A post titled "I want only to fact check" on the Itaewon tragedy went viral on social media and online communities on Monday.
It was written anonymously on an online community called "theqoo." The source of the information was not disclosed. It contained six questions and answers to them. For example: “Was the police force deployed this year smaller than that in the past? Yes. Eight hundred officers had been posted at one time in the past. This year it was 200 officers.” “Has the crowd ever been managed in the alleyway where the accident took place? Yes. The alleyway has been made one-way before.” “Is there a reason why police deployment decreased? Yes. Some were taken up as bodyguards."
But the content of the post is somewhat different from the facts. The Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency told the media that it had posted 90 officers in Itaewon during Halloween festivities in 2017, 37 in 2018 and 39 in 2019. In the COVID-19 pandemic years of 2020 and 2021, it posted 38 and 85 officers, respectively. This year, 137 were deployed.
Where did the allegation that 800 officers were posted at one time come from? In 2020, the police and the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency mobilized about 800 personnel for a joint inspection of whether retail stores in Itaewon complied with COVID-19 pandemic guidelines. The post's writer seems to have misrepresented the news report. Furthermore, not all 800 personnel were police officers.
Indeed, the alleyway was made one-way for an event two weeks before the Halloween festivities. Seoul and Yongsan controlled pedestrian traffic to flow in one direction in the alley during the Itaewon Global Village Festival on Oct. 15 and 16. The festival was hosted by the Itaewon Special Tourism Zone Association and sponsored by Seoul Metropolitan Government and Yongsan-gu Office while on Halloween there was no organized or sponsored event like the Global Village Festival.
The allegation suggesting that police deployment decreased because Yongsan police officers were reassigned as bodyguards -- presumably for the presidential office recently relocated nearby -- is fake news. Among other aspects, this sounds incendiary. According to the police agency, guards of the presidential office have nothing to do with the Yongsan police, whose jurisdiction includes Itaewon. They reportedly belong to a separate police unit.
Nam Young-hee, vice head of the Institute for Democracy, a think tank of the main opposition Democratic Party of Korea, made a similar allegation. She wrote a post on Facebook alleging that the Itaewon tragedy was attributable to hundreds of Yongsan police officers mobilized to guard President Yoon Suk-yeol during his commute to the presidential office, which the president relocated from Cheong Wa Dae in Jongno to Yongsan. She called for Yoon and Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon to step down. But her allegation is not true. With criticisms growing that she tried to use the tragic accident to instigate anti-Yoon sentiment, she later took down the post.
The production staff of MBC’s "PD Note," an investigative current affairs program, announced on its official Facebook page that they are waiting for information from eyewitnesses and families of missing people about the accident, and also about problems in the government's prior measures and post-accident response. As criticism poured in, they deleted the part calling for information on problems in the governmental measures and response. People criticized the “PD Note” staff for trying to use tip-offs on government actions to condemn the Yoon government.
When a big accident, such as the sinking of the Sewol ferry in 2014, takes place, some spread rumors and false information with an apparent intention to speak ill of the government. At the time of the ferry accident, the nation experienced severe confusion due to fake news and conspiracy theories, and paid huge social costs.
Fake news and conspiracy theories sound plausible and spread fast via social media. They only cause conflict, blind the people to truth and hinder proper control of the situation.
Politically motivated and groundless arguments deserve condemnation. News media should filter out false information and make unbiased reports. Fake news and conspiracy theories must be rooted out. Now is the time to pray for the victims and focus on sorting out the post-tragedy situation.