Kim, J. H. (2009). Falling into Silence and Fears of Mad Cow Disease in the South Korean Blogosphere. Cyberpsychology: Journal of Psychosocial Research on Cyberspace, 3(1), Article 5. Retrieved from https://cyberpsychology.eu/article/view/4219/3261
Falling into Silence and Fears of Mad Cow Disease in the South Korean Blogosphere

Falling into Silence and Fears of Mad Cow Disease in the South Korean Blogosphere

Jeong Hee Kim
Department of Media and Communications,
London School of Economics and Political Science, London, United Kingdom

Abstract

In summer 2008, there were a series of on- and offline candlelight vigils in South Korea against the government’s decision to import American beef. This article explores how dominant opinion within a blog community plays a role in shaping the expression of bloggers’ opinion concerning these demonstrations. Referring to theories of the spiral of silence and fragmentation of cyberspace, an argument is made that the blogosphere is not unrestricted communication in the apparent absence of power relations. Based on data collected through participant observation and in-depth interviews, the article explores how silence constitutes an important part of deliberative interaction within the Ohmynews

Key words: blogosphere, silence, cyber-culture, Ohmynews

Introduction

Compared with the normative Habermasian public sphere, Fraser (1992) proposes that subaltern counter-publics form oppositional identities, interests and needs as interpretations of subordinated groups or minority voices, especially those of feminists. Chang (2005) develops this notion by arguing that the Internet, facilitated by political change, offers an alternative public sphere in Korea. Chang continues by arguing that the Internet allows for the formation of counter-discourses constructed by counter-publics known as jinbo (progressives) who have previously been suppressed by the pre-existing hegemonic socio-political order of bosoo (conservatives)1. For Chang, however, the partisan tendency of jinbo as well as bosoo in Korea makes difficult “the expression of criticism and counter-arguments that are necessary for the maintenance of a healthy public sphere” (p. 411). Despite the democratising promise of the blog space, re-creating closure from within poses the danger of fragmenting like-minded people (Dahlberg, 2007; Sunstein, 2007) in antagonistic way, rather than diversifying their discourses. Dahlberg (2007) warns of the fragmentation of cyberspace, or “‘deliberative enclaves' where group positions and practices are reinforced rather than openly critiqued” (p. 828). Therefore, the fragmentation of cyberspace jeopardizes the possibility of open and reflexive discussions online.

One way to understand dissonance in theories of public opinion and public sphere is to examine the connections and disconnections between what is said in such deliberative online enclaves. In other words, to qualitatively explore “what speech conceals and what silence reveals” (Sabbadini, 1991, p. 407) in the space of blogs. As Saville-Troike (1995) notes, “Silence is often not documented because it does not attract attention in the same way that audible or visible behaviour does” (p. 15). In political communication, cyber-cultural studies and new media research, silence has often been bracketed. The South Korean blogosphere – a term that collectively includes all blogs and interconnected links – provides a rich context for such understanding. First, the South Korean blogosphere is characterized by a public sphere, and at the same time, by ghettoized discourse (Lee, 2004). Second, posting comments to and receiving reciprocal visits to one’s blog have cultural significance for social networking (Kim, 2005; Kim & Yun, 2007). In South Korea, posting comments plays a central role in shaping online interactivity in cyberspace. Online commentary also offers a means to participate in the formation of public opinion (Kim & Sun, 2006), and a measure of social recognition and public opinion with potential effects on personal opinion (Jeong & Kim, 2006).

This article argues that silence constitutes an important part of shaping deliberative interaction through political discussion within the social practices of the blogosphere. The following discussion is centred on candlelight vigils protesting – that is, an assembly of people holding candles to protest to a social and/or political cause – the South Korean government’s decision to import American beef, amidst existing fears of the risk of mad cow disease (a variant of Creutsfeldt-Jakob disease, hereafter vCJD2) spreading amongst Koreans.

Re-reading silence

The blogosphere is a paradoxical space, a blurring of the private and the public (Kim, 2008; Lovink, 2008). Individuals publish their personal thoughts and opinions on a blog, whereas the consumption of its content is public and open to virtually anyone with Internet access. On the blog private matters become publicly expressed opinion. In the broader political sense, a blogger’s voice is often considered a reflection of public opinion, especially considering its bottom-up, agenda-setting potential (Woodly, 2008). Previous research has focused on why people blog (Kim, 2005), who blogs what (Herring, Scheidt, Kouper, & Wright, 2006), and what political bloggers do online from personal perspectives (McKenna & Pole, 2008). These studies neglect deeper socio-political implications. Additionally, differentiating between blogs and social networking sites is increasingly common, especially commercially. However, blogging is a social activity, with motivations such as building emotional ties (Kim & Yun, 2007) or personal relations (Kwon & Woo, 2005). The blog is also an extension of other communication channels like e-mail, SMS, even face-to-face interaction (Taki, 2008). Bloggers’ collectivism (Keren, 2006) and/or ideologically biased political networks (Park, 2007) (for instance, between conservatives and liberals) suggest that the blogosphere is not a domain of unrestricted communication. On the contrary, the cultural and political significance of why people may discontinue blogging and become invisible to the blogosphere are neglected areas of research.

