Sowing discord and spreading lies
Fake news threatens to undermine what journalists have strived for. Ethical media must work to clear its name.
Story by Scott Duke Harris
Additional reporting by Eunji Kim, Carina Lee, Nicole Pabello, Yiqian Shen and Jane Zhang
Edited by Elaine Ramirez
South Korean consumers are known for indulging in fashion, tech gadgets, cosmetic surgery and K-pop. They are also hungry for “hadeora” — or so it is said.
That’s the translation of hadeora: “It is said that.” The term, tacked onto the end of a sentence, is like the rhetorical tic Citizen Donald Trump used to spread gossip en route to becoming President Donald Trump: “…people are sayin’.”
Hadeora, also sometimes “kadeora,” provides the speaker with a dash of deniability while he or she fertilizes a discussion with dubious information. One example: the unsubstantiated claim that former President Park Geun-hye had met with her lover during the Sewol ferry and tragedy that killed 304 people.
That allegation was eventually mentioned in the Chosun Ilbo and Sankei, South Korean and Japanese newspapers, after it had spread on popular Korean social platforms, namely Kakao, Daum and Naver, according to Se-woong Koo, publisher of Korea Expose. “But I first heard it from my mother, who in turn had heard it from her friends, before media reported it,” he wrote.
Koo’s essay was titled “In Rumor We Trust: The Proliferation of Fake News in South Korea.” These days, that headline could serve as a template — just substitute the country. Fake news is a multifaceted problem that has mutated from stubborn virus to global pandemic, propelled by social media and adapting to every culture, country and purpose.
The pen may be mightier than the sword, but fake news is both poison pen and double-edged sword. On one hand, the fabrications that are purveyed as news deliberately misinform the public and undermine the credibility of legitimate journalism. On another, the term “fake news” becomes a slogan for politicians and critics to disparage reportage and commentary that cause them discomfort. Russian propagandists even used the Twitter hashtag #fakenews to discredit video of Aleppo atrocities.
The deluge of fake news poses two threats. The first is from the bogus reports designed to deceive news consumers with misinformation. The second is the way politicians and governments have adopted the phrase to discredit legitimate journalism.
The authoritarian Chinese government, which has jailed more than 40 Chinese journalists, recently denounced as fake news the reports in Western media that a Chinese human rights advocate said he had been tortured. In Singapore, the rise in bogus news has been deemed such a threat to “community values” that the minister for communications and information told parliament that the nation’s Broadcasting Act should be updated.
In Vietnam, authorities express similar concerns as they ponder ways to police Facebook and use it to spread their version. In the Philippines, legislation seeks to require social media firms to register users to make it harder for them to create fake news sites, while Indonesia has announced the creation of a new “cyber agency” to fight fake news. And in Cambodia, a government spokesman suggested a solution to address allegedly false reportage by the Voice of Democracy, Voice of America and Radio Free Asia: “Shut it down. … Expel them.”
These examples, compiled in part by Mong Palatino at citizen media outlet Global Voices, illustrate how Asian governments may further flex their restrictive powers.
The effect has fueled spiraling distrust in mainstream media and even cast a cloud over the notion of objective truth itself.
“We live in the age of trolls, sowing discord and spreading lies,” Davan Maharaj, publisher and editor of the Los Angeles Times, declared in a speech in April. So-called “alternative facts,” he added, “inspire acts of hate and retribution. Allegations of ‘fake news’ threaten to undermine what we have fought for. Science itself is under attack.
“Such hostility is a threat not just to journalists and writers and editors like us. It is a threat to anyone who trusts us, who turns to us for help in understanding the world.”
For journalists committed to producing quality work, the tsunami of misinformation has an insidious effect.
“Fake news is like bad money. It drives out the good stuff, debases the currency,” Steven Butler, Asia program director for the Committee to Protect Journalists, told N3 Magazine. “People become cynical about what we might otherwise consider reputable news sources when they stop believing anything, or begin to believe only news stories that confirm existing opinions or bias.
“This is aside from the possible damage from the content of the fake news stories,” added Butler, who worked as a correspondent in Asia for two decades. “Government reaction can compound the problem, as governments create new levers of control over free expression that can be used to oppress the legitimate press.”
The crisis over fake news began to sear headlines before people could even agree on the answer to a key question: What is it, anyway?
“That’s the problem itself, right? Nobody knows how to define what fake news really is,” professor Masato Kajimoto of Hong Kong University, a specialist in social media, told N3 Magazine. “But people are using the term and that is where the confusion comes from.”
