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What Motivates a Citizen to Take the Initiative in e-Participation?: The Case of a South Korean Parliamentary Hearing

Citizen-led initiatives via social media yield political influence, including even with a country's top political leaders.
  1. Introduction
  2. Key Insights
  3. Methodology
  4. Findings
  5. Implications
  6. Conclusion
  7. References
  8. Authors
  9. Footnotes

Only four years after the greatest number of voters in Korean history elected Park Geun-hye as the country’s first female president in 2013, more than one million people gathered for a candle-lit protest in Seoul to also make her the first publicly ousted president of South Korea (Korea hereafter). Amidst these two forms of civic engagement—vote and protest—is a new form of political communication that gained limited attention but was also a surprise to the Korean public. That is, a particular citizen watching a live broadcast of the second hearing in the parliamentary investigation into a political scandal involving president Park and Choi Soon-sil, her former confidante, on December 7, 2016, alerted a member of the country’s National Assembly to alleged perjury by Kim Ki-choon, a key political figure in the Choi Soon-sil scandal, via instant messenger KakaoTalk that immediately altered the probe. This message had a stunning effect on the political process and proved to be a landmark not only in this case but in the transformation of e-participation into a popular form of political communication driven by information and communications technology (ICT) worldwide.

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Key Insights

  • Information and communication technology, including social media, live-streaming services, and digital archives, supports citizen-led e-participation.
  • Collective intelligence and prior experience in online environments help individual citizens gain influence in parliamentary maneuvering and political decision making.
  • Politicians can nurture e-participation among citizens who are motivated by public debate and thus enabled by communication technologies.

The emergence of e-participation had toppled the traditional invisible wall between ordinary citizens and the National Assembly. The Internet extended the exchange of information and thought among citizens, planners, and decision makers alike,7 but individual citizens’ voices only rarely reach the Assembly. The tip-off message granted ordinary citizens influence comparable to that of elected politicians in the country’s political culture. More important, public reporting of Kim Ki-choon’s alleged perjury was led not by the government but by ordinary citizens through social media. But such citizen-led e-participation, unlike government-led e-participation, has received only limited scholarly attention despite the recent surge in the study of social media. The focus of most e-participation initiatives worldwide excludes their role as a way for citizens to engage in political decision making, defined by Alarabiat et al.1 as “truly [sic] participation” and as a method for linear communication.1,11 For example, despite the considerable promise of e-participation initiatives worldwide, most are limited to information delivery and communication, as explored by Alarabiat et al.1 and Dini and Sæbø.8 Focusing on the roles of citizens and social media in e-participation,24,26 a series of research projects by Porwol et al.21 reviewed the related literature tlooking to define a model integrating social participation and other forms of communication to capture the level of engagement,23 an e-participation evaluation model,17 and an ICT exploitation framework for e-participation,20 finding that existing models generally ignore “emerging phenomenon of spontaneous, citizen-led e-participation, particularly when hosted on a social-media platform.”21 While citizen-led e-participation is one side of the duality of e-participation,21 citizen-led e-participation via social media is still in its infancy, even in fields related to e-participation, including citizen coproduction and collective action.16,22 There is thus no clear-cut definition of citizen-led e-participation recognized by most scholars. Building on the definition of e-participation by its earlier researchers,13,17,20,22,26 focusing on government-led initiatives as “… enhanced civic engagement through ICT enabling citizens to connect with elective representatives,” here we focus on citizen-led initiatives involving voluntary and spontaneous participation through social media from a citizen’s perspective.

Figure. Citizens demonstrating in Seoul, South Korea, April 7, 2018.

Shedding light on the fact that citizen participation in Korea was not deliberate but rather spontaneous via social media, our research aims to delineate the factors enabling citizen-led e-participation in terms of the Korean National Assembly and the Korean public. It was and remains a significant example of “public partnership,” the most active means for citizen participation following Cogan’s and Sharpe’s “public participation conundrum.”7 In our case, citizens were invited to help shape the ultimate decisions without taking a formal role, except for being citizens, as in the definition of public partnership. Public partnerships via effective use of technology thus suggests a new form of civil participation transcending all extant forms. Our analysis identifies the facilitating factors of citizen-led e-participation, hinting at a new form of civil participation led by individual citizens and promoting citizen participation proactively.