Likewise, there is rigid theoretical separation between social relations and reasoned deliberation. However, it remains unclear whether political fragmentation is necessarily independent from sociality. One of the most researched theories of relationships between opinion expression and sociality is the spiral of silence theory (SoS) (Noelle-Neumann, 1984). According to Noelle-Neumann, the manifest function of public opinion as reflecting rationality underscores the conditions of achieving conformity in order to influence decision-making institutions (Splichal, 1999). By contrast, the latent function of public opinion as a means of social control puts emphasis on the process of opinion-formation. One key factor of SoS theory is the effects of mass media, which is not the focus of this research. Another factor is socio-psychological fear of isolation, which in turn determines the climate of opinion and one’s willingness to speak out (Neuwirth, Frederick, & Mayo, 2007). For Noelle-Neumann, instead of openly voicing against the majority opinion, one passively adopts the subordinated position of silencing the self and conforms to the majority view in order to avoid the risk of social isolation. As a result, the difference between one’s assessment of (pre)dominant public opinion and perception of future trends hinges on the willingness to express opinion on morally controversial issues. Following this, Noelle-Neumann asserts that a spiral of silence is set in motion.

Some studies are critical of SoS theory: conceptually, how the spiralling process of silence first sets in (Scheufele & Moy, 2000; Splichal, 1999); methodologically, the heavy dependence on hypothetical survey questions (Glynn, Hayes & Shanahan, 1997; Hayes, 2007). There are also inconsistent empirical findings. For instance, disconnect between willingness to speak out and actual expression of opinion (Petric & Pinter, 2001), where individuals may misperceive the climate of opinion (Tichenor & Wackman, 1973). Alternately, they may employ different strategies to avoid expressing opinions in different settings (Hayes, 2007). On a conceptual level, Noelle-Neumann (1984) does fail to take into consideration various other readings of silence. Noelle-Neumann deterministically argues that “you can at least remain silent, as a second choice, so that others can put up with you” (p. 6), especially in a polarized opinion climate (Hayes, Scheufele, & Huge, 2006). Thus, silence is conflated into conformity without consideration for cultural differences that more positively frame it. Accordingly, Scollon (1995) criticises that one of the reasons for neglecting how silence is differently used and interpreted lies in attribution itself: taking what is a culture-specific phenomenon as universal. Further, Miura and Yamashita (2007) note, “Those in non-Western, primarily Asian, cultures have interdependent self-construals and are more likely to think of themselves in the context of the larger social world, tending to define themselves in terms of their group memberships and relationships with others” (p. 1468).

Apart from this evidence of socio-psychological pressure and group-sanctioning of silence, Bresnahan et al. (2002) provide a more nuanced perspective on cultural differences in how people respond to criticisms in the U.S, China and Japan. When responding to complaints by neighbours, for instance, Americans and Chinese may use silence to indicate anger or personal embarrassment. Furthermore, Chinese and Japanese may be more likely to capitulate to criticism than Americans. However, this study shares the same methodological limitations as SoS-based studies, in that it also depends on hypothetical questionnaires. As Tannen (1995) notes, “silence is seen as positive when it is taken as evidence of the existence of something positive underlying – for example … the silence of perfect rapport between intimates who do not have to exchange words” (p. 94). All of these perspectives raise questions of whether falling into silence and/or conformity is necessarily disempowering in different patterns of culture. They also suggest the need for a closer exploration of both verbal and contextual information, especially in a culture such as South Korea’s, where collective harmony is valued more than the individual desire to express one’s opinion.

Avoiding opinion-expression and silence

In the libertarian conceptualisation of the blogosphere, neglected is that public expression of opinion often involves the risks of criticism or scrutiny by those who disagree, whether offline (Hayes et al., 2006) or online (Kim, 2008). Although such risks are generally acknowledged, SoS research in the online context has taken for granted technical features of the Internet without many attempts to explore the links between text and context. Anonymity is one good example. There is some evidence supporting the positive relationship between anonymity and opinion expression (Eum, 2005; Ho & McLeod, 2008). Anonymity offers a safer means of expressing opinion, given the potential negative social and political ramifications of making one’s voice heard. However, online interaction is more complicated than simply hiding behind the shelter of anonymity. In the one-to-many form of interaction that blogging presents, misrepresenting one’s opinion can result in a many-to-one form of social consequence, thus making disclosure difficult to control once it becomes public (Kim, 2008). Additionally, the difficulty of controlling flows of information in online networks indicates bloggers’ use of impression management in order to present themselves in desirable ways (Jung, Vorderer, & Song, 2007; Kim & Yun, 2007). For this reason, impression management is also employed to maintain and/or enhance social relationships with strong ties (Stefanone & Jang, 2007).

With blogging, both the expression and the disappearance of opinion can take place through different modes of interaction: for instance, by avoiding interaction with certain bloggers and readers, or by deleting posted entries. What should be emphasized here is that bloggers engage in invisible as well as asynchronous communication by selectively using password-protected comments. Or, they send private messages that avoid making their communication public. When posting and receiving comments on a blog, asynchronous interaction does not indicate the absence of response or, more importantly, of opinion. Rather, it is part of the structure itself. With respect to the norms of reciprocity (Kim & Yun, 2007), one is expected to reply to a blog entry or comment either as an immediate or a delayed response. In the offline context, avoidance of publicly expressing opinion is an effective way to manage one’s impression (Hayes et al., 2006). In the case of blogging avoidance of publicly expressing opinion can be further facilitated by multiple modes of communication (for example, through password-protected interactions). Without empirical evidence, there is no reason to assume that the spiral of silence amongst bloggers and their readers does not occur. If a spiral of silence does take place in the blogosphere, then, it is critical to rethink the value and modes of silence in blogging that may otherwise seem ambiguous.

