On the afternoon of the March 1 Independence Day, 85-year-old Jeong Nam-yeon marched for over an hour in the piercing wind and rain to sing the Korean national anthem in front of Seoul Station with a small group of her conservative acquaintances.
Lifting identical Samsung Galaxy smartphones in the air to livestream the scene on YouTube, the elderly protesters declared in trembling voices that liberal President Moon Jae-in was a “red communist” who needed to be ousted.
That morning, Jeong had opened her veranda windows to proudly hang a large Taegeukgi – Korean national flag – only to peer outside to a vast emptiness of space and realize she was alone in her celebration.
“I came today with the mindset to commit halbok jasal for our nation,” said Jeong, referring to a form of ritual suicide that has been practiced to mourn the loss of a country’s traditional values. “We know the mass media are controlled by the left, and we know better than to watch TV broadcasts or read any of the newspapers nowadays. That’s why we old people muster the energy to come out and make our voices heard.”
Instead of mainstream media outlets, many elderly South Koreans, like Jeong, have turned to YouTube. The platform’s position as a vector of alt-right ideology, particularly among the older generations, began after the conservative President Park Geun-hye was impeached and jailed after a series of corruption scandals in 2016–2017, events that severed links between conservative media and a longstanding cult of personality around the president’s family. Since then, national politics have become more deeply polarized, and trust in the media has waned. Many conservatives have abandoned mainstream narratives and moved onto alternative online channels, where nostalgia for an autocratic, anti-communist regime has mixed with a sense of political alienation and conservative Christianity to create a fertile environment for misinformation, ranging from “reds-under-the-bed” paranoia to Covid-19 denialism.
YouTube’s echo chambers have indiscriminately affected Koreans across all political spectrums, but older conservatives have fallen into a deeper denialism that rejects the notion of truth altogether.
“There aren’t any candidates in the People Power Party that I support anymore,” Jeong said, referring to the conservative opposition party. “Because they have abandoned the people, we have to fight against them as well as Moon Jae-in.”
YouTube entered the South Korean market in 2008, three years after its official launch in the US. Its popularity soon soared, and today more than 93% of Koreans watch online videos on the platform.
Its use for political messaging really took after Park Geun-hye was impeached for abuse of power, coercion and bribery after allowing a longtime friend to meddle in government affairs. Although conservatives like Jeong supported Park Geun-hye, their anger at the affair was rooted in a desire to honor the memory of the ousted president’s father, the authoritarian Park Chung-hee, in power from 1963 until his assassination in 1979. For many Koreans who spent their youth under his rule, Park Chung-hee was a “godsend” to a penurious and poverty-stricken nation, who saved the people from the threat of communism.
Decades later, the enduring legacy of his strong cult of personality and nostalgia for his unique brand of ironfisted anti-communism and economic developmentalism figures prominently in the political identities of some conservatives, who continue to worship him as the modern savior of South Korea.
These fervent supporters of Park Chung-hee invest the same nostalgia into his daughter, said Prof. Song Hyun-joo from Hallym University’s media school. “She is part of the bloodline that rebuilt the Korea they live in today, and nothing to them could parallel that legendary charisma,” Song said.
Conservatives were shaken when that bloodline was suddenly cut off, and they saw a great betrayal in how it happened. It was a right-wing cable channel, TV Chosun, that opened the floodgates for the wider investigation into Park Geun-hye. Other traditionally conservative newspapers followed suit, including the “Chojoongdong Trinity” — South Korea’s three conservative Chosun Ilbo, JoongAng Ilbo and Dong-a Ilbo newspapers. The liberal Democratic Party took power in the wake of the scandal and, per custom, appointed new CEOs to the public broadcasters.
“Even the most conservative outlets could not stray away from the facts of Park’s impeachment at that point,” said Jung June-hee, who teaches journalism at Hanyang University. “And as a result, Park’s supporters fell into a deep panic and found themselves at a dead end.”
Jeong recounted the day she unsubscribed from the Chosun Ilbo after pledging loyalty for decades and dialled the offices telling them to never call her again. At that point, trusted friends, former journalists and right-wing politicians had already begun filming their own news content on YouTube instead. She had her daughter show her how to download the app the next day and hopped on the bandwagon.
