South Korea will restart imports of US beef after the two countries agreed on more stringent import criteria. But despite government assurances that they have strengthened safety regulations and checks, opponents have vowed to keep protesting unless the government completely renegotiates the deal. And one of the driving forces behind the protest is South Korea’s online community or the netizens as they are known.
South Korean protesters holding candlelight rally against U.S. beef imports in Seoul
There are a lot fewer demonstrators these days coming out to the nightly candlelight vigils in front of Seoul’s City Hall than when they began almost two months ago. But the protests are still drawing some newcomers, like 28-year old Chang Gyeong Hoo. He and a few friends came to the rally as part of a class project. Chang says that even though this is only the second time he has joined the vigil, he already knew a lot about what’s going on from what he read on the Internet.
“I have read a lot about American beef and other government policies, like education, on the Internet. Every time I go online there is a lot of information about these protests.” Chang says one thing he read online was that meat from American cattle over thirty months of age is very dangerous so they should not import it.
Internet’s key role in protests
The Internet has played a central role in mobilizing the masses to join the rallies. Demonstrators post pictures and videos on thousands of anti-US beef message boards. And for those who stayed at home, they can receive updates from the vigils set up in real time.
At the protests in Seoul City Hall, a tent is erected next to the stage where about 15 Internet monitors, all dressed in matching yellow vests, are typing away on laptops. Internet Monitor Park Hyeon Seo says they are providing an important service.
“We help the people who could not come out tonight to City Hall to get together with those who did. We also gather opinions from some websites about the protests and then we give them to the announcers to read on stage,” says Park.
Netizens criticised for inciting panic
But the Internet has also been blamed for spreading falsehoods about the quality of American beef and inciting public unrest.
Michael Breen is author of ‘The Koreans’ and a local columnist. He feels that there is an element of hysteria in the issue, where misunderstanding breeds further misunderstanding. “I think the internet obviously is not policed. The government is trying to dig out the source of rumors, there’s a suspicion that some agitators are deliberately creating rumors,” says Breen.
Local media targeted
Another problem has been an increase in cyber violence targeted at mainstream media. Breen says protestors are calling for boycotts of companies who place ads in newspapers they see as pro-American beef, causing them to lose advertising revenue.
“There were columns and editorials that rationally pointed out that 96 percent of American beef is consumed domestically and that Americans are eating it. Pointing things out like that is taken as evidence that you are the enemy by the activists,” Breen says.
Despite a deal that Seoul recently brokered with Washington to ease the public’s concern over the safety of American beef, protestors, both off and online vow to continue the candlelight vigils.