Finally, whereas negative silence implies the absence of something positive, silence can be read as positive if it represents the omission of something negative. Likewise, the absence of opinion on the surface does not mean the absence of interaction in the case of blogging. Thus, it is important to shift the interpretive paradigm from one that sees silence as inaction to one that sees silence as action or reaction to socio-technical conditions. In the blogosphere, both social interaction and political deliberation take place in blurred boundaries of private and public. A deeper understanding of how certain voices become visibly public while others fall silent, or how certain interaction disappears from the surface, can offer new ways of filling the gaps between rational public opinion and social control. In the following section, the methodology for this study will be discussed.

Methodology

This study employs participant observation and in-depth interviews with bloggers at the Ohmynews service. Ohmynews hosts and provides personal blogs free-of-charge to individuals who register for its service. As an online news source as well, Ohmynews is characterised by an ideologically progressive readership (Yoo, 2005), and by positively portraying anti-American sentiment (Song, 2007). Although there is no clear association between Ohmynews news-readers and bloggers, the latter actively engage in socio-political activism, discussions and demonstrations on- and offline. The Ohmynews blog service is distinguished by its community of users, who call each other neighbour and develop social relations through continued interaction and repeat visits to each other’s blogs. The community orientation of the Ohmynews blogs reflects evidence of social networking and self-expression as two important motivations for blogging in South Korea (Kim, 2004; Kim 2005). Ohmynews blogs thus stand at the nexus of political deliberation and social interaction.

As part of a PhD thesis project, the data in this study were collected from July 2006 to December 2008 through participant observation and on- and offline interviews as the main method. Initially, an online survey was employed during the course of participant observation. Without the aim of making representative claims, the survey, which was adapted from previous SoS research (Hayes, 2007; Neuwirth et al., 2007), was only used for explorative purposes in order to guide research and interview questions. For interviews those respondents whose responses to the survey questions indicated negativity or passivity, such as dissatisfaction and concerns about interacting with other bloggers and readers, were re-contacted. Furthermore, to construct a corpus of potential interviewees from participant observation and snowball sampling through referrals from previously interviewed bloggers. A purposive selection of interviewees based on answers to open-ended questions in the survey results in a number of critical weaknesses. For this reason, the survey findings are not discussed in this article.

Initially, observation without participation, or lurking, took place within Ohmynews blog spaces in order to identify individual blog communities particularly interactive and engaged in political discussions. Before observation was undertaken, I created a personal blog and updated its contents daily with thoughts and reflections on my research progress, but without in-depth scholarly discussion. In August 2006, I began participating in the Ohmynews blog community through interaction with bloggers and readers. This allowed me to reciprocate self-disclosure and build trust, to create more comfortable spaces, and share experiences with them. Thus, the blog became both a site of interaction and a means of data collection in its natural setting.

Interaction and informal interviews took place by posting comments publicly, privately (using a guitsokmal or secret comment via password-protected dialogue), or by sending private messages. However, online participant observation is inevitably partial (Hine, 2000). Thus, instead of relying on one method, I used “multiple modes of data collection” (Stewart, 1998, p. 28), including keeping a journal of fieldnotes and archiving blog entries. In order to conduct face-to-face interviews and take part in offline gatherings with bloggers, I made three trips to Korea from summer 2007 to summer 2008, of which the durations lasted from one to three months. In total, I met with more than 50 bloggers –ranging from under/postgraduate students, working-class people with little education, professionals in various sectors, and housewives living in and outside of Korea – at 11 different offline social gatherings. I interviewed 26 of them via various other modes of communication such as e-mail, instant messenger and telephone, followed by face-to-face interviews. Since, critical discourse analysis (CDA) also allows for analysis of blogging practices and different kinds of silence in power relations, as these practices are both discursive and discursively represented, these data were subsequently analysed using CDA. For the analysis of the data, special attention was paid to how, and to what extent, certain discourses (e.g., ethnic nationalism and other cultural discourses) become (re)interpreted, interactive, and dominant over others (c.f., van Dijk, 2001).

Mad Cow Disease by Candlelight

With the controversy surrounding candlelight vigils protesting Korean importation of American beef, there are two important points to make. First, this article is not aimed at valuing one moral or political position over another. Second, it is difficult to draw a clear distinction between offline and online activism, and for three reasons: the inability to distinguish certain media effects (for example, the agenda-setting influence of mass media on bloggers); bloggers’ active participation in offline demonstrations; and the extent to which the blogosphere is embedded in cyberspace in general. Therefore, the socio-political complexities of these demonstrations are only briefly contextualized.

While the candlelight vigils were a direct response to nationwide fears of mad cow disease (Creutsfeldt-Jakob disease, hereafter CJD) developing into a human form due to American beef imports, the socio-political context in which the protests and the online movement3 took place is more complex. On April 29, 2008, the Munhwa Broadcasting Corporation’ s (MBC) investigative journalism programme PD Sucheop (Producer’s Note) aired the special Urgent Report: Is U.S. Beef Safe from Mad Cow Disease? This was followed by another report on the Korean government’s decision to import American beef. What alerted and even panicked viewers was the report’s inclusion of scientific findings on the genetic vulnerability of Koreans to mad cow disease. The report also included interviews with the family of an American woman who might have died of vCJD, as well as footage of cows crippled by the illness. One 4 of the Anti-Mad Cow Organization declared a candlelight demonstration be held on August 15, 2008 – the symbolic date of Korean Liberation from the 1945 Japanese invasion – and the one-hundredth such demonstration since the first of May 2, 2008.

