S. Korean portal suspends trending topics to avoid manipulation

Naver and its ilk are highly influential platforms as almost 80 percent of South Koreans are known to access news via search engines

South Korea's biggest internet portal suspended its real-time "trending topics" feature Thursday ahead of a general election this month, after controversy over politicians and their supporters trying to manipulate the results.

Accusations of misinformation and "fake news" have tainted political processes around the world and the hyper-wired South is known for its technological advances, with virtually every adult citizen owning a smartphone.

Naver said in a statement it had suspended trends temporarily -- the first time it has done so -- to "prepare for the possibility of an issue that can affect impartiality", with the South holding legislative elections on April 15.

The portal and its ilk are highly influential platforms as almost 80 percent of South Koreans are known to access news via search engines, rather than directly visiting media outlets' websites.

"Trending words on portals have a tremendous impact on South Koreans," said Shim Mi-seon, a media professor at Soon Chun Hyang University.

"Many will click on the trending words, rather than browsing news websites, to learn what's new," she told AFP.

"The words also give an idea of what the majority is thinking. Both as individuals and when deciding to vote, it's hard not to be influenced by it, especially when you don't have much time," she added.

When the country was rocked by an elitism scandal involving former justice minister Cho Kuk last year, Naver was accused by opposition lawmakers of deliberately making some trending words rank higher than others, such as "We support you, Cho Kuk".

Naver denied the allegations, saying its algorithm was impossible to manipulate.

Aside from the top trending words, Naver's most liked comments on news stories have also been used -- sometimes illegally -- for political gain.

Last year, a provincial governor was jailed for his part in an online opinion-rigging scandal ahead of the 2017 presidential election.

He was found guilty of colluding with a blogger to artificially generate more than 88 million likes and dislikes on comments on news stories, seeking to rig Naver's algorithms to give more prominence to content favourable to the current President Moon Jae-in.

Naver's announcement came after another major portal in the South, Daum, permanently suspended its real-time list of most-searched words in February, saying the service had "lost its original purpose".