SEOUL – A blogger who rose to fame on the basis of his economic predictions was indicted Jan. 22 with spreading false information. The charges came 11 days after the blogger's arrest.
The story of how the so-called economy president, who posted more than 100 commentaries on a portal site, went from stardom to defendant signals just how powerful the internet can be here in South Korea, which is commonly considered the most wired country in the world.
The arrest followed a posting he made on the internet in December saying the government had demanded that banks and financial institutions stop purchasing U.S. dollars as the government tried to stave off the decline of South Korea's currency. According to prosecutors, the comments were incorrect and harmed the foreign exchange market. They also allege that he caused the country to lose credibility in the international community.
Before his arrest, most South Koreans believed the blogger — who made his comments anonymously — was an ailing old man with eons of experience in the finance sector. That image turned out to be a carefully crafted persona: The blogger was actually Park Dae-sung, a 31-year-old in between jobs, who blogged under the name Minerva (the Roman name of the Greek goddess who was known for her power to foresee the future).
“It is now time...time again...to rebuild the broken down economy of this country. And that...is for people like you...not for someone like me who has not much time left...not for a cowardly old man like myself,” reads one his postings written Jan. 5, according to “Minerva Postings Cafe” a site that has compiled what are believed to be Minerva’s postings. This posting was the last he made, and is part of a collection that runs to roughly 800 pages.
Park taught himself on finance while holed up in his home. Prosecutors called him a master of internet searching and "cut and paste," according to Korea’s Yonhap News Agency.
Lehman Brothers, the investment bank that became a casualty of the global credit crisis, filed for bankruptcy four days after Minerva wrote a blog that said "Lehman goes bankrupt." It was one of the postings that gave him celebrity status in cyber space, although many say his prediction was sheer luck.
Minerva’s postings, often full of coarse language and sarcasm, came at a time when people were beginning to feel the impact of the sagging global economy. But in a broader sense, his postings coincided with with a feeling among the public that there is a void in reliable sources of information.
There is an overwhelming sense of distrust here towards the traditional media, the government and political parties due to long-term political bickering and a struggle between the liberal and conservative media, according to Yoon Youngchul, the Dean of Yonsei University’s graduate school of journalism and mass communication.
“What Minerva did as an amateur was to try to take on the professionals,” Yoon said.
“Before, the mass media, the experts there, were responsible for filtering information. But then the internet came along, and now people are saying they can’t trust the gate-keeping of the traditional media anymore,” the professor added.
Access to the internet is readily available here. South Korea is the most wired country in the world. More than 83 percent of households have access to high-speed internet, and almost 77 percent of the population over the age of three uses the internet, according to a report released in 2008 by the National Internet Development Agency of Korea.
The public reacted instantly to the news of Minerva’s arrest. Comments were posted on websites minutes after the news broke, with some hailing the prosecution for putting a stop to the spread of unwarranted information and others questioning whether the government should have so much power to control information and freedom of speech.
One netizen — a term referring to internet users in Korea — wrote online that, “(Minerva’s) postings had an influence on the nation’s credibility? … Everyone has gone nuts. Go and put away everyone who writes articles about the economy that don’t fit in with the facts.”
Another posting stated, “a person I know worshipped Minerva 100 percent and sold his/her home for a ridiculously low price. Who is going to take responsibility of that?”
The postings on the web showcase a divide in this country, one that has only deepened over the years.
“The trap of doing your own gate-keeping is that you end up accepting only what you want to and looking at only what you want to see," Yoon said. "Opinions get stronger and stronger, so there end up being more people with extreme viewpoints."
Minerva’s case is ongoing, but it will likely continue to spur more internet debate.
“The justice system is making a big mistake … I see another mass candle vigil protest coming,” a netizen wrote, predicting the finale to the internet prophet’s story.