In the development of events surrounding these vigils and the risk of mad cow disease, there has been controversy, especially politically. On August 14, 2008, the Korea Communication Standard Commission (KCSC) ordered PD Sucheop to publicly apologize to viewers for inaccurately translating the non-human form of mad cow disease (CJD) as the human form (vCJD) in the interview with the American woman’s family. The KCSC also ruled againstPD Sucheop for having caused widespread misunderstandings of the potential risk to Koreans of vCJD from American beef. However, groups opposing South Korea’s ruling conservative party along with supporters of PD Sucheop, accused the KCSC’s decision of being a political one. As of April 2009, government prosecutors are still investigating PD Sucheop, while opponents continue to criticize the investigation itself of impinging on freedom of the press and expression.

Another controversy is the use of physical force by both police and civilians (protesters burned and demolished police buses, while the police used water cannons on the protesters gathered). Both the police and civilians assert the legitimacy of their respective uses of force, but criticize each other’s conduct as unlawful. This opposition was intensified by various rumours spread on the Internet (that the police killed a female student while attempting to make arrests, for instance, which was found not to be true). On the political front, government officials criticized progressive parties and organizations for having over-politicized the demonstration and for the use of anti-Americanism in attempting to consolidate political support. Demonstrators contest the government’s accusation, emphasizing their voluntary and decentralized efforts to organize demonstrations using mobile phones and the Internet. Although there is no direct evidence of a causal relationship between the candlelight vigils and presidential approval ratings, approval of President Lee went from 52.8% of the total electoral votes on December 19, 2007 5 to 24.8% on September 23, 2008 6.

Between collective intelligence and the tyranny of the majority

Lighting candles together has the political meaning for the demonstrators of democratically uniting and delivering their message to the primary decision-makers, namely President Lee. Another significance of the action was that it provided unprecedented social networking opportunities for many people. In a three-month period, thousands of bloggers gathered in front of Seoul’s City Hall in offline demonstrations and held online discussions. Thus, the candlelight vigils have brought about new opportunities for bloggers to connect with each other without having to make arrangements beforehand online. For those who participated in the demonstrations, a sense of togetherness was created through having the common cause of expressing disapproval to President Lee, as well as the sense of democratic empowerment. Furthermore, solidarity and familiarity were strengthened by a common physical presence of offline action and by extending new social relationships to the online space after meeting in the offline one. Online encounters further facilitated repeat participation in the offline demonstrations. For instance, when taking part in the candlelight vigils, some bloggers carried signs or banners that indicated their online presence (for example, Ohmynews bloggers and Daum Agorians 7. With these banners, people could physically identify others from cyberspace, and then join them without having first made arrangements online.

Eastwood, a freelance writer and father of two, remarks on how blogging made it possible to bridge the gap between online and offline meetings:

At earlier offline candlelight vigils [before 2007], I did not meet any of the people I had met online. On the contrary, it was completely the opposite [this time]. On the first day [of the candlelight vigil], I saw one of the Ohmynews bloggers Sunlight, and then I continually ran into other bloggers, offline, I had not known online before. Silky Princess with whom I hang out these days is also one that I first met at a candlelight vigil [without having planned do so] offline. I have experienced kinds of [social] relations with many others which may not have been possible without the Internet. (Offline gathering, 07/17/2008)

Acknowledging these new kinds of social networking opportunities through blogging, Eastwood calls them progressive meeting. In his opinion, they level out the social hierarchies and power relations that are the preconditions of so many human relations. Eastwood recalls a moment at a candlelight vigil: “I was surprised that I could feel a sense of friendship with another person that I have not previously known” (ibid). Concurring with Eastwood, Dorothy, a female blogger in her late-20s, nostalgically describes the candlelight vigils as vivid and beautiful days (Blog entry, 25/10/2008). Such blurred boundaries between on- and offline spaces and the sharing of experiences and identity may seem romantic. Although Eastwood came to rethink boundaries between the online and offline, there is a certain risk of reproducing another boundary between us, as friends, and them, as enemies, in “attempting to conform to the position that they see as typical within their own group” (Sunstein, 2008, p. 93).

As this series of large-scale demonstrations continued over three months in the centre of Seoul, voices emerged expressing dissatisfaction with the inconvenience caused by the demonstrations. A man who is a novelist and a multiple-site blogger justifies the demonstrations, stating:

When I go out to join the candlelight movement [offline], I see people who are mad at the demonstrators for causing traffic on streets. I think, sometimes, there is immediate freedom as well as the kind of freedom to be achieved in the long term. I feel sorry and upset a bit when I hear such complaints. They do not understand that these people are fighting for freedom [which was violated by the government] on behalf of those who complain. (Comment by Nineyards, 07/01/2008)

While recognizing that they may have inconvenienced some pedestrians and motorists passing City Hall, he portrays the demonstrations as a positive reinforcement of democracy. For Nineyards, a paramount freedom for all justifies the action undertaken by the demonstrators, which may have caused dissatisfaction to those who seemed to be a minority of non-supporters. Following Mill’s warning (1869), one’s free speech and actions should not do harm to others, especially on a collective level. An implicit problem in the portrayal of the demonstrators as something more important than what others do is treating those individuals not taking part in the demonstration as incompetent to protect their own values by ruling out the voice and rights of others. The discursive strategies of a differentiation between us and them categorize those who do not take part as unpatriotic and even pathetic, therefore, making it difficult to publicly disapprove of the message. Likewise, Mr. Park publicly writes,

