The war on the wild rumor mill

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The war on the wild rumor mill

The breadth of misinformation circulating on social media after Hurricane Sandy hit the United States last year was stunning. Images of a giant wave towering over the Statue of Liberty and news of an inundated New York Stock Exchange went viral. People tweeted that hospitals were on fire and that the emergency hotline 9-1-1 was no longer in use. Some even warned of sharks swimming on Broadway.

But it was all fiction. Son Tae-gyu, a Dankook University professor, used this example to point out how social media serves as an effective rumor mill. This point was part of a debate sponsored by the Yeouido Institute, a research arm of the ruling Saenuri Party, over talks on the privatization of public entities amid the strike by public rail workers. The political sector, both the conservative and the liberal sides, must look straight into our community’s structural weaknesses that breed and spread rumors, and weigh the cost society ends up paying.

Koreans are even more susceptible to rumors than Americans. We are the most connected people in the world, with nearly the entire population owning smartphones. Our dense, homogenous population responds fiercely to news. Anything can turn political at any stage, and nothing good can come out of an environment where rumors breed well.

People become desensitized to gross and malicious language, images and misinformation. Few care about the horrible and painful consequences of spreading rumors.

“Language is the house of Being,” German philosopher Martin Heidegger once said. A society inundated with rumors, theories and insults festers and falls sick under lies, exaggerations and skepticism. Hong Sung-ki, a professor at Ajou University, said our society is particularly susceptible to the spread of rumors because they often become politicized. As seen in the cases of the mad cow scare in 2008, the sinking of the Cheonan warship in 2010 and the fears of the privatization of railway and medical services, vetting and corroborating procedures did not matter as long as they served the ruling or opposition parties well.

Opinions, not facts, prevailed. Politicians who dare anything to win elections, civilian groups acting merely as cheerleaders in ideological protests, self-serving and arrogant intellectuals, and the media that deliver political wrangling have all helped rumors to sell and thrive in our society, according to the professor.

Wild rumors are as contagious and even as deadly as viruses. We must fight to contain them. The government, political parties and civilian groups must join together to save the country from this sea of misinformation.
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