Thursday, May 29, 2008

"Where's the Beef?" Information Age Politics in Korea

The candlelight vigil demonstrations against the Lee Myung Bak government's decision to allow importing of American beef began on May 2, have occurred almost daily since then, and show no signs of abating. As time passes, they seem to involve every conceivable political issue on which the new administration of President Lee Myung Bak might be opposed, reminding me of the famous line from a Wendy's commercial in the mid-1980s, "Where's the Beef?" These powerful political developments in Korea can be better understood if we pay attention to several main features, from a political communication perspective.
  • The new networks are employed to organize and sustain the political movement. These include mainly messaging with mobile phones and the internet.
  • The "six degrees apart" phenomenon allows fast mobilization of large-scale demonstrations, especially in Korea's close-knit culture.
  • The use of digital images, graphics and videos is widespread. At the latest candlelight vigils, not only the candles and cups, but placards carried by participants, seem to have been mass produced digitally for each event.
  • There is an immediate global aspect to the sharing of videos of the demonstrations that feeds the movement, as each night's vigil becomes a promotion for forthcoming demonstrations. The growing number of videos posted to YouTube in recent days illustrates this global dimension.
  • The current flurry of political activity shows a spotlight on the manner in which rumor, half-truths, can be spread via the internet and other modern media. The South Korean press has been full of stories speculating on the origins of some of the rumors and stories circulating on the web and via mobile messaging. Many speculate that the political opposition to Lee Myung Bak's government, or young hackers, and the like are behind the developments.

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