"There are many people who feel sad for our citizens . After having put so much effort for democratisation, one Presidential election changed everything. There is no future for Korea. What is sadder is that there are those who ignore it when their rights are violated (by the government). (Blog entry by Mr. Park , 08/27/2008) "

In addition to the unbalanced visibility of alternative voices, discursive strategies of self-presentation and self-impressions in a positive frame are easily found without necessarily involving a devaluation of outgroups. One example of discursive construction of the candlelight vigils in a positive light is the reference by bloggers and other Internet users to Levy’s (1995) visionary work on collective intelligence. A blogger e-cyclopedia emphasizes the collective rationality of bloggers:

The public opinion formed on the Internet, including bloggers, concerning the issues of mad cow disease, more specifically the online discussion forum Daum Agora is a space for Internet users to debate. Opinions from different people are expressed and argued. … [The quality of discussion] gets better with time. We can call it true Collective Intelligence. (Blog entry, 06/27/2008)

Page and Shapiro (1992) argue for the formation of the rational opinion when there are sufficient numbers of people with different kinds of knowledge and information: each person provides and subsequently supplements missing information and knowledge as a whole. Likewise, sheer numbers of blogs and posted entries could play a beneficial role in constituting collective intelligence, which is based on the collaboration and competition of many individuals across a network of networks. Without directly criticizing non-supporters, the demonstrators’ strategies of positive self-presentation imply a polarization in their being the ones part of the intelligence. Whether intended or not, these positive self-presentation and minimization of the goodness of others can reproduce an ideological polarization (van Dijk, 2001).

With technologies and websites that measure and aggregate the flow of information, it becomes relatively easy to notice a spiral of visibility in terms of what is popularly technically linked in the blogosphere (e.g., del.li.ci.us) in comparison to the process of spiral of invisibility as an alterative form of a spiral of silence offline (c.f., Kim, 2008). When certain voices disappear, their disappearance can assume various forms, including disconnected links from blogrolls, deleted blog entries or posted comments, discontinued interaction, or simply dropping out, to name a few. One of the most easily observed forms of disappearance in this study was disengagement from public forms of interaction, or non-interaction within the Ohmynews blog community. This observation lies in parallel to findings that in Korea, online partisan commentators (non-gaek) who are also often bloggers strategically avoid arguments that contradict their leadership and political platform of support in order to minimize internal conflicts (Chang, 2005).

The avoidance of direct criticism on non-supporters is an example of non-interaction amongst Ohmynews bloggers, especially regular bloggers. Within the Ohmynews blog community, there is a clear distinction between regular and non-regular bloggers. For regular Ohmynews bloggers, offline gatherings, known as bungae, in which I participated, take place often and for various reasons: to drink together, to celebrate a birthday, to protest against corporate or government decisions. The gatherings are sometimes organised privately and selectively via e-mail without letting others who are not part of their own collective sub-cluster know about it. In turn, it provides an insight into the importance of social acceptance and selectivity beyond technical connectivity between bloggers. However, participating in bungae is not a necessary condition for building social ties online. Without necessarily engaging in offline gatherings, new interpersonal relations are formed, while pre-existing relations are maintained and enhanced by posting comments (daetgul) on another’s blog with the expectation of reciprocal visits (Kim & Yun, 2007). Through repeated interaction, many Ohmynews bloggers call each other hyung-nimh8 (big brother), nu-nimh (big sister), ah-uh-nimh (little brother), and so on. Unlike Eastman´s understanding of the progressive meeting, as mentioned earlier, the use of such titles in a respective form indicates certain power relations based on traditional Confucianism, which emphasizes hierarchical norms and degrees of social influence, in Korea. In such a closely-knit community, a negative consequence is that it can be difficult to publicly express dissenting opinions without running the risk of emotionally harming relations.

Stardust is a mother of two and an activist for union workers. Stardust reveals her ways of maintaining social relations with those who hold political beliefs contrasting her own, yet who share in communal endeavours: “If I post a comment against someone’s entry, it could bring about [emotional] conflicts. It is not necessary to risk harming a relationship with another” (MSN interview, 11/08/2007). In other words, posting a response in the form of a comment reflects an active means of impression management, although it may seem natural, if not neutral. By contrast, considering the avoidance of opinion expression as a form of self-censorship offline (Hayes, 2007), interaction avoidance could also be a form of self-censorship online. To a certain extent, the consolidation of like-minded rather than persuading others through open discussion can be achieved not only through a direct marginalisation of dissents, but also through avoidance of interaction. Whether such a strategy is always used remains unclear, as repeated avoidance without following the norms of reciprocity can make the blog author seem less interactive or even unapproachable.

