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Moon administration’s battle against fake news intensifies

Discussion yet to take off on what constitutes fake news and who should oversee measures

Aug. 21, 2019 - 16:05 By Yeo Jun-suk

With tech companies and governments around the world stepping up efforts to curb false content online, the South Korean government is also waging a battle against “fake news” amid recent economic and security challenges.

The Moon Jae-in administration has pledged to eradicate what it perceives as misleading news content that could undermine economic and security prospects. The country’s media regulator and internet companies have voiced similar concerns, pledging to enhance oversight.

While there appears to be controversy over what constitutes fake news and who should be responsible for figuring this out, the government is stepping up efforts to prevent fake news from undermining its major policy initiatives.

“While dealing with the serious economic situation, we should be cautious about the possibility that fake news, falsified information and exaggerated prospects could increase market instability,” Moon said during a Cabinet meeting on Aug. 13.

His remarks appeared to be in response to what he saw as biased criticism of his security and economic initiatives. Content containing harsh criticism of his North Korea policy and the trade dispute with Japan has been overflowing on YouTube and other online platforms.

Presidential office Cheong Wa Dae recently ordered several government agencies to take a tough stance against the distribution of fake news. According to local broadcaster KBS, the Trade Ministry and the Defense Ministry were being looked into by presidential aides last month for their dealings with media outlets.

The country’s media regulator, the Korea Communication Commission, has pledged to intervene in regulating the distribution of fake news. The danger of falsified information outweighs the risk of violating the right to freedom of expression, the agency said.

“I’m well aware of the importance of freedom of expression. But fake news and manipulated information being distributed recently can’t be protected by those rights,” KCC chief nominate Han Sang-hyuck told reporters last week.

Han, however, declined to comment on who should be responsible for defining what constitutes fake news. “Instead of debating over whether the government should make its own decision, we need to establish proper definitions about manipulated information and hate expressions,” he said.

President Moon Jae-in. Yonhap

Given the difficulty of defining fake news, experts warn that excessive government intervention could give rise to censorship concerns. Such worries could gain more weight amid the protests in Hong Kong and a Chinese government crackdown that has drawn criticism from the international community.

The Chinese government was criticized for allegedly mobilizing its own state media to report that the Chinese people are demanding a halt to the protests. Calling the stories fake news, Facebook and Twitter have removed links from their news feed.

“I don’t think we need additional regulations to crack down on fake news,” said Lee Sang-woo, a professor at the Graduate School of Information at Yonsei University. “Even media scholars can’t tell which content should be characterized as fake news.”

With the government escalating its fight against fake news, the country’s major internet portals and global tech giants are coming up with their own oversight measures for their news-sharing platforms.

Chief among them are Kakao and Naver, which most Koreans rely on when searching for news. The internet companies have been working with local media outlets and research agencies to conduct fact-checking on their web portal services.

Last year, the internet companies enacted their own regulatory policies to combat fake news. According to their terms of service, those who upload fake news can be restricted from using their portal services.

“When there is a legitimate concern that content can pose a serious threat to the public good, we can remove controversial content and suspend problematic users’ accounts,” said an official from Kakao.

While this principle is being applied to Kakao’s portal service Daum, the company’s messenger service KakaoTalk requires a more cautious approach. Given the nature of private chatting services, Kakao said it takes action when there is a report from users about criminal activities.

Global tech giants operating here have also been taking steps to curb the spread of fake news on their news-sharing platforms. YouTube and Facebook have been operating filtering systems that they say prevent the distribution of falsified and harmful content.

However, one difference compared to local platforms -- whose newsstands only publish content from affiliated media outlets -- is that Facebook and YouTube adopt a more liberated form of content circulation.

“Compared to Naver and Kakao, Facebook and YouTube have adopted a much more open system for news distribution,” said an industry source. “Given their global presence, their battle against fake news could be a harder one.”