Fake news proliferates as Koreans search for virus information online

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Fake news proliferates as Koreans search for virus information online

On top of tracking down potential victims of the poorly understood coronavirus and searching for ways to treat it, Korea has another problem to tackle - fake news.

Two weeks after confirming the country’s first infection on Jan. 20, South Korea has seen the number of patients rise to 27, spurring concerns over human-to-human transmission in local communities.

As the news broke, people naturally went online to share information and learn about the new disease, which emerged in the central Chinese city of Wuhan and has since spread to more than two dozen countries.

The country’s high-speed and ubiquitous internet have helped to an extent, but have also become a hotbed of fake news and misinformation.

Some YouTubers staged pranks, deceiving viewers by disguising as coronavirus patients and filming people’s reaction in public venues.

A photo of a mask stained with blood with details on where it was found, or rumors that two people who had eaten bat meat in Wuhan have been infected, circulated online, causing confusion in local communities that were mentioned.

And some have reported cases in which fake news distributors used emblems of the government or media companies, increasing the difficulty of discerning verified news.

Fake news involving Chinese nationals has also emerged, raising concerns about the trend possibly developing into xenophobia.

A survey of 1,000 adults, conducted between Jan. 31 and Feb. 4, found that 42.1 percent of respondents saw fake news in the previous week, and 60.4 percent had witnessed hate speech.

The survey, conducted by a team led by Professor You Myoung-soon at Seoul National University, found that 94.7 percent favored stronger punishments for spreading fake news.

As fake news emerged as a setback in ongoing efforts to tackle the sprawling virus, President Moon Jae-in has pledged to take strict measures against misinformation.

Moon called distributing fake news “a grave criminal act” that “goes beyond the freedom of speech.”

“The virus is not the only thing we have to face,” he said. “We should actively stand up against excessive anxiety and vague fear.”

Researchers have advocated for continued efforts to fight fake news.

“South Korea has suffered damages from misinformation following past events such as the sinking of the Sewol ferry, Middle East respiratory syndrome [MERS] and aviation influenza,” researchers at the Korea Institute of Public Administration said in a recent report.

“In a hyper-connected society, the impact of misinformation is increasing as they are easily and quickly produced and distributed through social media. With risks of exposure to fake news growing, measures to increase trust in safety information are pressing.”

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