Envisaging us and invisiblising them

Within the dominant climate of opinion in favor of the candlelight vigils, alternative voices have been largely invisible, at least on the surface in the Ohmynews blog community. It is important to note that the process of a disappearance of alternative voices takes more than the binary presence and absence of alternative voices concerning the candlelight vigils. After an offline meeting of seven other bloggers in Seoul on July 14, 2008, I conducted an e-mail interview with Mr. Park, who emphasizes the importance of rationality as a rule of thumb in his response to comments received on his blog: “My principle of reaction [to blog comments] is that I reject comments that are emotional [rather than rational]”. Despite his emphasis on Habermasian rational-critical discussion, Mr. Park highlights the sociality of the Internet and the sense of bonding in a broad sense:

The Internet is a society as well, so people can be isolated online. I do not think sociality and personality can be ignored, just because it is a virtual society. On the contrary, due to the very virtuality [without any social cues] it requires more sociality and personality. (MSN interview, 07/16/2008)

As Mr. Park points out, socially meaningful relations are not only formed and maintained in the blogosphere specifically and on the Internet generally but emotional dissatisfaction with personal and political matters also persists. In addition to the antagonistic difference between us and them, the extent to which disagreement or dissent is tolerated is somewhat fragmented between bloggers and readers, as well as between regular and non-regular bloggers. Evidence informs us that “a user who perceives social support from the personal blog feels more positive well-being and less lonely in ‘real’ life” (Jung et al., 2007, p. 20), positively enhancing a sense of belonging. As in offline contexts, getting to know each other takes more than just technical connectivity. In a blog community, posting comments is one of the most viable means of showing support with respect to the norms of reciprocity. However, a membership or registration to a blog service is not always necessary. Henry emphasises the importance of socio-psychological conditions for building strong ties between bloggers. According to Henry,

the readers’ continuous visits [to a blog] are the only way to maintain meaningful relations … Making meaningful relations through blogging is different from, let’s say family, but very similar to making friends’ in the absence of any social contracts or contacts in real life (E-mail interview, 11/01/2008).

Henry himself is not a registered blogger, but feels a strong sense of emotional belonging and attachment to Ohmynews members though his continuous interaction with some of them. There are differences in the ways bloggers interact with regulars whose blogs are registered or hyperlinked, and with non-regulars who are often anonymous and more importantly, infrequent visitors to the blog community. As Rafaeli and Ariel (2008, p. 250) argue, “Community members avoid those who never give or conversely make an effort to help those who have contributed in the past”.

In contrast to the thesis of empowerment in anonymity to overcome identity boundaries (Papacharissi, 2002), being anonymous without sharing a collective identity and culture is easily devalued and even ignored, as the members of an online community frequently avoid responding to anonymous comments. Informants in this study report that they do not interact with non-regulars as responsively as with regulars. A lack of interaction, which can be perceived as being more polite than directly expressing disagreement, by not responding to posted comments becomes apparent when non-regular and anonymous visitors find that anonymous but regular readers receive more personalised and longer comments from blog authors. Furthermore, the devaluation of anonymity ironically also takes place amongst anonymous visitors. In the following exchange, when an anonymous visitor speaks favorably of the police and legitimizes their use of physical force to control protesters, another anonymous visitor responds:

It was not the police who used violence [first]. … Was it not just a normal demonstration [without violence]? It was the protesters who attempted to march into the Office of the President. If it was peaceful, would the police use force? Why do you think the majority of the people now turned their back against the candles? (Mr. dfkl, comment, 09/18/2008)

In response to Mr. dfkl´s comment, another anonymous reader antagonistically reacts:

Why don’t you go to ‘your own league’, Daum Agora. You sound as if the people attacked the police first, and … Please do not say that ‘the people’ were dangerous. (Dear dfkl, comment, 09/18/2008).

With the two-way interactivity of blogging – that is, a reciprocal visit to each other’s blog between bloggers – Eastman has a rather active, although implicit, reaction when he realizes the different political beliefs of another blogger. If Eastman finds a disparity of opinions, he does not visit blogs with as the same frequency as he had before rather than making a direct attempt to contest the issue. Then, he eventually discontinues interaction altogether and deletes the hyperlinks in his blogroll. For Eastman,

Since the blog is a space that is so individualistic and personal, it is likely that the interaction seems to disappear when [bloggers] find out that some one has a different point of view on ideological issues, the candlelight movement. However, to those that I have met offline, I tend to express my disagreement more carefully, so there wouldn’t be much trouble. I also get respect [from them for my view]. … Yet, having realized the disparity in our views, it is true that my visits to his/her blog become less frequent. (E-mail interview, 09/08/2008)

In a follow-up e-mail interview, Eastman explains this discontinuity of interaction:

It is hard for progressives to express their opinions in Korea where conservatives are dominant. For this reason, in a private space like the blog, people are comfortable with others who are similar rather than causing conflicting relations with others who are different (11/18/2008).

Concurring with findings that non-participation is a strategy of self-censorship offline (Hayes et al., 2006), bloggers create their own publics by actively disengaging from publicly-observable discussions they judge unfavourable or hostile to them.

