Thursday, Sep 29, 2022

Social Media and PsyWars: A Lesson From South Korea

The aggressive use of social media can win an election, or a war. It’s time to choose.

The Bharatiya Janata Party’s  (BJP) announcement that Amit  Malviya, its national  IT Cell head, will play a key role in the 2021 West Bengal State elections underscores the importance of social media in elections. The ruling TMC has reacted to this by alleging that a barrage of “fake news” would now dominate the electoral battle.

The recent US Presidential elections have shown social media’s effect on public opinion formation including “fake news”. However, no better example would depict the pernicious effect of social media bellowing false adverse opinion than the 2012 South Korean Presidential Elections. It would also indicate how this weapon could eventually recoil against the originator if the country has strong public opinion and independent legal institutions.  

After losing one lakh troops and 10 lakh civilians during the 1950-53 Korean War, South Korea underwent a very troubled transition from a brutal political dictatorship in 1953 to democracy in 1991. However economic growth was spectacular during this period, leading to the rise of Chaebols, Korean business cartels. Much of this rapid export-oriented growth was during the repressive rule of General Park Chung-hee from 1961 as president.  In 1979 Park Chung-hee was shot dead in a Korean Central Intelligence safe house by his own intelligence chief. Park’s wife Yuk Young-soo was already assassinated in 1974 by a North Korean sympathiser in a theatre.  

In 2012 Park Geun-Hye, elder daughter of Park Chung-hee,  stood for Presidential Elections against Moon Jae-in of the Democratic party, the present president. Park had earned the sobriquet as the “Queen of Elections” due to her successful campaigning style for the conservative party (Saenuri Party).  She won the elections with 51.6% votes against Moon who got 48%. She became the country’s11th President from 25 February 2013. Her image was good and people expected her to have a good term.

However, her administration went into a sudden tailspin from October 2016 through a series of adverse exposures by the electronic media targeting Choi Soon-Sil, her close aide, who did not have any official designation. It was alleged that Choi had interfered into Park’s official work and collected large sums of money, estimated to be US$ 60 million, for her culture-sport foundations from Chaebols like Samsung, Hyundai, SK Group and Lotte. Her access to Park was so close that she was even able to edit the presidential speeches.

The “Choi Soon-Sil gate” controversy became sharper when it was revealed that President Park had been under the influence of Choi’s father Tae-min Choi, a religious cult figure, since her mother’s assassination in 1974. Though President Park issued public apologies on 25 October 2016 and later, impeachment proceedings started in the National Assembly on 9 December with even her own party voting against her.

The factor which tipped the scales, causing revulsion against Park, was the revelation that the National Intelligence Service (NIS) Chief Won Sei-hoon had deployed 30 “extra-departmental teams” comprising its cyber warfare teams, who should have been doing that against North Korea. They were joined by private citizens paid out of secret funds, several days before the 2012 election to tarnish the image of Moon Jae-in. When the NIS office was raided, it was found that it had created 1.2 million fake tweets praising Park and smearing Moon’s character.

South Korea has a unique independent prosecutor system like their judges for directing the investigation, participating in the trial and executing the judgments. As a result, former President Park was sentenced in April 2018 to 24 years in prison,  with a fine of US$ 17 million for political corruption and abuse of power.

NIS chief Won, who was originally sentenced to 4 years prison sentence in 2018 got enhanced punishment in February this year to 7 years besides civil and political disqualifications for misusing secret government funds.

As an aside, our own government’s overseas electronic propaganda seems to be faltering against the Chinese onslaught. On 17 November foreign media reproduced fake news that Indian troops were driven away from Ladakh hill tops when faced by microwave weapons. On November 26 Eurasian Times reported that Armenian reverses against Azerbaijan were because of faulty Indian supplied “Swathi” radars. So, shouldn’t we give priority to national defence over winning state elections by harnessing all our IT talents?

[The writer is a former Special Secretary, Cabinet Secretariat]