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In order to identify these enablers in the case of the parliamentary investigation we witnessed in Korea, we applied qualitative content analysis similar to Ardichivili et al.2 and Smith.25 We collected the posts and comments (documented data) from a bulletin board of an online discussion community known as the “stock gallery (bulletin board)” at, on December 7, 2016, the second day of parliamentary hearings in the investigation. As one of the leading online communities in Korea, stock gallery had the dominant role in calling out Kim Ki-choon’s alleged perjury and cover up. We retrieved 1,794 posts using as a filter the keyword “Kim Ki-choon” and related comments, and collected supplementary posts, including online articles, summarized posts, and posts of parliamentarians and their staff, in regard to Kim’s alleged perjury.

We iteratively employed the “constant comparative method,” categorizing the posts indicating the factors leading to citizen participation. We conducted the coding independently. First, each of us coded the posts and identified the patterns in the data by reviewing the phrases used in the texts, collapsing and condensing certain phrases. We then categorized the phrases and patterns to describe the enabling factors experienced by citizens we compared and discussed. We then combined them with recontextualization of the data, looking to improve the method’s accuracy. Finally, we repeated the process, recoding and reanalyzing some of the data and categories.

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Based on qualitative content analysis of the data we collected, we identified five major categories of enablers of citizen-led e-participation: live-streaming service and digital archives; direct communication channels between citizens and politicians; collective intelligence; prior experience with similar methods; and public interest, as we explore here:

Live-streaming service and digital archives. Following development of ICT, citizens today are able to access various types of content on the Internet, including live parliamentary hearings in our case. Since many types of content are recorded and saved online, citizens can find them whenever they want. In our case, they found them in the form of YouTube videos and online news articles. They then reported them with uniform resource locators to a member of the National Assembly. Members of the National Assembly and their aides confirmed Kim Ki-choon’s misconduct in the form of perjury. Citizens were able to learn about it through a live-streaming service. One citizen said, “His [the perjurer’s] biggest mistake was that he did not know that the audience of the live-aired hearing nowadays can retrieve the data of evidence, make it public, carry it to parliamentarians, and make it appear on the screen in the court in just a few minutes.” Another said, “This is a world where you can see what happens with a few clicks.”

Direct communication channels between citizens and politicians. Citizens being able to report directly to members of the National Assembly was possible because the private cellphone numbers of the National Assembly members had become available to the public. One notable citizen made a list of personal cellphone numbers of Assembly members, using numbers that had been available on their webpages, blogs, and social media accounts. A number of citizens then began to send their comments directly to those personal numbers via instant messenger (KakaoTalk) and text message (SMS). SMS was even more revealing, as it displayed whether a message had been delivered to and read by its intended recipient(s). Moreover, citizens could provide information to politicians and receive feedback in real time. Being able to reach members of the National Assembly in real time, personally and directly, citizens could overcome the shortcomings of traditional indirect democracy. Various citizens said, “It is a direct complaint,” “It is crazy that online representative democracy is just realized,” and “This is a revolution of direct democracy.” One member of the Assembly, Park Young-sun, communicated with citizens, not just with her political aides, thus making the communication direct.

Collective intelligence. Although an individual citizen’s participation may seem solitary, the wisdom of collective intelligence was now being exercised behind the scenes. On the informant’s first post revealing evidence of Kim’s alleged perjury, he asked for ways to alert the members of the Assembly about it, resulting in 98 comments of support and collaboration. In the comments, citizens shared not only the personal cellphone numbers of Assembly members but also effective ways to ensure the evidence would be included in subsequent hearings. To attract even more citizen participation, they joined him by “liking” the post, helping push it to the top of the board and leaving the comment: “Make this post to the top.” Having observed the whole process behind an historic alert by a citizen, another citizen said, “Collective intelligence made it happen.” Online communities enable this mechanism and process of collective intelligence. Yu27 wrote, “It is a combination of IT information network and collective intelligence of [the online community’s] netizens.”

