Digital fascism

There are two quite different stories currently running in parallel about how the Internet is changing politics. One of the dream; the other is the nightmare.

First the dream. This is all about how Obama's use of the Internet is both revolutionizing the American political system and empowering the country's citizens. You'll hear a lot about this story next week, during New York City's Personal Democracy Forum, in which all the noisiest Web 2.0 evangelistas - Arrington, Lessig, Newmark et al -- will all make messianic speeches about how the Internet is finally allowing true American democracy to bloom & blossom. Here's TechCrunch's Mike Arringon's thinking, for example, on why we need ubiquitous broadband in this country.

Then the nightmare. The International Herald Tribune ran a piece today about digital populism in South Korea. In April, the new democratically elected South Korean President, Lee Myung Bak recently lifted a ban on imported American beef. In Korea, of course, ubiquitous broadband access has already resulted in the blooming and blossoming of digital democracy. And, therefore, Lee's lifting on the ban resulted in an eruption of anger on the Internet -- first amongst teenage girls, then on the popular online portal Daum and finally through teenage "citizen journalists" on blogs, videocasts and social networks.

So what's the Korean beef with imported American meat?

Apparently, the schoolgirls were worried about mad cow disease. No, this isn't a joke. Here's how the Tribune reported it:

When a high school student began a petition on Agora calling for Lee's impeachment, it gathered 1.3 million signatures within a week. The police were caught off-guard on May 2 when thousands of teenagers networking through Agora and coordinating via text messages poured into central Seoul, holding candles and chanting "No to mad cow!"

The mainstream media and the government ignored them at first. But protesters stepped forward as "citizen reporters," conducting interviews, taking photographs and, thanks to the country's high-speed wireless Internet, uploading videos to their blogs and Internet forums. One video showing the police beating a female protester caused outrage on the Internet and prompted even more people to join the demonstrations.

"We cannot trust mainstream media reports on mad cow disease, so we're taking matters into our own hands," said Suh Dong Ho, 32, a photographer who helped organize a group of 160 "citizen reporters."

Kim Joo Hyung, Suh's 15-year-old colleague, said: "What we do is faster and more real than the ordinary news media."

This would all be hilarious if it wasn't true. Unfortunately, however, it isn't a Korean version of a Monty Python skit. Those schoolgirls with their fear of mad cow disease are real. So are the 1.3 million signatures and the mass mobilization of thousands of teenagers on May 2 for the Seoul protest.

What is particularly scary is the way in which a virulent Korean nationalism is being rekindled by the mob democracy of the broadband revolution. You can't blame the Internet, of course, for nationalism. But today's authority-free digital media an ideal medium to fan nationalist ignorance, hatred and paranoia. As Korean expert, Philip Bowring, writing also in today's Tribune argued, "South Korea's decision to import U.S. beef has ignited almost hysterical opposition" in a country that is paranoid about foreigners. Mix this irrational xenophobia with Web 2.0 citizen media tools and what do you get?

You get digital fascism -- one unintended, but not inconsequential consequence of ubiquitous broadband access.