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(EDITORIAL from The Korea Herald on Jan. 24)

All News 07:02 January 24, 2017

Fake news alert
Scandal, possible early election offer breeding ground

Fake news is different from ordinary misinformation and disinformation in that it takes a form of real news stories provided by what appear to be legitimate news outlets. It is more dangerous because people tend to easily believe information given to them in the name of news.

With the proliferation of the internet and social media, fake news is becoming a global epidemic. One need look no further than the recent US election, in which some fabricated news stories went viral among social media users.

In a ridiculous twist of the "pizzagate" episode, a gunman raided a pizza restaurant which a fake news story said was the base of a children trafficking ring operated by Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.

The Facebook posting that said "Pope Francis Shocks World, Endorses Donald Trump for President" did shock many, first over the story itself and later over the fact that it was a fake.

It is easy to predict that that kind of fake news will spread quickly and forcefully around the world. Some recent cases manifested that Korea too is vulnerable to the phenomenon.

A fake news story quoted UN chief Antonio Guterres as expressing objection to a presidential candidacy of his predecessor Ban Ki-moon, citing a UN regulation. South Chungcheong Gov. Ahn Hee-jung, also a presidential hopeful, picked it up immediately to attack Ban. After it turned out that an online media outlet targeting Korean communities in Europe fabricated the story, Ahn withdrew his comments.

Another fake news story on Ban, who returned home earlier this month after 10 years with the UN, showed how malicious such fraudulent stories could be: Ban paid a visit last week to the grave of his father, where he observed a traditional rite for ancestors, including an offer of a drink. Someone deliberately edited a video clip to give the impression that Ban skipped an important part of the ritual.

These cases show that Korea has already become a hotbed of fake news. In truth, Korea is fertile ground for fabricated news, which has become much easier to generate and spread owing to the development of information and communications technologies.

Korea is one of the world's most wired countries and like in other parts of the world, an increasing number of people get news from the internet and mobile devices instead of mainstream media like newspapers.

Korea's notorious divisiveness and polarization along the lines of ideology, region and economic status also offer a ripe environment for fabricated news stories.

To make things worse, the parliamentary impeachment of Park is intensifying conflicts between conservatives and liberals. The divide and confrontation will get fiercer over the decision of the Constitutional Court on whether to uphold impeachment or not.

If the court rejects Park's impeachment, Park will be able to finish her term of office early next year, but it will still stir an uproar as Park's opponents and critics will never accept any such decision. If the court rules to remove Park from office, the nation should have an election in two months. Such a rushed election may well make the fights among the candidates and their supporters uglier.

The two fake news stories involving Ban, now second in the popularity rankings of presidential aspirants, are already sounding the alarm bell regarding the presidential election.

In that regard, the National Election Commission did well to launch a task force to crack down on fake news, rumors, slanders and smears. It also vowed to work closely with social media like Facebook and portals like Naver, which are often exploited as channels for the spread of fake news and rumors.

These steps will be necessary, but never sufficient, especially in Korea where many people tend to be keen on finding information that is aligned with their political and social views, regardless of its veracity.

The government and the National Assembly need to work together on legislations to counter the proliferation of fake news. One necessary step will be toughening criminal punishment for creators and hawkers of fake news. The current codes on defamation and libel must be strengthened to a level that does not threaten the freedom of speech and expression.
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