Events in Korea these days remind me a fair bit of that Demosthenes/Locke subplot in Orson Scott Card’s novel Ender’s Game. If you haven’t read the novel, well, basically a couple of really smart kids hijack the world political debate by posting pseudonymously online, using personae that are, in fact, quite different from their own personalities, sometimes quite consciously, to determine the way the global debate plays out.
I’ve posted in the past about the Korean internet, censorship, and the odious “Real-Name System” that has essentially eliminated all possibility of real anonymity online at many websites in Korea by requiring people to use their National ID number to register on a given site.
But no, no, that’s not enough control: with each celebrity suicide, the media has begun screaming about “Internet Rumors” and some politician or other lets out a rallying cry for increased control of Internet content and usage. Even the foreign media seems to have picked up the wrongheaded claim that online gossip can “cause” suicide.
The simple fact is that both sides of the (narrow) political spectrum in South Korea have been pushing for increased controls. The “Real Name System” — whereby users must sign in using their national identification number to use major portal sites — came into effect under the (relatively) progressive Roh government1., as far as I recall.
I’ve run across online polls in the past that suggested a number of Korean internet users, or “netizens,” support censorship and government control of the Internet, and this is a position I’ve seen widely held among young people as well. The reasoning follows thus:
Lots of people “behave badly” online, ruining people’s lives (as in the cybermob that stalked Dog Poop Girl) or killing people. Many celebrities who have killed themselves in the last few years have done so “because of” rumors and slander online in various anonymous comment boards.
(Note that celebrity suicide seems to be construed — in the media and in politicians’ statements and thus in public discussions as well — as an involuntary response to online slander. Little or no connection is made in the media to the issues of Korea’s mental health care infrastructure, such as it is. Nobody mentions the fact that celebrities worldwide sustain comparable, if not quite the same, amount of bashing online. Nobody even brings up the other tens of thousands of people who kill themselves in Korea yearly without a bit of online slander to push them into it.)
Once it’s established that people “behave badly” and the spectre of murder by Internet is looming broadly in everyone’s imagination, then comes the punch, and the punch is increased internet controls and censorship. Indeed, the degree of control and tracking that is inherent in the Korea Internet today is at levels that would have Civil Libertarians in the USA far beyond up in arms: they would be suing the living crap out of the government, or promulgating a new wave of hacking, anti-tracking, and diasporic Net services free from government controls.
(Which, by the way, is about the best I can imagine will come of the Korean Internet: that the portal sites will finally stand up to the government by following the law to the letter, and establishing servers offshore for the purposes of giving their users the option of using the internet without being tracked and spied upon by their own government. After all, if Daum is obligated to provide this information to the government, Haum — Daum’s Hong Kong sister-company — would not be. Of course, that would require the portal companies to grow a pair, and the money’s too good for them to dare that. And sadly, it looks like a nonexistent niche, given how few people actually seem to oppose their government’s invasiveness.)
But in any case, most people seemed to be quite naive about the prospects of the government misusing this Real Name System. However, stirrings have registered online, with one very interesting case.
Minerva is the name that’s on everyone’s lips now, and I’ve been meaning to write something about this fellow ever since the Korean public started discussing him back in (I think it was) November. Now that the story has been covered by both the Washington Post and Time (both links via this post at The Marmot’s Hole), I figure maybe I might as well rail a bit.
“Minerva” is the persona used by a Korean internet user (or maybe more than one user) for his (or their) posts on Agora, a kind of forum-site hosted by Daum, one of Korea’s main Internet portal sites. As with the more famous agora that the site is named after, this website is supposed to be a place of public debate and discussion regarding issues of public interest.
In Korea, these days, there is no issue of greater public interest than the economy. The economy all but determined the general election last year, for example. Many, many people explained their choice of Lee in terms of a tradeoff: they were willing to take a man widely seen as corrupt and disgustingly sexist and right-wing–and even chauvinistically Protestant Christian2.–as their leader in the hopes that his CEO background would be of some use in stabilizing the Korean economy.
When the economy didn’t magically recover–and let’s be realistic, it wouldn’t have anyway–the muttering started. A hot summer of protests on the heels of a number of pretty embarrassing policy gaffes only damaged Lee’s approval ratings more.
But to add insult to injury, he has been uncannily correct, or at least that’s how people see him. I don’t know whether there’s a confirmation bias at work, mind. If he made hundreds of predictions online, and only the ones he got right are being remembered, then that’s one thing… and a population as thick with PhDs as Korea’s ought to be able to disseminate that observation far more effectively than it has.
But the public seems to think find Minerva not just more accurate, but also more trustworthy, than its elected government. And with the Blue House’s move to prosecute Minerva, or at least to prosecute Park Dae Sung for the offenses of Minerva, I find their almost-instinctive distrust of the government quite understandable.
