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In what appears to be a broadcasting news studio, a grey-haired man speaks about South Korea’s latest political and economic issues. He carries himself with authority, but, in contrast to experts interviewed on traditional TV stations, his commentary is peppered with disinformation.
As of early December 2018, his channel has more than 320,000 subscribers, making it more popular than South Korea’s biggest public broadcasters, KBS and MBC.
An example of disinformation is an article published on the Jeong Kyu-jae’s website describing an LGBTQ pride parade on Jeju Island. It described how a protester was hurt by a vehicle belonging to the parade garnered over 50 comments. A photo showing paramedics surrounding a vehicle was meant to serve as proof.
Festival participants, however, said that the reportedly injured man had crawled underneath the vehicle to block the parade. A video shows the man wrestling with police guards as they try to pull him out. It also captures other anti-LGBTQ protesters, who tried to block the road by lying on the ground and they had to be pulled away by police.
The popularity of these kind of channels is growing by the day. The past year has seen the number of subscribers to South Korea’s top 20 conservative YouTube channels that delivered disinformation more than double, according to research by the left-leaning newspaper Hankyoreh.
Global Ground took a closer look at the top 10 YouTube channels, ranked by number of subscribers, identified by Hankyoreh which have produced or distributed anti-refugee, anti-Muslim or anti-LGBTQ fake news at least once. In total, these ten channels produced 11,120 videos between 16 October 2017 and 4 December 2018 containing several instances of anti-Muslim and anti-LGBTQ fake news.
“We strongly oppose the homosexuality law, which will legalise a male daughter-in-law, a female son-in-law, ultimately ruining the country.” That is a title of an anti-LGBTQ video from the News Town TV channel, in which two commentators talk about the consequences of passing the comprehensive anti-discrimination law in South Korea.
The speakers suggest that the purpose of the law is not to support LGBTQ rights, but an attempt by ultra-leftists – sympathising with the North Korean regime – to install a communist government in South Korea. “That is why once homosexuality spreads in [South] Korea, the whole country goes down,” a speaker says in the video. As of now, the video garnered 13,911 views and 1200 likes.
The most viewed anti-refugees video was, “Breaking News: Are they fake or refugees, suspicions arise, The Korean Patriots Party calls for an investigation into a press conference” via the “Magpie Broadcast” channel. At the time of writing it has 28,969 views and 547 likes.
Another anti-Muslim video was called, “What is the origin of ‘Islam’ that is threatening South Korea?” via a channel named “News Town TV.” It currently has 27,976 views and 1,100 likes.
In this video, a pastor named Lee Man-suk in his “lecture on Islam Muslim” cites an example of “Taqiyah” saying that “it is a very peculiar teaching that it is ok to lie as long as it is for Allah, for Muhammad, for Islam, for the Islamic communities and for Quran.” And that is why people have been deceived by the Muslims, Lee adds. In fact, Taqiyah refers to a “precautionary denial of religious belief in the face of potential prosecution,” according to the Oxford Dictionary of Islam.
“The latest fake news crisis is the most successful story in the history of extreme hate groups, and triggers fear and prejudice among people as well as swaying the public’s opinion,” says Hwang Pillkyu, a lawyer at the human rights law foundation Gonggam.
One example of the wide-reaching impact sites like Jeong’s and others have is the case of about 500 people from Yemen, who landed on South Korea’s Jeju Island to seek asylum earlier this year. To many Koreans, living in one of the world’s most homogenous societies, their arrival brought many questions.
A man walks in front of the mosque on the “Islam Street” in Itaewon. (Seoul, South Korea, 2018)
A restaurant displays flags of the countries that accept halal foods on the “Islam Street” in Itaewon. (Seoul, South Korea, 2018)
A signpost of a subway station called “Itaewon,” a shopping and a nightlife district where the “Islam Street” and transgender bars are located. (Seoul, South Korea, 2018)
Moreover, politically motivated, extreme hate groups, including conservative evangelicals, nationalists and misogynists, were ready to answer them. They started to distribute disinformation about the Yemeni refugees with fear-mongering hashtags like “Fake Refugees” and “Citizens First.”
Motivated by this disinformation, a dozen protests against the refugees have been held since last July, each with some 1,000 participants chanting, “Fake Refugees! Get Out!”
Some refugee men received hateful, racist and threatening messages on their social media accounts, according to Go Eunji, the director of Nancen, a group advocating for refugees.
“Fake news is not new in Korea, just as bigotry is not new in our society,” said Go. “But in light of the latest refugee crisis on Jeju Island, it fuelled the hatred.”
One man received a death threat directed towards his baby, another man’s name was used on a “fake refugee” leaflet; another was attacked on the street.
