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“The ‘Best Comment’ on a Naver article represents public opinion.” This statement was published on Facebook in January by ‘Druking’, a power blogger suspected of rigging online opinion using macro software. He believed that he could sway public opinion by manipulating comments on articles.
The controversy over comment manipulation on the nation’s leading web portal has become the main political talking point in Korea. Druking, known for his previous support for President Moon Jae-in and the ruling Democratic Party, was found to have employed macro software to rig Naver’s commenting system against them.
The conservative media and the opposition parties headed by the Liberty Korea Party have framed the incident as “government level rigging” saying they have records of messages sent on Telegram between Druking and Assembly Member Kim Kyoung-soo, a key figure of the Democratic Party. Conversely, Kim and the Democratic Party claim that they are also victims, arguing that it was the Democratic Party that requested investigation and that the incidents were triggered by refusals to agree to Druking’s request for a position.
But before we start asking who is in the right or wrong, the crux of this issue is the ease with which anyone can manipulate online comments.
A macro tool can be used to repeat a series of actions rapidly with just one command. Druking and his team allegedly collected Naver usernames with verified real names and employed macro software to click ‘agree’ on comments that were unfavorable to the administration. It made it seem as though the number of users who supported the critical comments against the government had risen dramatically.
In fact, an article about the Pyeongchang Olympic Games ice hockey team, which was published in January, is currently under police investigation. There were two comments that criticized the government regarding the joint Korean women’s ice hockey team: “The Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, Cheong Wa Dae, and the ruling party are all making a mistake. The people are angry” and “Why do the players who have worked hard have to be punished?” The number of ‘agrees’ on these critical comments initially went up to 700 and eventually reached over 40,000.
Hwang Yongsuk, professor of media and communications at Konkuk University explained, “Macros are software that automate tasks through coding. They are often used in marketing to make certain content appear at the top of search results.” He added, “What distinguishes this incident is that macros were used not for marketing but for public opinion.”
This is a serious manipulation of public opinion. Considering bandwagon effects, “Best Comments” that have received several thousands or tens of thousands of ‘agrees’ can distort public opinion. And the effect of such manipulation can be unimaginably powerful especially given the huge number of users who skim through the article and only read the top comments.
That is why it is difficult to dismiss Druking’s posts—about how “the ‘Best Comment’ on a Naver article represents the public opinion” or “the majority of online opinion equals the president’s approval rating”—as lies, although they were certainly exaggerations.
At this point, we have to ask, “Is Naver free of responsibility?” It is important to examine whether Naver neglected the possibility of the online comments being rigged using macros. Naver has expressed a statement that the company has made continuous improvements to the system in order to diminish the possibility of manipulation.
Then what do they need to do? Maeil Business News emphasized the necessity for a “internet real name verification system” through an op-ed piece titled “The Democratic Party member’s online opinion rigging scandal once again raises the need for a real name comment system”. Jang Je-won of the Liberty Korea Party has proposed a bill for such a system, and this controversy seems sure to influence its passage. However, the Constitutional Court of Korea has previously ruled against the idea, concluding that real name verification would violate freedom of expression, have little effect on improving the malicious comment situation, and constrict the public sphere.
“Even when the vision of a business is to prevent distortions in the public sphere, it is difficult to design a perfect system that presupposes deceptive activities,” Professor Hwang explained. “We need to stop looking at online opinion systems as a tool. We also need to find the people who distort public opinion and implement strict legal measures to prevent recurrences.”
Apart from this macro scandal, the controversy over online comment rigging is neither new nor limited to liberals or conservatives. Suspicions of a rigging scandal at the level of national agencies and election camps arose during the Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye administrations. This scandal involved the National Intelligence Service, ROK Cyber Command, Defense Security Command, Sibaldan, and others.
The fundamental problem lies in the endless desire to distort and manipulate public opinion, and the current comment systems in web portals—which arrange comments based on the number of ‘agrees’ they receive—faithfully reflect this desire. Therefore it is important to expand our discourse beyond “technical response” or “introduction of an internet real name verification system” and focus instead on improving the direction of portal policies.
Lee Sungkyu, Media Tech Lab Director at Mediati opined that “comments should also be considered as journalism and portals should change their philosophy and stop looking at comments and articles as separate.” He emphasized, “We need to consider people who post comments as citizen journalists and require them to abide by journalism ethics.”
He also advised, “Right now, portals only show the IP addresses when people post comments, but they can reveal the location, age, and comment history of the people posting comments and review ways to improve the system so that comments can appear more in searches, like in the New York Times.” The Times does not use a real name verification system but requires people to input their name and location to assign at least some responsibility to commenters. It also ranks the level of commenters. Since the users are verified, once comments are published, they appear in search results. In addition, the Times highlights good comments, thereby improving the responsibility and reliability of commenters.