There are two points I want to observe here. I’ll keep them as brief as possible.
The first is that to whatever degree Minerva is or is not an amazing amazing genius of economics, he was an anonymous blogger. And while I absolutely repudiate the erosion of online anonymity that the Korean government has, in the last few administrations, imposed on its population, I also have to wonder how people could take so seriously the writings of a totally anonymous individual.
Part of the reasons probably lie with the government itself, increasingly seeking more and more control and oversight of net content in South Korea and responding to criticism with a heavier and heavier hand. (And to be clear, I’m not talking about the Lee Administration: odious policies were also introduced under the Roh Administration.)
But the government ought perhaps to pause and reflect on the fact that it is regarded as less trustworthy than an anonymous, random guy online somewhere who happened to get some predictions right. This speaks volumes in terms of the government’s credibility problems, and how citizens view their government. The money and time spent arguing over, and prosecuting, Mr. Park could be much better spent fixing the root of the problem.
That root is twofold: one, education–because claiming that Park “misinformed” the public is pretty a claim that the public is a bunch of easily misled sheep, which is a disturbing sort of thing for the government to imply about its citizens, especially with such a high concentration of people who’ve been to university or even grad school. The take-home message, if one even dignifies the implied claim, is that educaitonal reform is direly needed.
But more worrying is the elephant in the room: the reality that the credibility of both the government and much of the media here is below low; it doesn’t exist. To a Westerner–schlerotic as our media and governments are, and they indeed are–it’s generally mind-boggling that a government would prosecute someone for saying something in public that wasn’t a violation of human rights, or an incitement to violence, or anything like that. The fact that the media are seen essentially as puppets of the government, and that the government is seen by many as fundamentally dishonest, ought to send a chill through the bowels of Lee Administration. Again, time repairing this rent in the nation’s stability would be time well-spent.
Those details that Minister of Strategy and Finance, Kang Man Soo, claims he wanted to pass on to Minerva: what were they? Have they been published? Why would they not have been public knowledge? What is the point of an economic information gap? I don’t know that transparency is a cure-all, but it’s odd that the details were on offer to a critic, but not to the general population. Again, one gets the sense that the government really fears publicizing information that might allow an intelligent and informed public to evaluate their options and the oncoming situation as best they can. If the public is uninformed, they will scramble for any credible source, won’t they? And the longer they’re kept in the dark, the more deeply the roots set. The Internet will continue to be a very important, and to conservative politicians on both sides of the spectrum, to be seen as a very dangerous, factor in Korean politics. The degree to which they manage to gain control of it will determine how much of a voice citizens will have on the hundreds of days that stretch between each national election.
There’s one more thing that’s puzzling. The prosecution apparently is swatting aside claims that Minerva is not just one, but several individuals. And I should add, the fact that this is in doubt is probably a reflection of the degree to which people believe in credentials. It’s been widely discussed how he doesn’t have any, as if being uncredentialed–not having a degree or advanced degrees in a subject– automatically disqualifies someone from knowing about that subject. I don’t know whether Minerva is one or more individuals, but I don’t find it ridiculous that someone self-taught could get a few predictions right. IF he got most of his predictions right, though, it’d be a little surprising. But not unbelievable.
Korea Beat reports on how a static IP is casting doubt on the case:
Prosecutors say Mr. Park used his home computer. But experts say that since he was not a person engaged in internet commerce and paying considerable sums for a static IP address he would have been using a dynamic IP. That is one reason for doubt that Mr. Park is the true Minerva and that his IP address could have been manipulated.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think having a static IP is quite so hard here in Korea. I know this because, for example, I have one. (It was necessary to prevent the Windoze-only campus internet security system from misinterpreting as a viral attack the phenomenon of a Linux PC and a Windows PC sharing a wireless connection.) Not only that, but at least a couple of my long-term commenters in Korea have static IPs. So if I understand this right, and the claim is that having a static IP is expensive and special, then there’s a hole in the argument and the hole is called reality.
(Though it wouldn’t be the first time prosecutors held up some techno-lingo while hoping nobody would notice. Highly recommended: The Hacker Crackdown by Bruce Sterling. It’s even available online in a ton of formats… for free!)
1. “Relatively progressive” in the sense that it’s not the party pushing water privatization, the elimination of nationalized health insurance/health care, and doesn’t start screaming, “Commies! Commies! It’s Commies attacking us!” at every faint hint of a challenge.
2. Lee’s relationship with what we would in the West consider fanatical evangelical Christians is widely known in Korea, but not often discussed in terms of its political ramifications. Which is odd, given just how many people voted for him on purely religious grounds.