Baseless rumors about new technologies spreading cancerous radiation. Politicians condemning negative stories as “false” or “defamatory.” Deepening polarization amid constant online manipulation. These might sound like recent episodes in U.S. public life. But they in fact come from South Korea, where rumormongering and manipulation of public opinion have become key features of its politics.
Although South Korea consistently tops indices measuring a country’s digital maturity, digital disinformation is changing its politics. Despite evidence to the contrary in the United States, South Korea’s experiences suggest that political polarization is not the death knell for the state’s ability to address domestic disinformation and provide clear guidance during crises like COVID-19.
The South Korean information environment
Disinformation has long spread through a South Korean media ecosystem that combines online platforms with more traditional newspaper and broadcast outlets. When protests broke out in 2008 following the decision to allow the import of American beef, the South Korean TV network Munhwa Broadcasting Corporation aired a report questioning whether American beef was safe from mad cow disease. This unsubstantiated report spread rapidly via the internet and SMS, helping catalyze mass protests against then-President Lee Myung-bak, who saw his approval rate drop to 20%. In a pattern that has since become common, the interaction of online and offline platforms amplified and accelerated the spread of disinformation.
South Korea’s intense political rivalries make false information an attractive weapon against political opponents. At the height of the Kim Hak-eui orgy scandal in 2019, the center-left Hankyoreh newspaper falsely claimed that the prosecution had buried evidence linking the conservative prosecutor general, Yoon Seok-youl, to the incident. Political rivalry seems to have driven the rumor: It emerged among civil society groups rallying behind a former justice minister, Cho Kuk, whom Yoon was investigating for corruption. After continual attacks and calls for his resignation, Yoon voluntarily left office in March 2021.
As false information has proliferated online, politicians in South Korea have used such material to amplify public dissent. Following the controversial 2017 deployment of a U.S. missile defense system (known as Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD) to the city of Seongju, rumors began to spread online that the system emitted cancer-causing electromagnetic waves. A handful of opposition politicians embraced this narrative and spurred Koreans to protest the deployment. In August of that year, six members of the Democratic Party attended a candlelight vigil against the THAAD deployment in Seongju and performed songs with lyrics such as “I hate that my body is about to rip due to the strong electromagnetic waves.” Some Seongju residents continue to question THAAD’s safety and to protest its existence. Just last November, approximately 70 activists tried to stop trucks entering the THAAD base and clashed with 600 riot police. While THAAD represented a real political controversy over the military relationship between the United States and South Korea, it’s telling that those anxieties were channeled into health disinformation and remain active years later.
Lessons from South Korea
South Korea’s experience with disinformation contains important lessons for other democracies on how to address this challenge. First, it is crucial to bar government intelligence and military officers from domestic influence operations. During the impeachment of ex-President Park Geun-hye in 2017, an internal investigation revealed that intelligence agents and military officials had engaged in political astroturfing to ensure Park’s election victory in 2012. Under the auspices of former director Won Sei-hoon, the National Intelligence Service (NIS) tasked 30 “extra-departmental teams,” including tech-savvy civilians, to spread pro-government opinions and slander anti-government views. “Our psychological operations against North Korea are important, but our psychological operations against the South Korean public are pretty important, too,” as Won put it. While the scope and influence of this campaign remains unclear, it is suspected that the NIS mobilized approximately 3,500 social media accounts and posted some 275,000 defamatory messages about Park’s opponents. Subsequently, Won was sentenced to four years in prison for orchestrating an online smear campaign.
These types of mobilization by intelligence and military personnel can undermine the fundamental tenets of democratic elections as free, open, and fair. Even more troublingly, the secrecy surrounding intelligence and military operations may prevent civilian oversight or discovery of such breaches. As militaries and intelligence agencies around the world embrace the use of information operations, regulatory oversight and internal investigations will be required to ensure that these tools are not turned against domestic populations. Even when forbidden from such activities, some North American militaries have used information operations against their own citizens. In June, multiple internal investigations concluded that the Canadian military had contravened federal rules by planning to use propaganda techniques on Canadians during the pandemic and gather information from social media accounts.
Additionally, South Korea offers a cautionary tale about invoking “disinformation” to justify anti-democratic actions. After the 2014 Sewol ferry accident, then-President Park was widely condemned for her mishandling of the incident. Protests broke out, and the victims’ families decried the disorderly rescue operation. As unflattering accounts of her handling of the crisis proliferated, Park announced a crackdown on alleged false rumors spreading on the country’s largest messaging app, Kakao Talk, that “divided the society.” Park established a prosecution team to actively monitor online information and vowed to punish anyone circulating online content deemed as inappropriate, rumor-mongering, and/or insulting. According to some reports, investigators targeted several users for spreading offensive content. Rattled users switched to Telegram, an app well known for its encryption features. The Kakao Talk crackdown was not an isolated incident but part of a larger strategy to silence legitimate opposition, including a 60-page blacklist of approximately 10,000 left-leaning cultural figures. If left unchecked, politicians’ cynical invocation of disinformation might justify surveillance or censorship, undermining basic democratic rights.
South Korea does, though, offer an example of how democracies can address disinformation and the domestic actors behind it. In a now infamous affair known as “Druking-gate,” an ally of President Moon Jae-in was found guilty in 2018 of conspiring with a so-called “power blogger” (who worked under the name “Druking”) to manipulate search results and shape online perceptions of Moon ahead of the 2017 election. Kim Kyoung-soo, the governor of South Gyeongsang province, was convicted for his role in the scheme, along with Druking. Although the case raises hard questions about judicial over-reach in prosecuting political speech, it also illustrates a way in which democracies can hold offenders accountable for manipulating online opinion during elections.
Amid a deluge of disinformation around COVID-19, South Korea has mounted a mostly successful response to the pandemic. Openness and transparency lay at the heart of South Korea’s response, in which public-health officials took center stage. One crucial tool was effective health communications. To avoid an information vacuum and to maintain public awareness, South Korean authorities provided the public with updated information on a variety of platforms, including via twice-daily press briefings, text messages, and social media posts. The government also strengthened public-private partnerships to facilitate fact-checking, including by funding Fact Checker Net, an open platform for experts and ordinary citizens to confirm the veracity of COVID-19 reporting. Such tools and techniques offer a model to safeguard against politicized communications regarding future crises.
South Korea shows how even polarized democracies can respond effectively to complex challenges. In 2019, 91.8 percent of Koreans believed that there was a large divide between liberals and conservatives. Despite this, South Korea has taken steps to address online manipulation through prosecutions and investigations. And it has demonstrated how the state can communicate effectively during crises like COVID-19, even after presidential impeachments and political scandal. While disinformation remains a major challenge in South Korea, that did not prevent effective state communications during the COVID crisis.
Heidi Tworek is an associate professor at the University of British Columbia and a non-resident fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.
Yoojung Lee graduated with a BA in international relations at the University of British Columbia and is an incoming masters student at Stanford University.