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THE INTERNET AND GRASSROOTS MOVEMENTS by Won-gak Chong
April 13 marked Korea's first general election in the new millennium. However, the election had significance beyond just marking a new millennium, it marked several other events, as well.

The election, essentially, marked the end to Korea's currency crisis. It marked the midpoint of President Kim Dae Jung's term in office. It marked the emergence of a new 30-something generation of politicians. It marked the beginning of organized labor developing into a potential political force. It marked the beginning of a grassroots democratic movement, led by citizens' groups, to influence the nomination process party candidates. And it also marked a greater use of the Internet in politics.

The number of Internet users in Korean has broken through the 14-million mark, and Korea has a faster rate of domain name registration than any other country in the world. Therefore, most political candidates naturally set up Web sites to take advantage of this trend. Some of these sites were made up of simple documents posted on the sites while others were more sophisticated with video of speeches and other information in appealing media formats aimed at winning over voters.

Four candidates running for office here in Chinju, including one who was on the list of undesirable candidates, set up Web sites as part of their campaign strategies. Even the National Election Commission, a normally ultra-conservative government agency, jumped on the Web site bandwagon and set up a homepage that included such personal candidate data as military service records, criminal convictions, and tax-filing information.

One of the groups that benefited most from this rush to the Internet was the 2000 General Election Coalition, which was a citizens' group pushing for a change in the way party candidates are selected. In a 3-month period, from January 12 to April 13, the coalition's Web site had more than 930,000 hits, and its bulletin board had 16,000 postings, not including the tens of thousands of responses to those postings. If you compare the numbers for the coalition Web site to the numbers of the Ministry of Government Administration and Home Affairs (MOGAHA), which is one of the most active government sites, the difference is obvious.

The MOGAHA Web site has had a respectible 3.5 million hits since it was established three years ago, in April 1998, but the site's bulletin board, which was establish on November 30, 1999, has had only 3,700 postings over a 15 month period. The difference in the number of postings on the two sites is remarkable. And this does not even include all the postings at the Web sites for the coalition's regional offices.

The Internet provides citizens' groups with a new means of getting their messages out to the public. Some of the unique differences between the Internet and more traditional media are as follows:

First, citizens' groups have secured its own direct media access to the public, where it can provide information and make its arguments without censorship or distortion.

Before the Internet, citizen's groups had to rely chiefly on established newspaper and broadcast media to get out their messages. This left the decision to inform the public of a citizens' group's message in the hands of the established media, which may not or may not relay the message, depending on whether the message is in line with their own goals. This restricted the ability of the citizens' groups to get their messages out. Moreover, a citizens' group might be forced to soften or mollify its message to conform to the tastes of the established media. Citizens' groups are now able to bypass tradition media with the introduction of the Internet.

The Internet allows citizens' groups to not only pass on their message to visitors who their Websites, but also because it is so easy to copy and distribute information, the Internet allows for mass distribution beyond an individual Web site. The result is that groups can get their messages out without going through established media.

Second, the Internet allows for a group's members and other citizens to freely express themselves.

The bulletin boards on the Internet allow for the free exchange of information between a group's members and other citizens like no other media before it. Traditional media generally allow for only the one-way transfer of information from the information source. Traditionally, an organization with the money or the medium to dispense information had the power to put whatever spin they wanted on the information they supplied. The average citizen had no means of confirming if the information they were receiving was accurate, distorted, or groundless. And people who may have been able to confirm, expand on, or deny the information had little or no chance to be heard. Bulletin boards, however, allow for anyone to express his or her views, counter views, or expand on views. This also means more variety of viewpoints.

Third, the Internet allows citizens' groups from around the country to coordinate activities through an online network.

The 2000 General Election Coalition had twenty-two regional offices with their own Web sites, which were linked to the coalition's main Web site. The main Web site also had a link to the Catholic General Election Coalition Web site, which means that coalition members and other citizens could access any of these sites from the coalition's main Web site. And, of course, people on regional Web sites had one-click access to the coalition's main Web site.

Distance and regional size are irrelevant on the Internet. Whether in Cheju-do or in the Kangdong district of Seoul, groups can form and operate. A coalition member in Cheju-do can receive information from the main office in Seoul or from any of the branch offices. If there is a problem or issue that arises in one region, people all over the country will quickly learn about it at the same time. Because of the instantaneous exchange of information, an issue can be more than just a local issue; it can be a national issue, whether it originated in a large, medium-side, or small city. The Internet removes the barriers of time and space.

The Internet, as the representative medium of our country's telecommunication's system, is bringing about a variety of changes, from top to bottom, in our society. Of course, there are both good and bad things about change. I wanted to focus on the good things today, especially how it has changed the activities of citizen's groups. I will save the bad things about change and their solutions for another day.

In summary, the Internet is a landmark development in the area of information exchange. Two people can be talking and exchanging files at the same time. Space and time restrictions are pretty much gone. All of this means more convenience and, especially where citizen groups are concerned, more participation in government. These are some of the gains for citizen groups, their members, and others.

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