What's behind South Korea's fact-checking boom? Tense politics, and the decline of investigative journalism

“Fact-checking” is now one of the biggest buzzwords in South Korean journalism.

Google Trends shows that searches for “팩트체크(fact check)” in Korea surged during the 2017 presidential election campaign. Almost all major Korean newspapers and broadcasters, and even some non-media groups, launched fact-checking initiatives around this time.

In March 2017, Seoul National University introduced its joint fact-checking project “SNU FactCheck,” which involves 16 mainstream media outlets. Many other media groups started their own fact-checking service, usually online.

This fact-checking burst is recent, but not without precedent. A 2016 census of fact-checking initiatives listed three initiatives as “active” in South Korea: JTBC’s “Fact Check,” Ilyo Shinmun’sTruth or False Poll,” and Newstapa’s “Really?”

OhmyNews, one of the biggest online news websites in Korea, has been running the fact-checking initiative “OhmyFact” since May 2013. JTBC launched the daily “Fact Check” segment in September 2014. Ilyo Shinmun’s “Truth or False Poll” has been around since November 2014, and Newstapa’s (the organization I work for) “Really?” published its first piece in March 2015.

Unlike their newer counterparts, which tend to focus on checking political statements, these older initiatives dealt with urban myths and controversies, sometimes encouraging readers to submit items for fact-checking.

Why is South Korea all of a sudden caught in a fact-checking frenzy? Media critics have pointed out several factors that may have contributed to this phenomenon.

Increase in fake news

The spread of fake news during the impeachment trial of former President Park Geun-Hye, and the ensuing presidential election campaign, is likely one of the biggest factors in the recent fact-checking boom.

Media Today, a South Korean media commentary magazine, dubbed the recent presidential race a ‘fact check race,’ quoting survey results that showed 39.9 percent out of 88,000 members of JTBC’s citizen advisory group said fact-checking stories were an important factor in who they voted for.

But was the onslaught of fake news in Korea similar to what was seen in the U.S.? Not really. The Korean version is more of a rumor mill than a profit-driven, professional operation. While U.S. fake news looked like real news stories and mainly spread through social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, the Korean incarnation was mostly in the form of newspaper-like pamphlets or fake information shared among like-minded people through closed group chats on KakaoTalk, a popular South Korean messaging app.

In his article “How South Korea’s fake news hijacked a democratic crisis,” Seung Lee, a journalist at The San Jose Mercury News, reported that fake news circulating before and during the impeachment trial had an overarching narrative: The entire scandal and its subsequent protests were a leftist conspiracy to bring down Park Geun-Hye’s conservative regime. Such fake news also often attacked major media’s coverage of the impeached president’s political scandal as “fake news.”

In this aspect, the recent fake news phenomenon shows a pattern more similar to that of South Korean spy agency’s illegal campaigning on social media during the 2012 presidential elections. Back then, at least 10 groups operated systematically on Twitter to back Park Geun-Hye, and also to slander Moon Jae-In, who became president in 2017.

Early elections after impeachment

In part, fact-checking flourished due to the tight timeframe of the election campaign. Under their constitution, South Koreans had 60 days to elect a new leader following Geun-Hye's impeachment.

With so much fake news spreading and not enough time to prepare more in-depth stories on presidential candidates, the obvious solution was running quick-hit fact-checking coverage. Almost all mainstream media groups launched fact-checking initiatives, and those who were already running them expanded them for the elections.

JTBC, for instance, ran a “presidential election fact check” in real-time through KakaoTalk. It mostly focused on verifying statements made by candidates on TV debates.

But their regular news reports also debunked fake news. JTBC news reported that a British professor named Artoria Pendragon, who was quoted on pro-Park forums to argue that shadow organizations coordinated the impeachment protests, was actually a character from the Japanese anime "Fate/Stay Night."

Newstapa set up a temporary team dedicated to fact-checking with a focus on debunking groundless rumors. For example, Newstapa exposed the identity of "Prof. Kim Choon-Taek," whose posts insisted (now-President) Moon Jae-In was a "communist." Although his argument was backed up mostly by false statements, his posts went viral among older voters partially due to his ‘professor’ title. Newstapa’s investigation found that he was no professor but an octogenarian former army colonel who might have held a professorship in Army Staff College. After this report, he did not produce any new posts.

Growing public distrust and declining investigative journalism

Baek Mi-Sook, a professor at Seoul National University, pointed to the lack of investigative and in-depth reporting as a fundamental cause of the fact-checking boom. The controversy surrounding the government’s control over the press resulted in less investigative journalism and more public distrust.

In 2008, after Lee Myung-Bak came into power, his administration tightened its grip over the press. More than 20 journalists from several media outlets were fired for engaging in strikes. The documentary “Seven Years: Journalism Without Journalists,” released last year, suggests that this eventually contributed to the incompetent reporting on the Sewol Ferry disaster in 2014.

Public distrust against the media is reflected by the word “기레기 (trash journalist),” which was coined during the Sewol tragedy. Public anger grew as mainstream conservative media outlets parroted government announcements that the victims were rescued, which later turned out to be false. Some people boycotted the subscription fee for KBS, the country’s largest public broadcaster.

This coincides with the downsizing of investigative reporting units in mainstream media outlets. Former KBS CEO Kim In-Gyu, who was handpicked by Lee Myung-Bak, was accused of undermining its investigative function. KBS disbanded its investigative reporting unit in 2010, shortly after Kim In-Gyu took power as the president of the station.

Investigative teams of many other media outlets also suffered from repeated cutbacks.

"Korean media needs to go back to the basics and recover the investigative mindset in covering a story," said Kim Yong-Jin, the former head of the KBS investigative unit, who now leads Newstapa. "Fake news grows on media distrust and public disappointment towards journalism.”

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