Kajimoto, formerly a web producer at CNN, pointed out that the term “fake news” isn’t used in teaching the criticalthinking skills involved in understanding news, known as “news literacy.” Rather, such content would fall within the broader category of “problematic information,” which also could include “advertorials” and government propaganda.
While newspaper references to “fake news” date to 1890s, the term became popular in 2016 with the profusion of fabricated news online, much of it focusing on the U.S. presidential election. Trump further popularized the term to denounce journalism he deemed unfavorable.
“Fake news” is an elastic label that can be used by anyone to discredit any bit information, regardless of its veracity. When journalists use the term, Kajimoto said, fake news can refer to fabrications with a political or profit motive, or both. The U.S. presidential campaign season was peppered with bogus click-bait “news,” some of which was produced by entrepreneurs in Macedonia.
“Technology has made it easy for anybody to create fake news and make it look genuine,” Kajimoto said. “Memes are a good example. You choose a good picture with a nice headline and put it on Facebook, and it can look like it is coming from a news organization. That definitely has made the situation worse.”
The “fake news” charge also can be leveled at honest errors. “Journalists do make mistakes,” Kajimoto said. “For some news readers, that can be considered fake news.”
Concerns over fake news have prompted the public and private sectors to address the issue. Google and Facebook, colossal forces in the digital realm, have introduced efforts to label disputed content in hopes of minimizing sharing. Fact-checking sites also have emerged in various countries — but these, too, often merit skepticism. The government of Malaysia, not considered a bastion of free expression, has created the online tool Sebenarnya, a Malay term meaning “actually.”
In China, authorities who have jailed more than 40 journalists are further asserting their powers over popular social networking platforms WeChat and Weibo. (Meanwhile, a media studies initiative at the University of Hong Kong called Weiboscope pushes back with efforts to reveal censored material.) In 2014, The Wall Street Journal reported that the Beijing government aimed to snuff out “a disease” in the news industry that promoted extortion and fake news. The People’s Daily, the official mouthpiece of the Communist Party, claimed then that fake news “seriously damages the image of news workers, corrodes the credibility and authoritative nature of the news media, is strongly opposed by all sectors of society, and bitterly detested by the people.”
WeChat, with about 550 million users, operates a fact-checking center that gets about 10,000 complaints per day, according to the company. Weibo reports receiving about 2,000 complaints per day.
WeChat, a subsidiary of Tencent, told N3 Magazine that its policies penalize accounts “based on severity of the case once the social media platform verifies and confirms that the information involves infringement, breach of confidence, fake news, harassment, spam, etc., which violates the country’s law, regulations, policies, public order and social moral, according to users’ reports and government authorities.”
To date, WeChat said it had penalized about 45,000 public accounts “involved in spreading false information and fake news.”
The Korean Peninsula, with its stark contrasts, illustrates how fake news can thrive regardless of the level of freedom. In North Korea, news is largely government propaganda, which may or may not be true. Meanwhile, South Korea’s rollicking, always-on media culture has given voice to a multitude of perspectives, as well as large doses of misinformation.
The emotional power of social media was demonstrated in the spread of text messages from doomed teenagers and others aboard the ferry Sewol in 2014. The political fallout, in retrospect, marked the beginning of the scandalous end of Park’s leadership. The tragedy also damaged the reputation of South Korean news media as some major outlets were accused of parroting the government line, ignoring critical voices and failing in their watchdog roles.
Distrust escalated as the nation’s focus shifted in recent months to both the hadeora and hard facts of corruption swirling around Park and her confidante Choi Soon-sil, who allegedly leveraged their relationship for financial gain. According to some reports, elderly South Koreans increasingly turned to social media and away from conventional news sources to follow the national drama that pitted pro-Park supporters against those who wanted to end her regime.
The political battle also spawned a surge of “fake news” in Park’s defense, reported Seung Lee in Gizmodo: “The overarching narrative is quite simple. Every fake news story seems to focus on how the entire scandal and its subsequent protests are a leftist conspiracy to bring down Park’s conservative regime.”
Many of the fabrications, Lee reported, featured three common elements: a fictional Western media outlet, political expert or politician speaking out against impeachment; made-up data suggesting that support for Park was growing, and “so-called evidence tying the Choi Soonsil scandal and anti-Park protests to North Korea.”
