Randomness (r_ness) wrote,

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That story about Kim Jong-un feeding his uncle to the dogs? Just as true as the one The Onion ran.

Recently there's been a story going around the world press that Kim Jong-un had his uncle executed by feeding him to 120 hungry dogs. It's gotten quite a lot of attention.

Turns out it's from a Chinese satirist's Weibo feed. Trevor Powell has the story:
On 11 December 2013 at 02:38:07 UTC, the China-based online satirist personality known as Pyongyang Choi Seongho (or someone posing as him/her) posted a tweet to his/her Tencent Weibo account describing in detail how Kim Jongun had his uncle Jang Songtaek devoured by ravenous dogs. The original tweet can be seen here:


The following day on December 12, the Wen Wei Po news source in Hong Kong published an article quoting the tweet nearly word-for-word:

A screenshot of the original tweet was included with the article on Wen Wei Po. The article also cites Pyongyang Choi Seongho by name as the original source. In addition to describing how Jang Songtaek and five accomplices were stripped naked, thrown in a cage, and fed to 120 wild dogs, the article also describes how Kim Jongun removed his uncle from power for supporting his exiled oldest brother Kim Jongnam in a potential power grab. It also says that no one else had the guts to arrest his uncle so they had to have Kim's second oldest brother Kim Jongchul come out of the woodwork to personally arrest him before fading back into obscurity because he'd be perceived as a threat himself if he actually tried to hold a senior government post.

The Wen Wei Po article must have sounded plausible enough for the Straits Times in Singapore to publish the first piece in English on it on December 24:

From there, the story snowballed across the mainstream English news media and it still seems to have momentum. Major English news outlets from the U.S. to the UK to India to Russia have been publishing the report:

Several have also taken a more cautious approach to the story, citing analysts and experts, but still all missing the obvious fact that the original source of the Wen Wei Po story was a tweet from a known satirist or someone posing as him/her...

It's amusing that given our faith in modern global news media to get to the bottom of a story, no one has actually gone back to the Wen Wei Po article and caught this. All analysis in the swaths of content that have been devoted to this report since it came out stops abruptly at a linguistic wall between the English language Straits Times story and the Chinese language Wen Wei Po article.

What do I take away from this? One, I'm reminded that language is always a barrier. Nowadays I think we imagine that global news organizations probably have multilingual experts from a wide variety of backgrounds covering all the bases. Maybe that's not the case. The ability of any one party to navigate fluidly across linguistic barriers will always be an advantage. Two, many Chinese news providers do sometimes play a little bit fast and loose with their sources when there is something that backs a viewpoint they support. Regardless of whether the tweet's content was true or false or whether the writer was aware of the source's reputation as a known satirist, Wen Wei Po saw it as something worth legitimizing.
In fact, the Wen Wei Po generally ends up near the bottom of the credibility list when it comes to newspapers in Hong Kong, as both Wikipedia and a recent survey both show.

It's all very much like that story in The Onion naming Kim Jong-un Sexiest Man Alive for 2012, that got picked up as serious news by China's official People's Daily newspaper.

There are two common themes here: 1) satire doesn't get caught by news editors when it's moving between Chinese and English, and 2) North Korea is the perfect setting for satire someone will take to be true.
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