A recent incident has only fed such rumors. In October, Naver apologized over allegations that the company manipulated the ranking of articles that criticized South Korea’s top football association on the request of the organization. The Korea Herald called it the “first confirmed case of news manipulation by the portal,” noting Naver’s power over what news the Korean public sees.
This is all happening in a media landscape characterized by extreme distrust. Only 23 percent of Koreans say they trust the news media. There are plenty of reasons for this: Journalists who unquestioningly champion the country’s powerful corporations are jokingly referred to as “Samsung scholarship students.” Entrenched ideological schisms between conservative and liberal news outlets online also have an impact. “When the internet first emerged in the early 2000s, online news and blogs were all left-wing or progressive. They dominated the internet,” said Ki-Sung Kwak, the chair of the University of Sydney’s Department of Korean Studies. “Once conservative newspapers realized their mistake, they heavily invested in the online-media business.”
In his view, besides convenience, one reason why Naver may be attractive to readers is because it appears somewhat politically agnostic. For now, it does this with human editors who decide which content should be selected on specific topics and issues within their section. There are about 20 editors in news, 15 in entertainment, and 15 in sports. A chief editor has final say over what appears on the portal.
But similar to Facebook’s notorious decision to fire its human editors in 2016, Naver may soon turn to machines. In response to the Park allegations, Yu said in an email that conservatives believe Naver is biased toward the left, and liberals believe Naver is biased toward the right. “Despite our efforts, human curation is still being criticized,” she said. “Therefore, we are planning to automate article placement with algorithm[s], which will be completed during the first quarter next year.”
Still, humans will create the news-selection algorithm, and humans have a say about which outlets appear on Naver’s news portal in the first place. In 2015, the company helped form the Committee for the Evaluation of News Partnership along with Kakao, the owner of the internet portal Daum and the country’s most popular messaging platform.
The committee has two key functions. The first is to evaluate which new outlets can supply news to portal sites. The second is to penalize news outlets that violate contract conditions, such as publishing sponsored or violent content, or clickbait. Sometimes this clickbait is an attempt to game the system: Naver provides a chart on its portal that shows the most popular search keywords in real time. According to Yu, media outlets might produce up to 30 almost identical articles about one popular keyword to win clicks.