Four months after co-hosting the world’s leading fact-checking summit, South Korea’s lone fact-checking platform, SNU FactCheck, may have to shut down after a key donor withdrew support.
“SNUFactCheck will be suspended soon if we don’t find another funding source,” said EunRyung Chong, the platform’s director.
Based at Seoul National University, the center has leaned on Naver for financial backing for the past six years. Often dubbed the Google of South Korea, Naver is the country’s largest search platform. Its funding enabled the center to support 32 affiliated media organizations and prominently featured fact checks in a dedicated section on Naver.
At the end of August, Naver informed Chong that the company was ending financial support for SNU FactCheck and its partner media outlets that adhere to the center’s fact-checking principles of transparency and nonpartisanship, created along the lines of the IFCN Code of Principles.
“(Naver) explicitly told us it’s not a money problem,” said Chong, who also teaches journalism at the university.
Disclosures from SNU reveal that beginning in 2017, Naver’s financial sponsorship funneled an estimated $783,349 annually into the initiative.
Two months earlier, Naver had acted as a “Truth Sponsor” for the 10th edition of the GlobalFact conference, which was held in Seoul, marking its first time on Asian soil. The summit attracted 506 attendees from more than 80 countries.
On Sept. 26, Naver had more bad news for Korea’s fact-checkers: It was ending a dedicated section on its platform, where fact checks from the 32 media outlets, including IFCN signatory NewsToF, were systematically displayed. The technology company now allows any article labeled as a “fact check” to be shared, said Chong.
In a joint statement, fact-checkers from the affiliated media outlets said they were “outraged and saddened” by Naver’s decision to end the “successful Fact Check menu on its homepage” in a time when misinformation is a growing concern.
“Naver’s unilateral termination of ‘Fact Check’ is destructive to the social product that the media and platforms have created together for the public good, and it is also a step backward from the global trend,” they said, in part.
Sixty-six percent of Koreans say they turn to aggregators and search engines like Naver and as the main source of news, according to a June 2023 survey from the University of Oxford. Only 6% go directly to news sites.
Naver told IFCN that the move to end funding for nonpartisan fact-checkers “was a strategic decision made from the company’s business perspective” and declined to provide further details.
Several media outlets have reported that right-leaning politicians in South Korea pressured financial backers like Naver to withdraw support from anti-disinformation initiatives. Naver refused to comment on whether politicians influenced its executives.
Following the 2017 presidential election in Korea, Chong and the award-winning SNU FactCheck, together with the communications institute at the university, battled two lawsuits, initiated by a major political party, which alleged bias and defamation. The court dismissed the criminal complaint immediately and without charges, but Chong and her colleagues had to wait for two years to win the civil case.
“We do not pursue conservatism or liberalism,” the group said, adding, “We pursue facts. Our mission is to serve the truth.”
In 2019, the court ruled that the media’s evidence-based scrutiny of public figures for veracity is not defamation but a vital component of press freedom that upholds democratic order.
Chong, who sits on the IFCN Advisory Board, says the center doesn’t interfere with editorial decisions of any of its affiliates, but only reviews published work to ensure it complies with the platform’s rules of impartiality and transparency.
“We respect and protect editorial independence of fact-checkers on our platform,” she said. “They choose what to fact-check, what to reject, and exhibit the content on our platform.”
Chong’s immediate concern, if the center fails to get a new sponsor, is the demolition of South Korea’s fact-checking ecosystem ahead of legislative elections in 2024.
In 2021, global rights groups pressured South Korea’s Democratic Party, led by former President Moon Jae-in, to shelve a “fake news” bill amid fears of stifling critical journalism.
Created in 2017, SNU FactCheck operates as a nonprofit and politically neutral platform, cultivating partnerships among media firms and universities to deliver fact-checking on issues of public concern. It has since published over 4,700 fact checks.