South Korean Internet catches "mad cow madness"

SEOUL Fri Jun 13, 2008 10:29am IST

SEOUL (Reuters) - Angry South Korean teenagers, Internet-savvy and armed with gadget-filled mobile phones, have helped turn a new conservative president's triumph into crisis and possibly changed the way the country does politics.

President Lee Myung-bak, hardly in office three months, has been caught badly off-guard by the fury swirling in the world's most wired country, which began with a flurry of gripes about importing "dangerous" U.S. beef and turned into a blizzard of complaints against his brief rule.

"Maybe, we have been experimenting with a new type of politics without even knowing it," said sociology professor Chun Sang-chin, of Sogang University.

"The Internet has appeared to many people as the only platform to achieve democracy," he said.

When Lee won the presidency in December, it was by the biggest margin in a democratic South Korean leadership election.

By the time the anger over beef had mushroomed into the biggest street protests the capital has seen in 20 years, the former construction company boss had became the most unpopular president at the start of their term that the country has seen. His approval rating now is barely scraping 20 percent.

Social and political commentators said allegations that an April deal to import more U.S. beef put society at risk of mad cow disease tore through the Internet and on SMS messages so fast that they became fact before the government or mainstream media had a chance to weigh in.

One early claim, which appeared to win wide credibility in one of the world's most educated societies, was that the homogenous Korean race had a gene which made it particularly susceptible to the disease.

It was based on the paper of a South Korean scientist who later said his thesis was blown out of proportion.

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By the time his rebuttal was published in the largest daily, the debate on the Internet had shifted to new fears, such as how easily Korean babies might catch bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) from diapers made with material from U.S. cattle.

Students, already suspicious of Lee's planned education reforms, were sending each other messages warning of a secret deal to import the supposedly diseased U.S. beef for their school lunches.

"Mad cow madness" wrote one leading daily, the JoongAng Ilbo, of the fear-mongering. But a growing number of Koreans paid little heed.

"People are unhappy with the established media's coverage and have created their own," said Lee Jong-ho, a producer for OhmyTV, part of the OhmyNews and one of several Internet news sites publishing articles, opinion pieces and multimedia material from "citizen journalists".

As the technology has evolved, so has the nature of the Internet debate.

"The Internet has generated what can be called 'lifestyle politics'. These are soft, everyday issues that can quickly become major political topics," said Kang Won-taek, a political science professor at Soongsil University.

One of the most popular sounding boards for the debate over Lee Myung-bak's policies has been the Agora section of leading portal DAUM (agora.media.daum.net/ ).

Normally with up to around 40 million pages views a day, the number exploded during the height of this month's protests to more than 200 million a day across a wide range of age groups.

The use of the Internet has given a new impetus to South Korea's long tradition of mass rallies.

Now, the protesters discuss the best sort of video equipment to use -- preferably resistant to hard bumps and bursts from police water canons -- and quickly post video clips and photos while detailing their experiences on blogs.

Observers said the beef debate has seen the merger of online and offline politics.

Protesters shout slogans and also shoot pictures and videos on their top-end mobile phones that are quickly sent out on the Internet. They send SMS messages to friends to meet up at protests and warn them when the police are starting to arrest those who are acting up.

One of the more popular refrains from those on the Internet is how best to use newspapers.

"Bring a copy of one of the big dailies with you to the rally," one comment read. "You can sit on it to keep your pants clean."

(Additional reporting by Jack Kim and Park Ju-min; Editing by Jonathan Thatcher and Alex Richardson)

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