“Today, [the refugees] are highly cautious in their daily lives not to reveal their religion or country of origin,” Go said, adding that for safety reasons, none of the refugees were speaking to the media anymore.
In addition, nearly 715,000 people signed a petition asking that the government not grant asylum to any refugees.
Recently, the government declined refugee status to all the Yemenis on Jeju Island. Instead, 339 of them were given temporary visas for humanitarian reasons for one year only, while 34 were rejected, and the rest were placed on hold.
Fake news sites played a role in swaying the government’s decision on the 458 Yemenis’ application for asylum in South Korea, says Hong Sung Soo, a law professor at Sookmyung Women’s University in Seoul and an expert on hate speech.
“The anti-refugee fake news had a powerful influence beyond just creating fear among people. It actually put pressure on the government’s policymaking,” Hong said to Global Ground.
YouTube, a mecca for fake news
Experts have pointed to YouTube’s algorithm and its monetisation model that have contributed to making fake news even more popular.
YouTube shares a small portion of its advertising revenue with influential creators — those with at least 1,000 subscribers and 4,000 watched hours in the previous 12 months — an incentive to create popular channels.
“YouTube monetises influence for everyone, regardless of how harmful their belief systems are. The platform, and its parent company, have allowed racist, misogynist, and harassing content to remain online – and in many cases, to generate advertising revenue – as long as it does not explicitly include slurs,” according to the report “Alternative Influence: Broadcasting the Reactionary Right on YouTube,” by Data and Society, a research institute focused on the social and cultural issues arising from data-centric and automated technologies.
Of the top ten channels analysed by Global Ground, the largest is The Shin’s Move, with 24,7 million views in just 30 days from 12 November till 10 December 2018. Annually it earns between US$74,200 and US$1,2 million, as estimated by Social Blade, a social media analytics company.
The algorithm behind YouTube, which also decides what content is suggested to individual users, systematically amplifies sensational, divisive and conspiratorial content, according to a former YouTube engineer who spoke to the Guardian.
By choosing to suggest videos that are already doing well and can drive advertising revenue – which are also often sensationalist and politically biased – as opposed to suggestions based on the individual user’s viewing history, YouTube may be exacerbating the influence of fake news on the platform.
YouTube said to the Guardian that its algorithm was changed beyond increasing the hours spend on the platform and it now discourages “inflammatory religious or supremacist” videos.
In South Korea, the impact of fake news is already being felt.
In a recent survey by the Korea Press Foundation, 34 percent of respondents said they’d encountered fake news on social media. The number one medium they saw fake news on was YouTube, they said, followed by Facebook and social media messenger apps like Kakao Talk, South Korea’s most popular messaging service.
Many of these fake news articles involve speakers linked to the Esther Pray Movement organisation, an ultra-conservative evangelical group, according to Hankyoreh.
Earlier in September, Hankyoreh listed the top 22 most commonly shared fake stories on YouTube and the top 20 channels which distributed those stories, and was able to narrow them down to 25 people who appeared as “expert” speakers in those channels. All 22 fake news stories and 21 speakers were closely linked to the Esther Pray Movement organisation.
Due to their religious beliefs, one of the Esther Pray Movement’s main targets is LGBTQ communities. In time for South Korea’s biggest LGBTQ pride parades, many extreme conservative speakers linked to the Esther Pray Movement used their YouTube channels to call for people to protest the parades.
During queer cultural festivals in Incheon, a city bordering the capital of Seoul, and on Jeju Island, anti-LGBTQ protesters disrupted otherwise peaceful events by chanting offensive lines such as “Go Home!” or “We oppose homosexuality because we love you!”. They also blocked the road with cars and a human barricade in an effort to break up the parade.
“I remember a protester yelling, ‘The elementary schools are just around the corner, how dare you have a queer festival here!’,” said Heezy Yang, a queer activist and artist who participated in both parades. Yang said that he and others felt discouraged by the protests and that he was depressed for days afterwards.
Heezy Yang, an LGBTQ activist and artist, takes a selfie prior to his book launching party and exhibition of his drawings. (Seoul, South Korea, 2018)
Yang rehearses before his book launch party. (Seoul, South Korea, 2018)
A drag queen performs at Yang’s book launch party. (Seoul, South Korea, 2018)
A necklace of a drag queen at Yang’s book launch party. (Seoul, South Korea, 2018)
A drag queen at Yang’s book launch party. (Seoul, South Korea, 2018)
War on fake news
Fake news has reached such proportions that South Korea’s prime minister called it a threat to democracy itself and lawmakers are proposing bills to amend the issue.
