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Civic Media Project

Eric Gordon, Author

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Another Promise’s Digital Civic Network and Samsung

Categories of Civic Engagement by Ethan Zuckerman
By: Chaebong Nam and Hyun-Chol Cho
This case study is based on an interview with Ki-Ho Yoon, a producer of Another Promise, conducted on June 6, 2014. 

Another Promise, a South Korean film released in 2014, describes how a father seeks justice in the courts after his daughter died of leukemia contracted at a Samsung semiconductor plant where unprotected workers were exposed to toxic chemicals. This is the first film in Korea cinema history funded entirely by crowdfunding and individual investments.Its success can be largely, although not entirely, attributed to digital media.

As in many other societies, digital media is changing the way people engage in civic life in Korea. Understanding these changes is challenging and may require new analytical tools. Zuckerman’s two-dimensional matrix, introduced in the web posting on “Beyond the Crisis in Civics” provides a useful framework to analyzing the complex phenomenon of civic engagement in the digital age.  One axis of the matrix shifts from “thin” to “thick,” and the other from “symbolic” to “impactful.” In the first axis, “thin” activities include those of little commitment––such as signing a petition, pressing “Like” on the Facebook pages, or retweeting Twitter mentions; “thick” activities require substantial commitment or action to find solutions- such as developing organizing strategies for a political campaign.  In the second axis, “symbolic” engagement includes activities of “making voice”, the purpose of which is to show support, rather than make an immediate change. “Impactful” engagement on the other hand is directed towards concrete results such as policy changes. Among the four possible combinations, “thin and symbolic” engagement seems applicable initially to the new civic culture created by digital media, but it also can potentially lead to thick and impactful influences. However the transition from the former to the latter is not automatic, because thin and symbolic phenomena are likely to be volatile and often remain in echo chambers in many situations.  Another Promise’s digital civic network illustrates how a particular small voice leaped from “thin and symbolic” into “thick and impactful” influences against Samsung, which is often seen in Korea as almost invulnerable.

Phase 1:  The First Stage of Crowdfunding and “Digital Flock”

In June 2005 Yun-Mi Hwang, then a 20-year-old female, was diagnosed with acute leukemia 20 months after beginning work at one of the Samsung semiconductor plants and died in 2007. Her father Sang-Ki Hwang, soon began a long legal battle against the world’s largest electronics company, with the intention of proving that his daughter’s death was caused by exposure to toxic chemicals at the plant. Yun-Mi was among the numerous victims beginning in the late 1990s whose deaths were allegedly from the same causes. But this event barely drew public attention, while Samsung repeatedly denied that the work environment contributed to this fatal disease.
One day a newspaper article about Yun-Mi’s case inspired the film director Tae-Yun Kim to bring this issue to the screen. Soon after, the best filmmaking staff and crews in Korea volunteered to undertake the project pro bono. The filmmaking team faced an unexpected financial issue resulting from major commercial investors’ abrupt retraction of their investments. This action was presumably due to their reluctance to be involved in a film that was critical of Samsung. The only funding option left for the filmmakers was crowdfunding- which they originally intended to use solely for marketing.

In November 2012, the filmmaking team launched a crowdfunding project using the online platform "Good Funding". Within one month, approximately $100,000 was gathered from approximately 2,000 people. Ki-Ho Yoon, the film producer, said that crowdfund contributors of the first stage were a group of people who were actively informed and critical of various social issues, and had already known of the Samsung workers’ occupational diseases.  To affect any meaningful success in the film that would draw public attention beyond this small and informed group, or “digital flock” in Zuckerman’s terminology, was a challenge.
The Another Promise’s filmmaking team initiated a strategic movement to avoid digital echo chambers  In January 2013, Yoon opened an official webpage for the film for a second crowdfunding effort called The Filmmaking Co-Op, as well as a Facebook page for the project and a Twitter account. They hired a media specialist to facilitate communication, advertising, and fundraising. In February 2013, the filmmakers began appearing in famous podcasting shows that critically examine controversial issues largely overlooked in the mainstream media. However, these podcasting shows drew the audience who might have already participated in the first round of crowdfunding, so the appearance in the shows was not as helpful developing support beyond the first “digital flock.” No connection had yet been made with the diverse public offline; promotion was still hovering around the second quadrant of “thin and symbolic.”