Prior experience in similar practice. Some citizens were already aware of the powerful effect collective intelligence can have. Looking to get down to the as-yet-unspoken truth of a hot political issue, they are sometimes described collectively as “netizens investigation teams.” Unlike our focused context, where a single netizen plays a key role in a real political moment and where the discussion is confined to a single bulletin board in an online community, netizens investigation teams exercise their influence within and across online communities. They also played a role in calling out Choi Soon-sil’s corruption. The value of such investigative experience is recognized for achieving future goals and developing self-efficacy.3 Since self-efficacy is a crucial ingredient in many user behaviors with ICT, it helps encourage netizens to persevere toward their goal of spreading the word. In another article, by Her,10 their part in helping expose the scandal was described like this: “In October [2016], they [netizens investigation teams] uncovered a post by Choi Soon-sil’s daughter, Jung Yoo-La, on her personal web-page, saying, ‘If you do not have the ability, you blame your parents. Money is also an ability.'”

Public disclosure of Kim Ki-choon’s alleged perjury was led not by the government but by ordinary citizens through social media.

Public interest. Interest is a crucial factor in citizen-led e-participation. The example of Korean citizens communicating directly with members of the National Assembly concerning perjury by the President’s chief of staff was also related to a political corruption scandal involving President Park Geun-hye and other important political and business figures. It attracted significant public interest, not only because of related headlines in the country’s major newspapers but also because it had become a topic of everyday conversation in online communities and private group-chats via SMS, as well as in face-to-face everyday neighbor-to-neighbor conversation. It was almost necessary to be aware of the case just to be able to engage in conversation with one’s neighbors. The implication was and still is that social interaction, a strong theme behind millennial engagement, helped keep the public’s attention focused on the issue. The public’s desire for justice and displays of patriotism was significant. The public’s antipathy toward the president’s behavior thus accumulated until she was finally impeached, with citizens asking, “Is this a nation?” and wanting action on behalf of the country. Kim Gwi-Ok, a professor of sociology at Hansung University, explained it like this: “Citizens who are tired of politics and prosecutors have begun to press on with diverse actions,” and “Netizens investigation teams chasing the problem and collecting data are the subjects that make civil revolution.” Other citizens said: “I feel like I did good for my country,” “You are a patriot,” “Our gallery [community] protects our country,” “Justice wins,” and “The truth will be known.”

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Exploring the factors that motivated otherwise ordinary citizens to take the initiative in e-participation in the case of this Korean political intrigue, we have identified several topics lacking from the scholarly literature by focusing instead on social media and individual citizen initiative. The implications reflect how social media and other ICT contribute to “true participation” in the digital age.1,21,26

Live-streaming services and digital archives allowing millions of Koreans to seek the truth and check political facts produced critical public opinion when their content was known to online communities. Various models of public-opinion formation, including in Katz and Lazarsfeld,12 have verified that individuals are influenced more through interaction with one another than with mass media. Citizen-users of online communities constantly reinforce the impact of the political content they find in live-streaming services and digital archives by sharing them with other users who then post comments, helping generate a critical mass of public opinion. A government’s live-streaming service and official activities of major politicians, through constant activity and updating over decades,5 can thus stimulate a critical public response in online communities or social media. Such digital information is more meaningful in terms of political participation when it causes the exchange of opinions than when it flows in only one direction, traditionally from government to the public.

Disclosure of the personal cellphone numbers of National Assembly members facilitated what had not previously been considered a means of political participation, enabling both individual and collective opinions in the form of what is often called “texting movement” or “texting democracy” in Korea. While SMS is often viewed as a conveyor of votes, texting democracy expands what it can convey, from votes alone to words, allegations, and opinions. In this sense, SMS in direct citizen-to-politician communication is not atypical but routine. Citizens have been engaged in political processes and events, including through ministers’ communication via SMS. Using SMS motivates citizens to participate, even though they do not generally participate in other areas.9 Moreover, SMS communication between citizens and politicians signals that technological development and its application in political participation have moved and could move further from what has historically been the closed sphere of politicians into the public sphere, as reflected in this citizen comment: “[National Assembly member] Kim Sung Tae’s number is public goods.” Our findings are in line with the political science literature advocating the virtues of mobile telephony in a healthy democracy when used for citizen-politician communication.14

Although an individual citizen’s participation can seem solitary, the wisdom of collective intelligence was now being exercised behind the scenes.