Mr. Park further supports this observation. Mr. Park is an active participant in the demonstrations both offline and online. He has written 61 entries strictly on the candlelight vigils and has criticized President Lee since becoming an Ohmynews blogger in June 2008. As Mr. Park explains:

For example, assume there is a blog run by a a new-right [neo-conservative] person. I think it would be meaningless to post comments there, like a fan from your home team going to an away match and showing support, [which is not easy to make a visible impression]. (MSN interview, 07/16/2008)

Participation in political discussions is not simply a neutral form of one’s expression of opinion. It is also a means of constructing and expressing one’s political as well as cultural identity. The desire to achieve democracy by pursuing un-coerced communication amongst bloggers may seem to bring people together under a shared identity as demonstrators or even as Koreans. Nevertheless, the blogosphere remains a partial reflection of collective intelligence without a full acknowledgment of diversity in content or active engagement with dissent. At least some segments of the blogosphere do not reflect the conditions necessary for the Habermasian public sphere, which is based on consensus. An anonymous blogger 8 ball expresses a critical opinion in a passive tone about those bloggers who perceive themselves part of a collective intelligence. Without directly challenging the collective voice against the government’s decision, 8 ball expresses criticism:

It is difficult to call bloggers and Internet users collective intelligence. They are rather preoccupied with collective sensation, calling those whose opinions are different from their own part-timers [who are allegedly hired to manipulate the public opinion by adding positive comments in favour of certain groups by some individual or organization]. (Blog entry by 8 ball , 06/22/2008)

There are others who are worried about collectiveness. In social gatherings outside of formal interviews, four female bloggers, including a woman who does not reside in South Korea, revealed that they were afraid of writing blog entries about political issues. One reason is that they feel incompetent to discuss political issues due to their lack of knowledge of the field. Another reason is that they are afraid of potentially becoming a target of criticism by other bloggers and readers if what they write is seen as not making sense. As they commonly put it, “I do not know much about politics”. What is important here is that the framing of personal incompetency conceals broader relations of power, which includes gender politics, in the blogosphere. The candlelight demonstration was one of the topics they actively avoided getting involved in, given the sensitivity of the issue. (Despite its potential role in shaping the interactivity of the blogosphere, gender is not an area of research in this article.)

Likewise, forcejk contests:

What also is important is that [the candlelight vigil is] an apparently anti-American movement. Anti-conservative as well. The problem is that [the protesters] consider anyone as morally wrong if they agree with the U.S. or if they are conservative, thus [the protesters] impose intolerable violence on such individuals. But, aren’t the pro-Americans and conservatives also Korean citizens? The candlelight protest can be seen as the imposition of their [preferred] ideology. (E-mail interview, 07/01/2008)

Forcejk´s account is noteworthy because of his current service, part of national duty, in an auxiliary police force outside of Seoul. Given his position, there are certain risks in publicly expressing his (personal) opinions, any detailed information on the police unit in which he is serving, or his rank on his blog. Forcejk, then, was in a position open to the possibility of getting into trouble if a complaint about one of his blog entries had been lodged with his police unit. This is the case regardless of the questionable legitimacy of complaints filed by bloggers as civilians, and considering demonstrators’ dissatisfaction with the use of violence by the police force (firing water cannons in attempts to prevent protesters from marching into the office of President CheongWaDae). Despite these potential risks, forcejk continued to express his critical voice, labelling the candlelight vigils as collective madness (Blog entry, 07/05/2008). More specifically, he continues to condemn the Ohmynews blog community as a whole:

A strength as well as weakness of the Ohmynews blog service is that everyone expresses the same voice, like fascism in a way, I think. At sites like Ohmynews, it seems to be very easy for people like me to be excluded. (E-mail interview, 07/01/2008)

In a follow-up interview, forcejk indicated that he has never supported President Lee’s foreign or domestic policies, including those concerning the Free Trade Agreement between South Korea and the U.S. and importing American beef as part of the agreement. The reason for his disapproval of the candlelight vigils is the ways in which the dominant opinion takes place. To borrow Mill’s (1869) expression, forcejk questions the tyranny of the majority: “The current Internet is dominated by the anonymous many, imposing their thoughts on the few whose opinions are different. Can we call this collective rationality?” (Blog entry, 06/27/2008). Considering that forcejk could be given an order to control protesters at any time as part of his service, his position against the protest may seem natural. However, his aim is not to advocate the auxiliary police, but to point out the difficulty of expressing a minority voice. On the one hand, “multi-vocal voices often emerge during the interactions and diverse positions are compared in the process of threading a discussion in the form of comments or trackbacks” (Lim & Yang, 2006: p. 9). On the other hand, when multi-vocal voices emerge, those whose voices are heard or not heard is a different issue. In contrast to forcejk´s desire to initiate and engage in debates with other bloggers and readers, “‘0 comments’ is an ambiguous statistic that means absolutely nobody cares” in the world of blogging, as argued by Lovink (2008, p. ix). As of June 17, 2008, the lack of interaction in terms of comments received from other bloggers and readers was apparent at forcejk´s blog. There were fewer than 10 comments posted on more than 200 entries he had written, and in spite of over 13,000 visitors. In August 2008, forcejk eventually disappeared from Ohmynews in the absence of comments, which is an important measure of population and motivation for blogging.

Without blatant systems of expulsing dissent, or clear signs of verbal abuse, the lack of opinions alternative to the dominant one in favour of the candlelight vigils resembles a spiral of silence within the Ohmynews blog community. Any alternative opinions expressed by registered bloggers were few, making their presence less visible within the Ohmynews blog community. Comments that were anonymously posted in favour of importations or of President Lee are more easily seen. Considering the thousands of protestors who gathered together to light candles offline, and the wide use of candlelight-shaped banners and emoticons on blogs, one can argue that the lack of visible opposition to the candlelight vigils represents public consensus. However, there have been anonymous comments critical of the candlelight demonstration and people condemning it, but who have dropped out like forcejk. On the one hand, “not having anonymity on the network is a risky business, and they may begin to conduct self-censorship” (Woo, 2006, p. 962). On the other hand, it reveals that anonymity alone should not be reduced to a protective skin for free expression.

