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Distinguishing fact from fiction

Apr 24,2018
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Lee Ha-kyung
*The author is the chief editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.

The scandal over organized abuse of social media and online power to sway public opinion and votes is a serious crime that has ridiculed democracy. Druking is the Internet ID of online activist Kim Dong-won, a former registered member of the ruling Democratic Party (DP). Democracy feeds on healthy discourse where citizens can freely express and exchange their views. Democracy gets life when public opinion stays vigilant to fuel political energy.

But opinions are being contaminated and fabricated by systematic trolls and bots. Druking ascended to the real world and was arrested when he sought revenge after being rejected by the ruling power in his demand for payment for his alleged contribution to President Moon Jae-in’s election victory in May 2017. Cyberspace has become so disfigured that it has become difficult to decipher what is true and false. The country’s democracy is seriously in question.

DP lawmaker Kim Kyoung-soo, who had been Moon’s spokesman during the election campaign, maintained a special relationship with the online operation ringleader. He claimed the scandal is a vicious smear campaign against the government by election volunteers who used illicit bots after their excessive demands for favors were turned down. He said Druking texted him many times through encrypted messaging platform Telegram, but he did not check or read all of them.

His claims, however, turned out to be false. A police investigation discovered that Kim had sent the blogger internet links to “promote” them. Druking answered “he had handled” the mission. The two also exchanged messages through encrypted app Signal 55 times. An aide to Kim is suspected to have received money from an internet community dubbed the Economic Co-evolution Center, led by Druking, which carried out the online campaign, and returned it only after the ringleader was arrested.

Kim may be speaking the truth about having only kept contact with Druking as an innocent supporter of the president. If that was the case, there should have been no delay in the investigation. But Lee Ju-min, commissioner of the Seoul Metropolitan Police, was busy downplaying the scandal as if here were an advocate for Kim, and Kim dared to declare his bid for South Gyeongsang governor in the June local elections. The police did not raid Kim’s office or residence until two months after the scandal first surfaced in February.

On his Facebook page on March 14, before he was arrested, Druking threatened to expose who had been behind an online campaign during the presidential election. The blogger had urged his followers to wage war on presidential candidate Ahn Cheol-soo, claiming that supporters of MB (former conservative President Lee Myung-bak) were using bots to help Ahn. We cannot imagine what bombshell revelations could come out of his mouth.

The Supreme Court last week upheld a four-year prison sentence for Won Sei-hoon — former National Intelligence Service (NIS) director under the Lee administration — for orchestrating the spy agency’s online campaign for conservative candidate Park Geun-hye during the 2012 election. Over the four years since he was indicted, law enforcement authorities were raided and the servers of the NIS were investigated. Yet the police probe on the latest online campaign moves at a snail’s pace. The 133 sets of 170 mobile phones seized from the group are evidence, yet the police handed them over to the prosecutors without even examining them. It only took them back for scrutiny after the media exposed the sloppy handling of the case. The police clearly have their eyes on the ruling power.

In his inauguration speech, Moon said he would ensure equal opportunities, fair process, and just results. His speech touched the hearts of the people who had endured injustice serving the powerful, rich and elites. But the investigation on Druking is neither fair nor just. Does Moon’s justice bend for Druking?

Expanding the theory of argument and acceptance, German scholar Jürgen Habermas said that rational discourse is only possible when both on the speaking and listening end address each other on equal footing. Druking acted as a demagogue and treated his novice followers as his servants. We can imagine how he thought of the readers who had been swept up by his fabricated feed.

The 17th century French philosopher René Descartes declared that all people possess good sense or the ability to distinguish truth from fiction. He ushered the way toward modernity by enshrining individuals as independent minds with common sense. His argument empowered the majority voice and civic democracy. Koreans, who take pride in having self-taught and matured a democracy, lost the ability to judge for themselves by willingly becoming prisoners of a cyberspace prone to manipulation. Descartes would not be impressed by Korea’s democracy, as the public falls under the thrall of online manipulators.

The Druking scandal has tested the Moon administration that so publicly vowed to make justice and fairness a top priority. It would be a contradiction if it excuses itself of these double standards. The government must invite an independent counsel to get to the bottom of the case.

Korea’s democracy can only be saved by punishing the parties responsible for polluting and destroying public opinion.

JoongAng Ilbo, April 23, Page 31