Collective intelligence can be achieved in a digital-media environment characterized by openness, fluidity, and dynamic interaction to produce a new relationship, including in online communities.15 In our example of citizen-politician communication, the civic participation using collective intelligence also engendered “common knowledge,” or knowledge everyone knows, in terms of both opinion and fact.6 As the original citizen’s political tip-off alert in 2016 was covered extensively, millions of ordinary Korean citizens were able to see how their fellow citizens, as well as they themselves, are able to exert political influence through e-participation and collective intelligence. The now-available common knowledge is expected to influence the Korean public’s way of thinking and behavior6 by granting them greater confidence in their opinions, as well as helping politicians develop the personal attitudes needed to accept them. Common knowledge and a shared nationwide knowledge space can explain the increased participation of citizens using collective intelligence. Such changes consolidate new notions of political participation and promise to reform the nature of politics in Korea. Scholars and practitioners alike take note.

Along with the confidence netizens gain through their engagement in politically significant events and processes, we also identified disappointment over the lack of systematized channels for the public to report its personal investigations into political intrigue. Comments like “Would it be impossible to have the hearings in a format like YouTube Live where the politicians simultaneously read our comments and proceed? I am sure we [the users in the community] are way better at investigating” and reflect the public need to adjust the system so it facilitates direct civil participation. In this regard, a rigorous look at the needs of Korean citizens will be of both theoretical and practical value. Castells4 suggested social and political networks in virtual and physical space bring political change. Establishing a systematized channel to link the people and political networks together will help millions of them create political change, as in some cases they already have, despite the deficiency of such channels.

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The true nature of citizens’ political interest remains a chronic conundrum for political scientists. In our case, public interest in a political scandal was an underlying factor in Korean nationwide civic participation, emphasizing the importance of public interest in the political arena. While the subjects in our case, citizen-users and elected public officials, likely already had strong interest in political events before the country’s political intrigue was so publicly revealed, it also shows how such interest can spread to the broader community of citizens. Users of other online communities learned about the case through shared posts, eventually leaving more than 3,300 replies about the initial netizen-informant’s initiative, including, “I really wanted to praise it so I came up here,” “I saw it in a different community! Cool!,” and “I am not a member of this community, but I have heard about it. Thank you [users of the focal community]. So amazing!” Expanding a previous finding by Masip et al.18 that reading shared posts by friends leads to more interest and trust than reading posts directly on the original website, people can be expected to be more affected by reading the posts shared by other members of the same community. Accessing shared posts across online communities and social media, more citizens are more likely to become politically active.

We identified five enablers of citizen-led e-participation by analyzing a hearing in the National Assembly, December 7, 2016, of the Parliamentary Inspection committee concerning the Park Geun-hye scandal. In a broader context, the enablers adapted existing communication technology to serve as the technological foundation for citizen-led e-participation. Technological advancement, including social media, may spur e-participation but is less likely to be citizen-led, thus yielding an unbalanced system. This is why further research on e-participation is crucial, stressing its effect on citizens and social media.1,8,16,21,22,26 Such coproduction between citizens and government “increase the citizens’ sense of well-being as a result of greater participation.”19 Only through targeted study can the citizens of Korea and of other countries achieve meaningful civic participation.

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    1. Alarabiat, A., Soares, D.S., and Estevez, E. Electronic participation with a special reference to social media: A literature review. In Proceedings of the Eighth International Conference on Electronic Participation (Guimarães, Portugal, Sept. 5–8). Springer, Cham, Switzerland. 2016, 41–52.

