Never underestimate the power of social media in business, politics, and war. That's the big lesson learned from South Korea's recent local elections. In fact, Twitter has now become part of Korea's vernacular vocabulary.
The potential threat of major armed conflict between South and North Korea was ratcheted up by both sides after the sinking of a South Korean naval vessel in March. South Korea's ruling conservative party sought to appeal to voters' concern for national security and pointed to "the smoking gun" evidence of North Korea's complicity in the incident found just before the elections were held. Polls seemed to indicate that this strategy was working, but in a remarkable turnaround the main opposition party that was labeled as "soft" on North Korea won many of the major election battles.
Political pundits are debating what made that change happen, but everyone agrees that election strategy in South Korea will never be the same again. Taking a page right out of the Obama 2008 campaign's playbook, voters for the more liberal parties were mobilized by social media — blogs, mobile phones, text messages, Facebook, and most of all, Twitter. Moreover, this election showed that in the digital age, politics not only has to be personalized but maybe even "incentivized" as well.
Before the election, Twitter had been a relatively unknown commodity in South Korea and mostly dismissed by its nonusers as a novelty. Through this election, however, Twitter was able to flex its muscle. There are still only about 400,000 users of Twitter in South Korea, and most of them tend to be young, but many Twitter users urged their friends and family to "Go and Vote!" Given that the younger voters leaned toward the more liberal party, it gave the opposition camp a decided advantage.
Celebrities, too, had a role in the election as individuals; Korean movie stars and pop idols pushed voters to the polling booths. One cult novelist, Lee Oi-Soo, moved his almost 170,000 followers into action by tweeting, "If you give up your right to vote, it is as worthless as trash."
Twitter users made its impact even greater by combining it with sales-promotion-like techniques. Using tactics that bordered on age discrimination, some major artists offered to raffle their works to people in their 20s and 30s who voted. Some bar owners gave away drinks to voters who posted "authentication shots" — self-taken photos outside the ballots. This same kind of viral Twitter campaign was also conducted by popular actors and singers who, with their smartphones, pledged autographed books, play tickets, CD albums, and other personal items for Twitter posters of similar pictures.
At the last minute, even the government got into the act and offered 20 random Twitter users the chance to examine the wreckage of the sunken naval vessel. This move was designed to dispel rumors of a government cover-up that were being spread over social networks, including one that claimed that the ship was sunk when it collided with a U.S. nuclear sub. It could have been also a tacit acknowledgment that the government's mass media message about the threat to national security was losing traction.
Voter influence is strictly regulated in the offline domain; not so online. It's just a small reflection of the much larger and "grayish" issue of what constitutes advertising or promotion on social media networks. That may be the tall task that the FTC and similar agencies around the world have to tackle for some time as the IT revolution keeps unfolding. For now, the "new normal" in politics, business, and social media is that the lines between these different arenas are becoming increasingly blurred. For the younger generation, it is only fitting that these once separate activities these days need to be blended into one neat consumable package.
Dae Ryun Chang is Professor of Business at Yonsei School of Business in Seoul, Korea. He has taught and given industry talks around the globe on advertising, branding, sponsorship, and digital marketing.