South Korean presidential candidate Yoon Suk-yeol got a boost on Thursday when a rival dropped out, but if the conservative former prosecutor wins next week, it may also be thanks to “deepfake” avatars and viral short videos.
Opposition leader Yoon and the top liberal contender have gone to unusual lengths in the nation’s tradition-bound politics to shed the image of grumpy old men, courting young voters who could prove decisive in what has been a close race.
The candidates are vying to replace liberal President Moon Jae-in, who came to power five years ago with help from voters in their 20s and 30s. They have since deserted his party in droves, according to Reuters.
Yoon, 61, who has been narrowly ahead of Lee Jae-myung, 57, from Moon’s governing party, won the backing on Thursday of a fellow conservative running a distant third, who joined with Yoon in a combined ticket. Moon is barred by terms limits from seeking reelection.
A former top prosecutor, Yoon has enjoyed steadfast support from people over 60, while Lee leads with those in their 40s and 50s, leaving a battleground for younger voters. Their support has swung dramatically toward some conservative challengers, but disapproval ratings are high for both top contenders amid scandal and mud-slinging.
Yoon and Lee both established campaign task forces aimed at capturing or winning back young voters.
A digital avatar of Yoon, his campaign says, is the world’s first “deepfake candidate”, explaining policy ideas and taking digs at his rival. Lee’s team responded with its own AI-powered character.
Yoon’s slogan “OK, Let’s go!” – shouted at rallies with his signature uppercut gesture – has gone went viral on social media, creating endless memes and video spoofs.
Liberal contender Lee, after meeting with young men and mothers, proposed allowing public healthcare insurance to cover hair loss treatment.
In an appearance-obsessed country where plastic surgery is common, many young men believe baldness can harm career and marriage prospects, but uninsured treatments are expensive.
A 15-second video clip in which Lee did a spoof of a hair-loss commercial sparked explosive reaction on social media as well as complaints from some experts and rival candidates that he was pushing a populist agenda. read more
He courted younger voters in January by calling for legalising the estimated $1 billion tattoo industry, which operates underground because South Korean law allows only doctors to perform the procedure. read more
Lee is especially targeting young people who joined candlelight vigils leading up to the 2017 impeachment and ouster of conservative then-president Park Geun-hye.
Lee Jung-in, 19, a candlelight protester who now heads a group of some 30 youth campaigners for candidate Lee, steered a successful movement to lower South Korea’s voting age by a year to 18 in 2019.
“It is extremely rare that teenagers would have a chance to speak at rallies during any presidential elections, and political parties are generally not good at embracing young people,” said Lee, who is not related to the candidate.
“We’re aiming to persuade other young voters to join us, which I believe would bring a big change in further democratising the country’s politics.”