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SNS Democracy in Korea

Upcoming elections in South Korea offer social media the chance to really make its mark. But will populism rule?

The Occupy Wall Street protests are only the latest example of the power mobile devices and online services such as Twitter and Facebook have to help create social movements. The uprisings of the Arab spring movement this year, meanwhile, showed the potential these tools have to create significant change.

As tablets and smartphones grow in popularity, we can expect to see this phenomenon continue and evolve as the boom in social network services (SNS) extends its influence not only over the way publics communicate with each other, but also over how politicians try to mobilize voters.

This development was evident in the March parliamentary election in Singapore, and there’s much discussion about what SNS could mean for upcoming elections in Seoul. During last year’s local elections, South Koreans saw more clearly than ever how Twitter could encourage the engagement of younger voters in the electoral process. Many Twitter users urged their friends and followers to go out to vote, while popular singers and actors posted ‘authentication shots’ – self-taken photos outside ballot stations. Opposition parties did particularly well out of this approach.

And this month, Twitter and other social networks will again be in focus for the October 26 by-elections, with the key post of Seoul mayor at stake. Kyung-won Na of the ruling Grand National Party and Won-soon Park, an opposition-backed independent candidate, are busying themselves with promoting both on- and off-line campaigns.

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The two have been spotted busily tweeting on their policies and visions, uploading pictures and re-tweeting supportive messages on their way to and from the office. Market research firm Daumsoft has put together a web dashboard (viewable at that shows the real time ‘tweet share’ of the two candidates since September 21. The tweet share has fluctuated most clearly when sensitive issues such as political contributions have been the focus of the debate. As of October 16, Park had 138,000 followers and Na had 46,000. Although Daumsoft’s dashboard may ultimately be of little help in predicting a winner, it could still accurately reflect young people’s interest in the campaigns.

This month’s by-elections will present some interesting changes ahead of next year’s parliamentary and presidential elections. And, whoever wins the upcoming elections, there’s little doubt that Twitter and other social media will not only help attract a younger generation of voters, but will also encourage them to hold the eventual winners responsible for keeping their campaign pledges.

But welcome as the use of SNS is in encouraging engagement amongst young people, there’s also a potential downside – as politicians’ use of social networking and other web services has increased, their pledges have sounded increasingly populist. With tweets being instantly consumed and circulated among younger voters, politicians are increasingly inclined to turn to self-serving sound bites.

The transition to democracy in Korea in 1987 was a consequence of massive street protests by students. Fifteen years on, it’s interesting to consider how younger generations are communicating with politicians now, and how they might apply social media tools in 2012.


Eunil Cho is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Political Science at Yonsei University, South Korea.