Other than a conventional understanding of ideological fragmentation (conservatives and progressives), a more detailed categorization of blog authors and readers, regulars and non-regulars, authentic and anonymous bloggers also comes into play regarding the interactivity of the blogosphere. With the blurred boundaries between private and public and social and political, there is a social price sometimes paid for having a private voice become public opinion: falling into silence, either voluntarily or unwillingly (Kim, 2008). Although the demonstration was labelled a cultural festival by candlelight, it is difficult to dissociate it from politically fragmented counter-hegemonic characteristics. However, bloggers’ criticisms of the Lee administration deserve much credit, as the lack of deliberation between decision-makers and citizens prior to opening the market to American imports prepared the ground for a series of protests at a national level.

Conclusion

The techno-sociality of the blogosphere produces the rhetoric of openness and connectivity whilst at the same time undermining it. In an attempt to advance democracy or participatory citizenship by linking communicative spaces and practices of deliberation in South Korea, as Eastwood claimed, inconvenience offline caused by candlelight vigils online may have been the price to pay. Whether intended or not, preventing the potential risk of a human form of mad cow disease fell short of the social freedom of expression necessary for advancing democracy which demonstrators sought to achieve. As the demonstrators sought and hoped to achieve more democratic society, the instrumental value of deliberation as a means of arriving at good politics is undeniably invaluable (Gutmann & Thompson, 2004). However, without accepting the expressive and pluralistic value of the differences of others, freedom of expression as a basis of democratic society may not be fully appreciated. In turn, the confirmation of pre-existing differences reinforced by the sense of togetherness amongst regular bloggers undermines the potential of the blog both as a site and a means of deliberation. It subsequently leads to a disappearance of alternative voices. What needs to be emphasized is that the confirmation of differences is not only political but also social. The reason is that the members of a blog community share a sense of togetherness and belonging developed through continuous online and offline interaction. Passion for protecting the family and public health as well as democracy in Korea reinforces togetherness from within. The deliberative interaction amongst the bloggers concerning the government decision to open the Korean market and the dangers of human-form mad cow disease brought together the spaces of the political and the social.

In sum, the communicative goal in the process of deliberative and social interaction amongst bloggers does not necessarily lie in persuasion or mutual acknowledgement of competing perspectives. Rather, some seek self-consolidation by reinforcing a homogenous political understanding, or by marginalizing the opinions of others. Given the imbalance of publicly expressed opinions on the candlelight vigils, whether in the form of blog entries, commentaries or interaction, “Wanting to be on the side of the victors” is one interpretation (Noelle-Neumann, 1984, p. 77). Alternatively, the socio-psychological fear of isolation or keeping harmonious relations within a blog community is another. On the surface, the silent minority of bloggers and readers who dissents from the visible majority in favour of the candlelight vigils resembles the spiral of silence within the Ohmynews blog community. However, unlike the one-directional downward spiral of silence based on fear of isolation in Noelle-Neumann’s theory, silence in the form of interaction avoidance online is not one-way in that it takes place between regulars and non-regulars, anonymous and non-anonymous, private and public spaces. For bloggers, the imposition of silence on others and on the self is both viable options. Interaction avoidance offers a more positive value of silence as a way of serving negative politeness – that is, being nice to others by not imposing disengagement (Tannen, 1995). Self-censorship can be an effective but easy strategy to manage one’s impression.

This study has some limitations. It suffers from self-selected examples and excerpts of blog entries, comments, and interviews with informants. Thus, the findings cannot be used for generalizing larger blogging populations. Furthermore, a more detailed understanding of how bloggers perceive their acts of self-censorship in a larger network is needed. It is suggested for future research to integrate qualitative and quantitative methods rather than depending on only one or the other. Lastly, a rigid categorization between the expressive and instrumental use of the Internet (blogs and social networking sites) is not always applicable. A broader and deeper understanding of the intersection between what is technical and what is socio-psychological is needed.

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(1) South Korea has suffered from external and internal political unrest as a result of Japanese invasion in the early 1900s, American intervention leading to the Korean War in 1950, and a succession of repressive military rules from 1961 to 1987. With these political upheavals, the modern political history of South Korea can be characterised as 'accidental pluralism – cultural, ideological, and institutional pluralism created by historical incidents and external dependencies' (Chang, 1999, p. 33). It was only in 1997 that political power was transferred from ruling conservative parties to oppositional or progressive parties. The Internet has a cultural and political significance, since "Reform-hungry Korean citizens interested in challenging the conservative media and pursuing political reform found a promising possibility in the online media" (Chang, 2005, p. 928).

(2) For more information on CJD and vCJD, visit http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs180/en/

(3) In this article, the terms movement and demonstration are interchangeably used, as the people who participate in the offline activities frame it as a cultural event, while regulators and those who do not support it frame it as a protest

(4) http://antimadcow.org

(5) www.nec.go.kr

(6) http://news.chosun.com/site/data/html_dir/2008/09/23/2008092300300.html

(7) Daum Agora is one of the most popular discussion forums provided by an Internet portal service Daum.net

(8) Nimh is a suffix indicating greater respect for elders

Correspondence to:
Jeong H. Kim
Media@lse

Houghton Street
, London
United Kingdom WC2A 2AE
E-mail: j.kim et lse.ac.uk