“Fake news has deepened a divide of public discourse and threatened democracy,” Lee Nak-yon said on 2 October 2018 during a cabinet meeting, Yonhap News TV reported, while the Justice Minister announced on 16 October 2018 that prosecutors will investigate disinformation even without a complaint if the case is deemed “a grave matter.”
Lawmakers have proposed bills to hold social media platforms accountable for insufficiently tackling fake news.
For example, democratic lawmaker Park Kwang-on has proposed a bill modelled after Germany’s Network Enforcement Law, which requires social media networks with at least two million registered users to remove hate and defamatory speech according to the German Criminal Code within a 24-hour-window after the initial user complaint.
Critics of Germany’s law argue that it has incentivised the over-policing of content, as Facebook and other social media networks worry about fines of up to 5 million euros.
But, despite its flaws, Korean experts say that the German law is more nuanced than the one proposed by Park, and question whether such a law could be used to restrict freedom of speech.
In Park’s proposal, for instance, “fake information” mostly involves false claims made against the government or the country; when defining hate speech it lacks examples of disinformation against minority communities.
During this year’s National Assembly inspection and investigation session, an annual hearing held in October that is open to the public Park probed John Lee, the CEO of Google Korea, on some 100 videos on YouTube – owned by Google – that he had flagged as fake news.
When Park asked Lee why the flagged content hadn’t been removed, Lee said: “YouTube is not in a position to be the arbitrator of truth.”
YouTube Korea did not reply to Global Ground’s request for comment.
Most of the fake news Park brought up was disinformation regarding events in South Korea’s history, such as the claim that North Korean forces were behind the May 18th Democratic Uprising in Gwangju, in which hundreds of South Koreans were killed.
Examples of fake news that have hurt the LGBTQ community or hate messages against refugees were not discussed.
When Global Ground asked about how he would define hate speech, Park’s press aide referred to the guidelines on hate speech by the Election Commission.
The Election Committee, however, doesn’t offer specific guidelines on hate speech, and its existing rules in the Election Law, clause 110, are limited to campaign speech.
If authorities cannot define what kind of fake information to regulate when it comes to hate speech, should the onus be on social media companies?
So, how do we curb the ripple effect of fake news? And, more importantly, how do we tackle hate-related disinformation that has threatened the safety and livelihood of minority groups including women, LGBTQ and migrants and refugees?
1. & 5. South Korean college students protest against the backlash feminist clubs on campus face and for gender equality on 9 December 2018. (Seoul, South Korea, 2018)
2. South Korean college students cheer as they listen to a speech. (Seoul, South Korea, 2018)
3. A South Korean college student gives a speech during a rally. (Seoul, South Korea, 2018)
4. & 6. South Korean college students hold signs as they take to the streets. The signs read, “Goodbye 2018, Goodbye Backlash,” and “No Women in that Democracy.” (Seoul, South Korea, 2018)
Sohn Ji-won, a lawyer with Open Net, a group advocating for free speech, said that rather than tackling hate speech, we should focus on the hatred itself.
“The core problem is the hate culture, not the expression. Just because somebody will try to remove the expression online doesn’t mean the culture will be gone, too,” Sohn said.
Either way, it will be crucial to legally define what hate speech is, and to make sure that the definition can’t be abused for politics. Passing a comprehensive anti-discrimination law is one way to achieve that, Sohn added.
South Korea’s anti-discrimination act was first proposed under the democratic Roh Moo-hyun’s administration in 2006, but it was stalled in parliament as it faced backlash from a number of interest groups, including the Christian evangelicals and businesses, which requested the removal of certain anti-discrimination conditions such as one’s sexual orientation, education degree, country of origin, family status, or military service background, according to Hong in his presentation at an international seminar by Seoul National University’s Human Rights Center on 22 September 2017.
After series of failed attempts to pass the anti-discrimination bill, South Korea currently has no overarching law to protect the country’s LGBTQ people, women or migrants against hate speech and discrimination.
“It is undeniable that conspiracy fake news has grown into a huge social problem. People who intentionally distribute and share conspiracy news against other groups because of their gender or sexual orientation should be punished, but to do that, it is most urgent to pass a comprehensive anti-discrimination law,” Yang said.
Until that time, he continues to organise pride events supporting LGBTQ rights no matter the backlash they face. “We have a policy that we don’t respond to violence and hate with violence and hate. It still hurts that we have to take these attacks just because of our existence, but we keep doing peaceful resistance,” Yang said.
Article by Yewon Kang.
Pictures by Jean Chung.
Editing by Denise Hruby and Anrike Visser.
Data analysis by Peter Clark and Yewon Kang.
Illustrations by Imad Gebrayel.
Audio story by Melanie Hall.
Update 21 December: We mistakenly said the student protest happened on 14 December, but in fact, it occurred on 9 December.
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