Phase II: Escaping Echo Chambers and Creating Thick and Impactful Changes

A breakthrough took place when the filmmaker appeared in one particular podcast show hosted by a hip-hop musician in April 2013. Most of the audience were young fans of the hip-hop musician and not necessarily socially active or informed. After the appearance in the show, the filmmakers received dramatically increasing public attention. It is believed that once the film became connected with a new audience, the interest in the film snowballed and news readily spread through varied networks at an increasing rate. For the following two months, about another 7,000 people donated approximately one million dollars in exchange for cinema tickets or DVDs. The effect is evident in the list at the end of the film credits. Donations continued after official production and distribution ended, reaching 8,290 contributors as of June 2014. This movement provided the funding needed for the production. More importantly, it succeeded in publicizing the issues that motivated the film’s story and helped form a strong and widespread digital civic network. Yoon made it clear, nevertheless, that such a dramatic attention––what we see as “thick and impactful change”––did not automatically follow the appearance in the podcast show in itself.  Although the show certainly brought the filmmakers the new audience they needed, the main reason for the success was the film’s story. The controversial topic, which most people did not think could be treated publicly in Korean society, had broad appeal.

After production, the film successfully debuted in October 2013 at the Busan International Film Festival (BIFF) under the title, Another Family (this title is a famous slogan in Samsung’s commercials and was altered to Another Promise before distribution to avoid potential legal action.) Mainstream media including television broadcasting, as well as other news and movie magazines, called attention to the film. It seemed that success, a tangible result of their first substantial transition to “thick and impactful” change, was just around the corner. 

Phase III: Unexpected Hindrance, Crowd-distribution, and New Participatory Culture

Another Promise was ranked 1st for audience anticipation the week before its release. Prior to its release,  major film distributors drastically reduced the number of theaters screening the film without any prior notice. Yoon felt powerless to respond and was about to give up. Then he saw ordinary people and NGOs that were already well-networked online and offline demanding that commercial film distributors and independent theaters in their own locales run the film. Social media (SNS and Twitter) and the Another Promise webpage became a central arena for this action to gain access to screenings. The crowdfunding system turned into crowd-distribution this time. Through the webpage, people donated tickets to those who wanted to watch the movie but couldn’t afford the ticket price (such as young students.) In the fourth week of its release, more theaters began screening the film––a very unusual box-office pattern.  In May 2014, seven years after Hwang’s legal action, Samsung made the first official apology to the workers who suffered cancers and to their families.

Although the film barely broke even financially (50,000 people watched this film, which was short of the original target of 70,000), Yoon did not see the film as a failure but as a confirmation of the possibility of change and promoting civic solidarity. He stated that this film was made by a civic network of 10,000 ordinary people, not just by the filmmaking team. Yoon agreed that without the Internet dramatically boosting the development of an active civic network, the film would not have existed He also stressed that the foundation of the film was in the long-standing offline activism surrounding Hwang (Yun-Mi’s father) and Sharp: a group organized by victims of the chip factories’ toxicity and their families. Another Promise was a tipping point for change, but the film would not have been nearly as successful without these earlier contributions.

Many of the meaningful accomplishments of Another Promise can be attributed to its use of digital media for changing public opinion. The most notable triumph of Another Promise was to break down the stronghold of self-censorship and fear of Samsung’s influence. Another Promise was not simply a film –– it heralded a new phenomenon of digital activism and participatory culture in Korea. It shows how thin and symbolic actions can create a collective civic power that enables real change in the midst of rigid culture and institutionalized censorship can create real change in Korea during this digital age.
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