Tragedy brings out false rumors, scam artists

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Tragedy brings out false rumors, scam artists

Even as the authorities grapple with the recovery efforts of the sunken Sewol ferry, they are also facing a related struggle on land - the explosion of rumors and scams both on and offline.

Some of the parents of the missing students gathered at Paengmok Harbor, the nearest mainland port to the ferry disaster, have been receiving text messages since the day of the accident.

“As of 1:01 a.m. April 17, battery is running out. I heard the survivors are in the air pockets left in the ship. Lee Hye-gyeong of the second classroom is stuck at the stern,” read one message, which was followed by another one saying: “As of 1:17 a.m., 34 students are said to be in an air pocket in a hallway. There are a lot of people on the second deck.”

The name in the message was on the list of students and the description of the situation was convincing, but the messages turned out to be fake and were supposedly sent by a student from another school who knows who Lee is.

Another text message sent around 11 p.m. on Wednesday was confirmed to have been sent by an 11-year-old elementary student living in Gimpo, Gyeonggi. The message read: “I’m in the ship. I don’t see anything. Some boys and girls are crying. I’m not dead.”

Offline, in an interview with a TV channel, a person surnamed Hong claimed to be a government scuba diver. Hong said the Korea Coast Guard was not sending divers into the sea and had told other divers just to kill time. She also claimed divers had talked to survivors in the ship.

But the information in the interview turned out to be untrue, and Hong later said she was just passing along what she heard from other people. An official of the broadcasting service later apologized for airing the interview without verifying the woman’s story. The police have an arrest warrant for Hong on charges of defamation, but the woman reportedly turned off her phone and went into hiding.

The authorities are also investigating six messages that went viral online, suspecting them of being fakes. Communication experts said that mobile phone signals probably could not pass through the water and the ferry’s metal hull.

Analysts have criticized the government for its poor explanation of rescue operations, which has led to an environment of public mistrust, allowing fake rumors to flourish.

“Due to the slow process of the accident, rumors, combined with wrong reports, can rapidly spread among people because the families of the missing people and the public are eager to know what is going on,” said Jeong Nak-won, a professor of broadcasting and telecommunications at Seoul Women’s University.

“This case reveals the vicious cycle in which the lack of explanation by the government leads to speculation and distrust in the authorities,” said Kim Yong-chan, a professor of mass communications at Yonsei University.

Authorities are also worrying about possible text message frauds related to the accident. The Ministry of Science, ICT and Future Planning detected fraudulent text attempts Thursday and issued a statement that day warning people to delete messages from doubtful sources and to not click attached URL links.

BY KIM BONG-MOON AND PARK TAE-HEE [bongmoon@joongang.co.kr]

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