Elderly South Koreans seemed to take to YouTube, perhaps because of their well-documented difficulties in adapting to mobile apps. Today, they spend more time on the platform than any other demographic. That has turned YouTube into a largely conservative space in South Korea, and nine out of the top 10 political channels are conservative. The only outlier is the Roh Moo-hyun Foundation’s channel, which was created in memory of the late liberal president Roh Moo-hyun and is led by Rhyu Si-min, one of the country’s most prominent left-wing political pundits.
Though these elderly citizens were initially united by their shared anger and resentment toward the current government, as they started to get into the rhythm of a routine, these political activities became a form of leisure, according to Yang Myung-ji, who teaches political science at the University of Hawai’i–Mānoa and has conducted field research on Korean right-wing activism since 2016.
“Tuning into the same YouTube channels at a certain time of the day and seeing familiar hosts quickly became routinized,” Yang said. “It became a safe space where they could mingle and find camaraderie.”
Jeong’s generation is one that needs support networks. Today, nearly half of the elderly population in Korea lives in poverty and in social alienation – the highest among all OECD countries. Though members of this “forgotten generation” collectively toiled to restore a nation in ruins after decades of occupation and war, many are unable to reap the fruits of their labor today as the rest of society advances.
Yang says these individuals simply didn’t have the means to pursue hobbies during their youth. When they belatedly started searching for a community after raising all their children, they discovered YouTube and its 24/7 live streaming. Not only was it an accessible form of entertainment that affirmed their beliefs, it also rekindled a sense of purpose in lives that had slowed down.
“Even while watching videos at home, I feel a sense of thrill listening to politicians reciting speeches and want to shout manse! (long live Korean independence),” said Jeong, lifting two hands in the air. “Beyond politics, I love my country, and my country is being ruined. As I wake up every morning, I feel a deep sorrow ring inside my chest and I’m reminded that I have to play my part in saving this nation.”
Unfortunately, this need for community and dissociation from mainstream media has created a fertile ground for misinformation, particularly on YouTube, which the Reuters Institute rates as the most concerning platform for false information. During the coronavirus pandemic, many of these right-wing YouTube spheres have further consolidated with South Korea’s powerful Protestant churches which have frequently been the source of misinformation that has jeopardized the safety of the public.
About a 15-minute walk from Jeong’s circle, an aggressive confrontation brewed on the steps of the Sejong Center for the Performing Arts. Saliva spattered from an older man’s half-masked face as he stood behind an orange barricade tape while violently chugging a carton of milk and pausing every few seconds to scream expletives.
“Our basic human rights will not be restrained by Moon Jae-in! Our rights are a gift from the heavens!” he shouted while gazing up to the sky.
Other protesters joined in, nodding in agreement, some exclaiming that masks are “fake” and “a political trap,” while others questioned why the government was scapegoating churches.
The arguments are strongly reminiscent of incendiary speeches that have been uploaded on Rev. Jun Kwang-hoon’s YouTube channel which has 388,000 subscribers. In February last year, the controversial religious leader preached to a crowd saying, “It’s alright if we die from this disease. Our goal is to die since we are a people destined for heaven” – to which the crowd erupts in response with “Amen!”
Churches have played a major role in spreading the virus in South Korea. Last summer on Liberation Day, Jun defied government orders by leading a massive anti-Moon rally, attended by thousands. The event was the epicenter of a new outbreak, months after the nation had managed to suppress the first wave of the virus — which was also linked to a controversial religious group.
Jun became one of hundreds of protesters who tested positive, which he undermined as a “terror attack” that the government had concocted to persecute church members.
Leaders in Christian, right-wing circles like Jun have exploited the war trauma and fears of the elderly by spreading on YouTube conspiracy theories about how they are under a “terrorist attack from the ‘Chinese Wuhan virus’” and that government health centers are purposefully manipulating coronavirus results as part of a campaign to secure more votes ahead of the presidential elections next year.
As more elderly people stay home during the pandemic, channels operated by Christian churches, which have deep ties to right-wing nationalism and anti-North ideology, have especially seen a sharp rise in the number of subscribers.
According to the Ministry Data Institute, an independent nonprofit “fact tank” that provides empirical data on Korean churches, the massive Hansung Church recorded the highest total views on YouTube of all Korean churches, surpassing 100 million views during the pandemic. The percentage of viewers older than 55 shot up from 13% to 20% in a year.
Lee Yong-pil, a reporter at News & Joy – an independent Christian news outlet that fact-checks misinformation spread in churches – said that YouTube is often the source of falsehoods, which are disseminated among elderly congregation members in KakaoTalk group chats.
