Do you remember when People’s Daily, a Chinese Communist Party newspaper, mistakenly believed that a satirical Onion article naming Kim Jong Un the Sexiest Man Alive in 2012 was real and published a 55 page slideshow about it? How we laughed.
Now the shoe may be on the other foot.
Last week, multiple news sources, including NBC News, Fox News, and, yes, Business Insider, picked up a story in the Singaporean newspaper Strait Times that said North Korean leader Kim Jong-un had his uncle Jang Song-taek executed by feeding him to 120 ravenous dogs.
Very quickly some people began to realize that there was something a little off about this story. For one thing, the Strait Times sourced their news to a December 12 article in Wen Wei Po, a Hong Kong-based newspaper supportive of the Chinese government. In studies of the different credibility ratings of Hong Kong newspapers, Wen Wei Po consistently ranks near the bottom of the tables. No official in Seoul has come out to lend credence to the report, according to the New York Times’ Lede Blog.
Reports of North Korean excesses are always worth being extra-skeptical of — there are few Western reporters in the country and most of the rumors that filter out come through South Korean intelligence sources, who very much have their own axe to grind. This story proves even less trustworthy than most, however.
Trevor Powell, an employee at an investment research firm who grew up in Taiwan, went back to check the Wen Wei Po story, and noticed something unusual. Writing on his blog, Powell describes how he noticed that the dogs detail of the Wen Wei Po story appears to be sourced to a “tweet” on the Tencent Weibo microblogging platform. You can see the original Wen Wei Po story here (the tweet is included as an image) and the original tweet here. It’s translated below with Google:
The Tencent account is held by someone with the user name Pyongyang Choi Seongho, who claims to be an editor at a North Korean newspaper currently studying in Beijing. They have almost 40,000 followers, but are not verified.
There’s something a little strange about the Pyongyang Choi Seongho account, however, and it’s not just the background cartoon of Kim Jong-un flipping the bird. Pyongyang Choi Seongho appears to be run by (or at least inspired by) the same person who runs a similar unverified account on Sina Weibo which is better known (it has over 2 million followers). The Sina Weibo Choi Seongho has been featured a number of times in the Chinese press, but — and here’s the important part — many observers believe it is satirical. The popular expat blog Beijing Cream described Choi Seongho as a “master Internet troll” last year.
Could Western media really have been duped by a satirical tweet? I sent this theory to David Bandurski, a project researcher at Hong Kong University’s China Media Project. While Bandurski stopped short of saying the account was definitely satirical, he didn’t find the account to be believable. “Unless a reliable source at Tencent can confirm their identity,” Bandurski wrote, “this is highly suspect.”
Frustratingly, this still doesn’t mean that we can rule the 120 dogs execution method a complete lie — its not completely clear that the Tencent Weibo account was the origin of the rumor, unfortunately. But it does show just how a flimsy internet rumor about North Korea can end up making headlines around the world with very little evidence.