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[Editorial] Untrustworthy service

Keyword recommendation may become hotbed for public opinion manipulation

May 17, 2023 - 05:30 By Korea Herald

Daum, a web portal under Kakao, started showing trending keywords right below the search bar on May 10. Naver is scheduled to launch a similar service in the second half of this year.

A few years ago, the portals discontinued their "real-time search trends" services amid controversy that they could be abused by specific groups to manipulate public opinion. They seem to have resurrected the services under new names.

The keyword recommendation service arouses concerns that the portals could foster consumption of incendiary news, creating a breeding ground for public opinion manipulation and instigation.

The Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism said Sunday that it was paying attention to concerns and criticisms about the recommendation of trending keywords. It also said that it would develop legal steps and policies to create an environment for impartial content dissemination.

This means that the government will not stand idle if the new service of the portals becomes a host to public opinion manipulation and instigation like real-time search trends.

The now-defunct service of showing real-time search trends updated at 30-second or 1-minute intervals was criticized after it was abused as a channel to manipulate public opinion.

The "Best Comments" service of portals formed the foundation for a 2018 online opinion rigging scandal. Druking, a power blogger, and his associates used a program that generated a barrage of online comments and likes in order to manipulate public opinion in their favor. The real-time search trends service was politically used to manipulate public attention systematically.

It is likely that the main reason that Naver and Kakao start a service similar to real-time search trends is to recover their lost market shares after discontinuing it a few years ago.

Their market shares fell noticeably after Daum and Naver ceased their real-time search trends in 2020 and 2021, respectively.

The shares of Naver and Daum in the domestic search-engine market approached 80 percent and 10 percent, respectively, in 2017 but dropped to 63 percent and 5 percent, late last year. In the meantime, Google's market share rose sharply from 9 percent to 31 percent.

The intention of the portals to release keyword services ahead of the general elections in April 2024 seems to be to draw attention from as many users as possible.

But considering voters are sensitive to public opinion in election season, the service may fall victim to those seeking public opinion manipulation and instigation.

The portals claim that keyword recommendation is quite different from real-time search trends because artificial intelligence analyzes only high-quality content to recommend keywords. But it is hard to take the assertion at face value. Above all, they do not disclose the algorithms that extract the keywords.

Undoubtedly someone will attempt to dig into the algorithms with an intent of increasing the number of clicks on specific news.

The latest AI technology has made it possible to produce a large amount of high-quality text, image and video content.

Furthermore, the old and new services are not essentially much different in that their ultimate goal is to increase traffic by exposing specific information as widely as possible.

In 2020, Naver was fined 26.7 billion won ($19.9 million) by the Fair Trade Commission for manipulating shopping and video search results in its favor.

The portals are inviting controversy by launching new services ahead of the elections less than a year away.

Rep. Park Dae-chul, chief policymaker of the ruling People Power Party, said a modified version of real-time search trends has a risk of misuse, suggesting that "Chin up, Kim Nam-kuk" could become a trending keyword.

This is not an unfounded concern. Kim is a lawmaker who quit the Democratic Party of Korea amid a cryptocurrency investment scandal.

The government must work out measures to prevent portals from being abused as a hotbed for public opinion manipulation.