure of how to squelch this kind of reporting. The
National Police Agency is in the process of creating an
"internet monitoring team" in charge of watching public
opinion online and setting false rumors straight. The ROKG
has also taken steps to strengthen the "real-name use
system," to discourage users from hiding behind aliases when
posting rumors. The ROKG has already come under heavy
criticism for this involvement in the "free" media. Claims
of government suppression and infiltration of the sites are
creating huge backlash and hampering the already limited


11. (SBU) The degree of Korea's interconnectivity combined
with a significant level of public distrust in both the
government and in mainstream, generally conservative news
sources combined to create an internet maelstrom that incited
and fueled the protests against U.S. beef. Even more
disturbing than the administration's inability to manage its
public image is the significant portion of the Korean
population who believed these online stories without
questioning origin, motivation, or veracity. Though the
protests have ebbed, the challenge has just begun for the Lee
Administration, which now has to find a way to reduce the
influence of this "smart mob" without trampling on the right
of free speech.

12. (U) This report was drafted by POL Summer Intern Jin-kyu

© Scoop Media

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