Opening his KakaoTalk app, Lee tapped into an active group chat he’s part of with more than 100 members. The chatroom is flooded with YouTube links about vaccine hoaxes, alongside Christian hymn playlists.
“These false claims are usually sourced from abroad, like the US, UK or Europe,” Lee said. “Then they’re slightly dramatized and recreated to fit the context of Korea before being mass-circulated.”
Recently, a hub of Internet “mom” cafes, an online space where mothers gather to exchange information, was at the center of false and fear-mongering claims that the sexual exploitation and trafficking of children was the work of “LGBTQP” people – the “P” falsely signifying “pedosexual” tendencies among members of the LGBTQ community.
The post cited a YouTube video published by “PSGodspeed,” a Korean channel that circulates QAnon conspiracy theories grounded in the baseless belief that a Satan-worshipping, pedophile ring led by U.S. Democrats was manipulating world events, and could only be quelled by Donald Trump, who was the destined savior. The video was especially widely shared among Protestant groups who oppose legalized homosexuality and Korea’s anti-discrimination bill, which was first submitted in 2007 and has been proposed eight times to the National Assembly, but has been stymied from passage due to intense backlash from these conservative churches.
There is also a clear commercial motivation for some alt-right YouTubers, whose channels serve as a personal, profit-making business that favors the flashy and sensational – any way to provoke users and keep them glued to the screen for a bit longer.
News & Joy reported last year that far-right YouTubers who made rash comments and talked about conspiracy theories placed at the top of SuperChat rankings – a feature where viewers can directly send donations to YouTubers in real-time by “purchasing” chat messages that are pinned to the top of the channel’s feed. Rev. Jun, who made roughly 230 million won ($204,000) in 2019, ranked No. 6 in the nation that year.
The potential of YouTube, and other online spaces, for South Korea’s alt-right movement has started to attract a new cohort. A large number of young Korean men — Gen-Z and Millennials — have recently pivoted to the right. Just as there are disparate groups within the elderly alt-right – from the anti-Moon faction to nostalgists and religious circles – young Korean men feeling disillusioned have also started to coalesce into a new alt-right, especially after Korea’s MeToo movement erupted in response to the brutal murder of a woman in a subway station in 2016.
Though it’s hard to pinpoint one reason behind this shift, studies show that men who have traditionally leaned left-moderate were by far the largest age group among men to agree that Moon has done a poor job managing the current state of affairs, coupled with frustration about dwindling job prospects and a deep-seated hostility toward feminism.
This movement has spawned a number of popular content creators. While the older generation took four or more years to reach 200,000 followers, some of these new influencers have hit that milestone in just twelve months, according to the Asia Business Daily.
By amassing subscribers with their digital savviness, they’ve slowly started bridging a generational divide by bringing together the young right-wing and older conservatives into a more coherent political and social force.
Kwon Yeong-chan, a 23-year-old student majoring in religious studies, leads the Seoul National University branch of Truth Forum, an alt-right organization that pushes a Judeo-Christian worldview that “trusts divine providence” and has vowed to confront media bias by divulging their version of the truth, including the “wrongful impeachment” of Park Geun-hye. Kwon acknowledged that there is a rift between conservatives from different generations, but said they are trying to create “a different ambiance.”
“I guess you can say we’re trying to refine our branding a bit more,” he said. “Pinpointing what’s trending. While the elderly are putting their lives on the line, it can come off as intimidating to younger people sometimes, so we’re trying to create content that’s more approachable.”
Hanyang University’s Jung said that these groups, though not as visible today as elderly conservatives, are slated to be a major political force in the next few decades, potentially replacing the left-leaning “386 generation,” which includes people born in the 1960s who went to college in the 1980s, when students personally fought for democracy against the military government. Though these newly converted groups still stray from the mainstream, people from different routes are starting to come together and form a broader coalescence driven by anti-establishment and counterculture ideologies.
In April’s Seoul mayoral elections — an important political bellwether in South Korea — more than 70% of men in their 20s voted for the conservative candidate. Around 44% of women 18 to 29 voted for the liberal female candidate. This was one of the largest gender gaps among age groups in terms of voting preferences.
“This phenomenon surely goes beyond the world of YouTube and is quickly making its mark on society with a subtle but looming force,” he said.