KakaoTalk rumor mill Korea

In Rumor We Trust: Proliferating Fake News in South Korea

Opinion

South Koreans are used to hearing sentences that end in hadeora, a verb meaning “it is said that….” This particular way of phrasing is something of a cop-out, though. It conveys information without taking ownership of the fact. And given that Korean verbs do not require a subject, it is not clear most of the time whom the information is from.

Examples:

“Actor X sexually assaulted a woman…hadeora.”

“The neighbor’s kid is winning all kinds of prizes without going to hagwon or getting private lessons…hadeora.”

“The president was meeting her lover on the day of the Sewol sinking…hadeora.”

(The last allegation, about the president, was eventually mentioned in the dailies Chosun Ilbo and Sankei – South Korean and Japanese newspapers respectively. But I first heard it from my mother, who in turn had heard it from her friends, before media reported it. That rumor, however, has not been substantiated.)

In all three cases the suffix –hadeora indicates that the preceding statement is hearsay. Yet the brevity of that important cue means that in the course of the conversation, far more importance is placed on the allegation itself than the unconfirmed nature of the story. Ask who the source of this news is, and the person is likely to say, “I don’t know, I heard it somewhere.” Whether a family member, a friend or the mother of one’s child’s classmate, that someone can end up being not so authoritative after all.

Rumors proliferate in South Korea with such ease that a term exists to lampoon the phenomenon: Kadeora Tongsin. Think of it as “So and So News Agency.” (Kadeora is a Busan-dialect spin on hadeora) It is perhaps the most powerful media entity in the country, owned by no one but employing everyone. It can spread news faster than any real news agency, powered by people’s desire to show off knowledge and to shape discussion.

Fake news is not new in South Korea, but it certainly has become a more serious issue in recent months as the nation awaits the Constitutional Court’s ruling on whether president Park Geun-hye should be removed from her office.

Ever since the Choi Soon-sil scandal broke last fall, big media — even the most conservative outlets — have turned against Park Geun-hye. It has been difficult to find news articles that favor the president. Allegations after allegations in the media have painted Park as alternately incompetent, indifferent, corrupt and selfish. Even Chosun Ilbo, once the conservatives’ Bible, has joined the anti-Park coalition, to the effect of provoking protests by once loyal readers.

At least one impetus for fake news comes from conservatives’ demand to see news that does not condemn Park. They think that the whole scandal has been engineered by the left. They distrust evidence, even something as concrete as a tablet PC showing Choi’s interference in state affairs, as manufactured. Chosun Ilbo readers are canceling their subscriptions on the basis that the paper has been “manipulating the national opinion by printing tall tales off the street,”as one of its readers said.  

In search of an alternative source, a growing number of conservatives seem to be turning to the popular messenger app KakaoTalk, which a big bulk of South Koreans use. Especially for older people, it has become the favored medium for consuming and disseminating ‘true’ information.

Two weeks ago, pro-Park demonstrators, who are also firmly pro-U.S. as South Korean conservatives tend to be, rallied across the street from the Defense Ministry, to welcome the visiting the U.S defense secretary and show support for the embattled president. Oh Seok-hwan, a 72-year-old protester on the scene, told Korea Exposé that he received over 1,000 news-related messages everyday on KakaoTalk.

Another, a woman in her fifties who did not give out her name, said she receives several hundred a day. “It’s so annoying. A lot of the time I don’t even open KakaoTalk.”

From their descriptions the chats are strangely democratic: There is no central authority, no credible source, but recipients will discuss the information – they said, “Of course we question the information! Of course we debate!” – and feel compelled to share what they read with others out of a sense of responsibility.

In other words, Kadeora Tongsin is at work once again. Dubious, sensational and without a discernible origin, fake news and alternative facts have found the perfect breeding ground in the Internet, accessible to anyone with a smartphone or a computer.

Sometimes rumors can be traced to sources. A rightwing pundit Byun Hee-jae has been instrumental in spreading the view that Choi Soon-sil’s tablet PC is not hers (a fact, if true, that would undermine the proceedings against the president). In another case, leaflets defending the president and criticizing opposition politicians appeared late January in the mailboxes of one apartment complex in Bundang, an affluent suburb of Seoul. The culprit was a member of Parksamo, the president’s personal fan club.

Producing fake news is not the preserve of private citizens. In the lead up to the 2012 presidential election that Park Geun-hye won, the National Intelligence Service, the Ministry of Defense, the Ministry of Patriots and Veterans Affairs, and the Ministry of Security and Public Administration variously participated in demonizing the opposition or spreading right-wing propaganda. The National Intelligence Service – the country’s premier spy agency – was singlehandedly responsible for sending out 22 million tweets related to politics and the election, from 2,270 Twitter handles over a two-year period.

(The government eventually introduced measures that would prevent the agency from doing the same in the future, by giving the National Assembly oversight. Critics nevertheless complain that the reform did not go far enough.)

My septuagenarian mother, too, receives some bizarre messages on KakaoTalk from friends and acquaintances. The topics aren’t limited to just the current impeachment scandal. One message alleged that the sixteenth presidential election in 2002, won by a progressive Roh Moo-hyun, had been stolen. The message continued, alleging that the CEO of the vote counting machine company supplying the national election commission is willing to publicly testify to this fact. (No media outlet has reported the allegation so I can only assume it is false.)

Another message said that “pro-North Korean opposition bastards” were trying to stop the conservative demonstrations downtown – called the “Taegeukgi Rally” – by introducing an amendment to the Assembly and Demonstration Act.

In reality this amendment is aimed at criminalizing the act of paying people to attend rallies – something the conservatives are accused of doing. The Kakaotalk message, however, does not include this information; it only urges its readers to log into the National Assembly website and oppose the change in writing. And the exhortation seems to be working: Just a few days ago there had been only 45,000 comments on the amendment, many of them negative. On Feb. 17, the last day to leave a comment, there were more than 95,000.

The other message my mother has received, about how late president Roh Moo-hyun stole the 2002 election, is repeated by random individuals on free discussion pages of various websites, including those of the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office and the Ministry of Patriots and Veterans Welfare, and on social media.

The South Korean authorities seem to have belatedly realized the detrimental effect of fake news. The police have set up a specialized task force to deal with fake news online. But the agency’s reach will be limited; they define fake news as only news that imitates the existing news format of media companies to give the impression that it is real, according to Yonhap News. Spreading alternative facts is apparently exempted under the crackdown.

I find it laughable that the police are seeking to shut down the country’s thriving rumor mill. When the National Intelligence Service was busted for trying to smear the opposition and its presidential candidate Moon Jae-in, it was the police that rushed to terminate the investigation, prompting criticisms that it was trying to cover up the sordid affair.

In South Korea rumors thrive because there is little trust in authority. When government officials are routinely caught in their lies, people can turn only to their private networks for credible knowledge. When government agencies are complicit in spreading false information, there is little reason citizens will not do the same. The media, meanwhile, cannot exactly boast a sterling reputation, even though the Choi Soon-sil scandal has certainly given it a chance to act like agents of justice. Conservatives, who have lost their faith in traditional journalism, turn to one another for what they deem to be reliable facts.

Kadeora Tongsin serves an existing demand, one that will not be dented until people in charge clean up their act. But don’t trust me. I only heard this somewhere.

Haeryun Kang contributed reporting.

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Se-Woong Koo earned his Ph.D. from Stanford University and taught Korean studies at Stanford, Yale, and Ewha Women's University. He has written for The New York Times, Foreign Policy, and Al Jazeera among other publications.