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Make-your-own fake news sites spark concern

Websites allows users to easily distribute misleading information, stoking fears of effect in upcoming elections

By Yoon Min-sik

Published : Jan. 31, 2024 - 13:20

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Websites allowing the user to easily make and distribute fake news are sparking controversy in South Korea, just as the government plans countermeasures against the spread of false information using modern technology.

The websites are generally run anonymously and enable users to make fake breaking news in a template designed to make the information look convincing. Users can copy the link to the fake post and send it to anyone.

The sites usually add a disclaimer specifying the information to be false and that they have no control over the content distributed via their systems.

On one of those fake news websites, headlines in the "Breaking News" section range from the obviously false to some that could easily be mistaken as real information. Examples include "ex-President Roh Moo-hyun resurrected" and "Major League Baseball's Ryu Hyun-jin returning to South Korean league," as well as claims of the assassination of political bigwigs.

The potential problem with this specific fake news website is that disclaimers only appear in the introduction page and after the person who received the fake news link has scrolled down to the bottom of the story. This particular fake news website had misinformation in four other languages -- English, Japanese, Chinese and Russian -- but the disclaimers were only in Korean.

While sending a message is quick and easy, getting rid of it is not. The website promotes it as an easy prank and offers 50,000 won ($37) gift certificates for users who manage to get 1,000 clicks, but explains only in the introduction page that deleting a post costs 50,000 won.

Links to the fraudulent information are similar to those of the Naver news service, which is operated by the most widely used search engine in the country. Officials from Naver said the company is aware of the website and is contemplating legal action against it.

Misleading and fake information is raising alarms across the world. In the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting 2024 held earlier this month, AI-generated misinformation ranked among the top short-term risks across the globe, alongside extreme weather, social polarization and cybersecurity.

In South Korea, concerns are rising that local law does not have clear definition of what should be considered fake news or punishment clauses for individuals or groups spreading false information.

In the previous Moon Jae-in administration, proposed bills from the then-ruling Democratic Party of Korea would have defined punitive compensation for damages stemming from fraudulent reports by media outlets, but such attempts were thwarted on accusations of infringement on the freedom of speech. President Yoon Suk-yeol himself, during his 2022 campaign for the country's leadership, urged for a strong system in which "a single news story distorting facts could bankrupt an entire media outlet," although he later clarified that he was against the Democratic Party's bills.

"Although there is a consensus on the need to cope with fake news in general, there still are widely varying disputes over the scope of the measures to be taken against fake news. In particular, there is a need for continuous discussions on the provisions on definition in the future, given that the scope of the measures to be taken differs depending on how the fake news is defined," Choi Seung-pil, a professor at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies Law School, said in a 2020 paper about regulating misinformation.

There are concerns that misinformation could have a particularly severe impact on society this year, with the parliamentary election coming up in April. Last year's survey by the Korea Press Foundation showed that the most frequent topics for misinformation on the internet related to politics, with 40 percent of respondents saying they encountered such fake news.

It was nearly double the second-most frequent topic for fraudulent information, which was COVID-19 at 21 percent.