Some of South Korea’s fake news purveyors have piled it on with a certain verve. Make-believe Western “experts” were given the names Pendragon and Littner, apparently borrowed from popular anime characters, Lee reported. “One of the most popular people ‘quoted’ in fake news stories was not a fictional expert but the real President of the United States.” Some Koreans were led to believe that Trump had told CNN that he was concerned that Park’s impeachment will affect the global economy. “I am very sorry that Park Geun-hye [was] impeached,” Trump supposedly said. “Korea is America’s most influential partner.”
The campaigns for South Korea’s recent election to succeed Park generated further rumor and misinformation. According to the Election Cyber Crime Center at the country’s National Election Commission, more than 31,000 allegations of fake news regarding the upcoming election had been reported as of April 25 — about four times as much as during the last presidential election in 2012.
Tackling a deluge
But the efforts of Google and Facebook to curtail dubious content may not have much of an impact in South Korea, where the global giants are middleweights and domestic platforms like Naver and Daum dominate the scene. A study by the Korea Press Foundation determined that the country’s major digital platforms account for more than half of the circulation of fake news. The foundation’s survey of nearly 1,100 people found 76 percent experienced fake news on the internet. Mobile messengers like KakaoTalk and Line accounted for 39.7 percent, followed by portals including Daum at 27.7 percent and online communities at 24.3 percent.
Traditional sources of journalism suffered from the deluge. A 2016 study by Edelman found that only 47 percent of Korean internet users “trust traditional media for news and information” — a decline from the 58 percent in 2012. The press foundation survey also showed 76 percent responded that they suspect real news to be fake, and that 83.7 percent believed the societal problems deriving from fake news were very severe.
The impact became news after former U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, once considered the favorite to succeed Park, decided to withdraw from consideration with the claim that the onslaught of misinformation had caused undue stress to him and his family. “My genuine patriotism and passion were damaged by rumors and fake news,” Ban said in February.
In an editorial, the Korean news site Media Today cited human nature as an enabler for rumors to flower: fake news proliferates more when people want to believe it. But, the article added, fake news gains strength when media fails to do its work; it loses power when media gains the people’s trust.
Media outlets are seeking ways to prove news accuracy. Seoul National University has partnered with 14 news outlets to conduct a “fact check-o-meter.” The platform, at factcheck.snu.ac.kr, is managed by a fact-checking organization consisting of up to 11 scholars and media professionals that gives each outlet an accuracy score out of 5.
Social network company Kakao has also developed a platform called KakaoPlus friend, which JTBC news has been utilizing to confirm facts. The broadcaster provided live fact-checking during presidential debates and viewers were able to follow it through live messages. Viewers also were able to ask for fact-checking on suspicions of fake news.
The moral for journalists, many say, is that there is no better way to combat fake news than to focus on the production of authentic, trustworthy journalism. “Fake news may never disappear,” Media Today declared, “but it will lose its strength when real news does its job well.”
FAKE NEWS IN ASIA
The term “fake news” is used in a various ways across Asia. Here are a few examples of the phenomenon sweeping the continent:
The proliferation of “distortions, defamations and fabrications” on Google and YouTube prompted the Ministry of Information and Communication to ask Google to block and remove 2,200 clips on YouTube. As of April 12, Google was reported to have removed 1,300 such clips.
A reputable Japanese newspaper cited sources in its report that Beijing had urged Washington to fire the top U.S. naval commander in the Pacific in return for increased pressure on North Korea. China’s Foreign Ministry labeled the story as “fake news and not worth refuting.”
The government is warning administrators of WhatsApp groups about spreading fake and defamatory news, which risks prosecution under existing media laws. A 76-year-old man was charged last year for sharing a WhatsApp group photo that insulted Prime Minister Najib Razak.
A doctored video purporting to show former U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon violating sacred ritual at ancestors’ grave sites was among the factors that persuaded Ban to withdraw from South Korea’s presidential election.
Muslim clerics, professing alarm about the spread of falsehoods that have spurred protests against Chinese and Christian minorities, have proposed a fatwa against “fake news,” decreeing that the spread of slander and lies is forbidden.
A fake news site reported an explosion in the heart of Bangkok last December. That “explosion” report prompted Facebook to activate its safety check tool with a link to the story, which caused FB users in the city to alert friends to guard their well-being, spreading the story further. But the “explosion” was a one-man protest near the prime minister’s office and involved some firecrackers. No one was hurt.
Scott Duke Harris can be reached at email@example.com.