Jaewon Byun is used to being ignored by politicians. A disability rights activist in Seoul, he saw the upcoming mayoral election in the South Korean capital as an opportunity to lobby candidates to outline their plans to combat the growing isolation and social exclusion of people with disabilities caused by coronavirus restrictions. He emailed six candidates, but none replied. Then, on February 9, Byun logged into Clubhouse, the audio chat app, for an “Ask Me Anything” session with independent candidate Keum Tae-sup.

“Just before the session was about to wrap up, I jumped in impromptu and directed a question at a former National Assembly member about how he plans to improve transit accessibility, if elected as the next mayor of Seoul,” said Byun, who is the policy director of Solidarity Against Disability Discrimination (SADD), over a Zoom call. “Then I requested to meet on the spot in front of the Clubhouse crowd.” Keum obliged, and the next day, he visited SADD’s office.

With only a month until the mayoral election — mayor is the second-highest office in the nation — a number of politicians, including the prime minister of South Korea, Chung Sye-kyun, and at least three other candidates are, like Keum, pivoting away from traditional campaigning and toward Clubhouse to make their cases directly to everyday citizens. By elevating overlooked voices, the move is shaking up the staid and structured norms of South Korean politics, where constituents are usually relegated to a passive role and spoon-fed information. 

“Usually the media play the mediating role as the gatekeeper,” said professor Hahn Kyu Sup, who teaches political communications at Seoul National University. “But directly establishing contact with constituents through Clubhouse bypasses that filtered layer.”

Social media has been a potent force in South Korean politics since the “Carpet Election” in 2012, “carpet” being a three-part portmanteau in Korean, referring to instant messaging app Kakao, Facebook, and Twitter. As of 2019, at least 70% of all national legislators operate their own YouTube channel, and, in the current National Assembly, 297 of 300 members have a public Facebook page or account for their office.

Digital channels have taken on a greater prominence in this year’s special election. Typically, candidates make a ruckus, shouting into megaphones with their fists raised in the air while waving from a pickup truck plastered with campaign slogans. They’re usually accompanied by a female troupe of dancers wearing campaign gear who bounce up and down to a K-pop song with the original lyrics swapped for the candidate’s name. But with coronavirus restrictions preventing large gatherings, virtually all campaigning has taken place online.

Clubhouse entered South Korea at precisely the right time to ride this trend. As high-profile politicians started announcing their bids for mayor, the app skyrocketed from 921st place to the nation’s most downloaded iOS application in mid-February.

Korean is a highly hierarchical language, with multiple layers of formalities that are tied to strict social behaviors. But on Clubhouse, some of those traditional barriers between candidates and voters are breaking down. 

When assembly member Kim Jin-ae from a liberal splinter party began hosting Clubhouse sessions, she made an unconventional request: address her by her first name, Jin-ae, and speak informally — known as banmo — usurping the age-old Korean practice of using honorifics in public life. Kim praised this step away from formal speech, saying that, without it, she’s able to engage in a more natural relationship with people.

“It’s like walking around the square and running into someone you get along with, chatting for a bit and waving bye-bye,” Kim said, adding that she hopes the concept of “raising one’s hand” in rooms can translate into real-life discourse. 

“It’s like walking around the square and running into someone you get along with, chatting for a bit and waving bye-bye.”

However, the growth in popularity of Clubhouse and the headlines that it has generated might mask the fact that it is only reaching a narrow demographic. The app is currently available only on iPhones, meaning that nearly three-quarters of all mobile phone users are unable to download it. The market share of iPhones among mobile phone owners in their 20s is 44%, and that rate plummets to 4%t among users in their 50s and to a mere 2% among those in their 60s, according to Gallup Korea.

These senior voters, more than half of whom do not know how to install or use new applications, also lean conservative, whereas those in their 20s through 40s are more likely to support liberal candidates. The partisan and generational divide among Clubhouse users may explain why only two conservative politicians have been active on the app, compared to over a dozen belonging to liberal and progressive parties. This mirrors existing divides between political communities on social media in South Korea, where conservatives more frequently gather in Kakao group chats, while progressives tend to use Twitter.

An increased reliance on new mechanisms for campaigning could widen these political and digital divides. “Politicians who represent rural districts like farmlands and coastal towns may not feel as strong of a need to try new things like Clubhouse when communicating with their constituents,” said assembly member Cho Jung-hun. 

In Korean slang, Clubhouse is often referred to as inssa, which is derived from the term “insider” — someone who is looped in on the talk of the town. But in a world where only a handful of people can acquire this insider status, it brings into question whether the platform actually creates equitable participation. 

Whether Clubhouse’s popularity outlasts the changes to electioneering driven by the pandemic remains to be seen, as does the platform’s long-term impact on how politics is conducted in South Korea. But disability rights activist Byun said that he is already seeing some of the old structures reassert themselves. In Clubhouse, users are still expected to play by the house rules that are dictated by the moderator.

“I’ve joined Clubhouse sessions hosted by two other major candidates competing in the race, but one barred participation from the listeners, and the other abruptly ended the conversation after facing an inconvenient question,” he said. “Because the audience is expected to somewhat stick to the script, it may actually be a temporary illusion of equality.”