    2. Ardichvili, A., Page, V., and Wentling, T. Motivation and barriers to participation in virtual knowledge-sharing communities of practice. Journal of Knowledge Management 7, 1 (Feb. 2003), 64–77.

    3. Bandura, A. Self-Efficacy: The Exercise of Control. Freeman, New York, 1997.

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    8. Dini, A.A. and Sæbø, Ø. The current state of social media research for e-participation in developing countries: A literature review. In Proceedings of the 49th Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences (Koloa, HI, Jan. 5–8). IEEE Press, New York, 2016, 2698–2707.

    9. Hellström, J. and Karefelt, A. Participation through mobile phones: A study of SMS use during the Ugandan general elections 2011. In Proceedings of the Fifth International Conference on Information and Communication Technologies and Development (Atlanta, GA, Mar. 12–15). ACM Press, New York, 2012, 249–258.

    10. Her, K. The netizen's decisive tip-off has knocked down Kim Ki-choon, Hankook Ilbo, Dec, 8. 2016;

    11. Hoffman, L.H. Participation or communication? An explication of political activity in the Internet age. Journal of Information Technology & Politics 9, 3 (Sept. 2012), 217–233.

    12. Katz, E. and Lazarsfeld, P.F. Personal Influence. Free Press, New York, 1955.

    13. Komito, L. e-Participation and governance: Widening the net. The Electronic Journal of e-Government 3, 1 (July 2005), 39–48.

    14. Lee, H., Kwak, N., Campbell, S.W., and Ling, R. Mobile communication and political participation in South Korea: Examining the intersections between informational and relational uses. Computers in Human Behavior 38 (Sept. 2014), 85–92.

    15. Lévy, P. Cyberculture. Editions Odile Jacob, Paris, France, 1997.

    16. Linders, D. From e-government to we-government: Defining a typology for citizen coproduction in the age of social media. Government Information Quarterly 29, 4 (Oct. 2012), 446–454.

    17. Macintosh, A. and Whyte, A. Towards an evaluation framework for e-participation. Transforming Government: People, Process and Policy 2, 1 (Mar. 2008), 16–30.

    18. Masip, P., Suau-Martínez, J., and Ruiz-Caballero, C. Questioning the selective exposure to news: Understanding the impact of social networks on political news consumption. American Behavioral Scientist 62, 3 (Mar. 2018), 300–319.

    19. Mattson, G.A. The promise of citizen coproduction: Some persistent issues. Public Productivity Review 10, 2 (Winter 1986), 51–56.

    20. Phang, C.W. and Kankanhalli, A. A framework of ICT exploitation for e-participation initiatives. Commun. ACM 51, 12 (Dec. 2008), 128–132.

    21. Porwol, L., Ojo, A., and Breslin, J.G. An ontology for next generation e-participation initiatives. Government Information Quarterly 33, 3 (July 2016), 583–594.

    22. Porwol, L. and Ojo, A. Barriers and desired affordances of social media-based e-participation: Politicians' perspectives. In Proceedings of the 10th International Conference on Theory and Practice of Electronic Governance (New Delhi, India, Mar. 7–9). ACM Press, New York, 2017, 78–86.

    23. Preece, J. and Shneiderman, B. The reader-to-leader framework: Motivating technology-mediated social participation. AIS Transactions on Human-Computer Interaction 1, 1 (Mar. 2009), 13–32.

    24. Sæbø, Ø., Rose, J., and Flak, L.S. The shape of e-participation: Characterizing an emerging research area. Government Information Quarterly 25, 3 (July 2008), 400–428.

    25. Smith, B.G. Socially distributing public relations: Twitter, Haiti, and interactivity in social media. Public Relations Review 36, 4 (Nov. 2010), 329–335.

    26. Susha, I. and Grönlund, Å. e-Participation research: Systematizing the field. Government Information Quarterly 29, 3 (July 2012), 373–382.

    27. Yu, G. 'Stock Galley user did it' ... Main contributor to overturn testimony of Kim Ki-choon by finding perjury video,. Joongang Ilbo (Dec. 8, 2016);

    Both authors contributed equally to this work, and the names are listed alphabetically.

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