Even when new infection numbers were at their worst, conspiracy theories were a fringe phenomenon in South Korea. Some of the key reasons are governmental credibility, a fact-checking effort and high level of public trust. Reckless and psychologically damaged agitators that have found an audience in Germany are less of a threat in South Korea.
Comparisons often provide limited insights, for instance when attempting to contrast the German “hygiene demonstrations” with the situation in South Korea. Or when the US president suggests studying the efficacy of injecting disinfectants to combat viral infections. A sinister concoction of ineptitude, corruption, laziness, parochialism, vanity, resistance to advice and a denial of reality has led the heads of state of the USA, Brazil and the Philippines to directly cause the preventable infections of thousands of people. Often with deadly consequences.
Transparency in South Korea
With the number of new infections skyrocketing in February and March of 2020 and the parliamentary elections of the 16th of April drawing closer, it would have been tempting for the South Korean government to augment the official numbers in order to appease the electorate. During these months, Donald Trump still denied the facts on the ground and attempted to play down the issue. After all, his presidency will also be judged later this year. Around the same time, false information and conspiracy theories began to proliferate online.
Despite all the criticism levelled at president Moon Jae-in, his government and his democratic party, despite an otherwise commonly held mistrust in officials, the electorate had confidence in the government to disclose uncomfortable truths and take unpopular action, should officials and the administration deem it necessary. During the crisis, people made an exception and respected the official numbers and facts. Undetected cases were so rare that almost no-one felt it necessary to search for alternative truths.
A respected, stable and commonly used education platform
Institutions that perform fact-checks have existed in South Korea for approximately ten years. OhmyNews, which is one of the largest news portals, has fact-checked articles since 2013. At the end of March 2017, a broad coalition established a widely respected fact-checking center. Given the sometimes polarised and politically motivated media landscape in South Korea, a collaboration of this scale set a new precedent. At its founding, sixteen media outlets had signed up to the SNU FactCheck Center. Today, it is almost thirty. The online platform for fact-checking is run by one of the largest and most respected universities of the country, by the Department of Communication at Seoul National University (SNU).
SNU FactCheck is a charitable organisation and it counts the most important newspapers and media outlets of the country amongst its members. One of these is Yonhap, the largest news agency, which has a mixed ownership structure, including public offices and institutions close to the government. The authority and wide respect the SNU-run platform commands is in part due to the diverse interests and viewpoints of the media outlets involved.
Statements in interviews, commentary and political publications by both state and non-state actors, as well as on social media are all examined. Membership is voluntary and offers significant benefits such as raising the credibility of a medium and help with producing well-researched articles.
Statements and topics to be examined are selected based on current events, discussions, political developments and areas of ambiguity. Sometimes this can be as banal as asking whether
a given statement is true or false. Currently, a Christian group stands accused of knowingly and deliberately having obscured and repressed information regarding the spread of the coronavirus through its priests and members (details below). If true, they would be to blame for the recently tightened social distancing rules, as well as the considerable economic and human cost. As such, there is a vital need for clarification.
Just as important as an initial assessment of a statement are cross-checks and public involvement. The legally binding Code of Principles explicitly states that the public has the right to suggest topics for fact-checks.
Corona and recognising expertise
Since the start of the pandemic, daily reports of infections have been released by public health authorities. Free from any political considerations, these reports state only the facts, from which policy recommendations are derived.
The authority and expertise of the Korean Center for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC) is universally accepted. This stands in contrast to Germany, where public mistrust and unqualified political statements damaged the Robert-Koch-Institute and consequently the handling of the pandemic, as well as proliferating the spread of disinformation and conspiracy theories.
In Korea, the following German peculiarities common are hard to imagine: from Saturday to Monday, infection reports are unreliable due to regional health authorities not sharing data on new infections. When these data are shared throughout the week, this sometimes happens via fax machines. These practices are reminiscent of the 1980s and unimaginable in South Korea, where digital, smart technologies are a crucial part of the fight against the pandemic. Delays in the collection, transmission and interpretation of data are non-existent.
Solid data is a prerequisite for every fact-check and every quick response to new developments. This is common knowledge in Korea – and usually in Germany too.
False Information: Education, Insight and Threats
The South Korean government recognised not only the threat from the coronavirus early on, but also the danger emanating from disinformation: on the 20th of January, Korea had its first case of the Coronavirus. Just ten days later, president Moon Jae-in described the spread of fake news as a serious crime, which has nothing to do with freedom of speech. Violations were threatened with severe repercussions. At this point, Korea had a mere 11 Covid-19 patients.
Officials quickly recognised how rapidly mis- and disinformation spreads and the difficulty of combatting it once it has been published. Around the same time as the first cases of the virus appeared in South Korea, pranks and disinformation started circulating amongst the country’s internet communities, spreading faster than the virus and causing considerable distress. The government made it clear that when it came to the virus, no disinformation would be tolerated, whether shared in jest or with more nefarious motives. The public overwhelmingly supported the approach: in February the SNU conducted a study of 1,000 South Koreans. 94,7 percent supported stronger penalties for the spread of disinformation. Naturally, the answers would have been affected by the phrasing of the question, so the results need to be taken with a grain of salt.
Disinformation and alternative facts are dangers to public health
Groups which prefer to believe “alternative facts” exist in South Korea too. Especially religious groups have reached infamy, such as the Christian Shincheonji sect: 4,000 of their members were infected at a Sunday service at the beginning of March. The 89 year old founder Lee Man-hee is currently being investigated and stands accused of obstructing official measures designed to combat the spread of the virus. Allegedly, Lee Man-hee destroyed evidence and provided false information regarding visitor numbers at his services.
The pastor of another Christian sect told his parishioners a mix of trust in God, as well as a disinfectant solution of saltwater, sprayed into the mouth and throat would protect them from the
virus. The pastor’s wife personally sprayed the solution into every parishioners mouth and throat at the Sunday service, using one bottle for everyone. Consequently, she single-handedly created a chain infection and the following Tuesday fifty new infections had been recorded. This is proof enough that not even the most pious belief can protect from infection, even in combination with saltwater spray. Sunday services were illegal for months in South Korea.
Consequence, Clarity, Consensus and Cooperation – or maybe not
The government and state apparatus in South Korea have reaped worldwide praise for their handling of the pandemic. Logically sound and transparent conduct were instrumental to their success. The legal basis for the government’s actions was a public health state of emergency, declared soon after the start of the pandemic. Success came at the price of restrictions to civil liberties, including religious freedoms, less privacy and diminished data protection. Demonstrations have been illegal for months now, which is not entirely unwelcome to the government. Approval ratings for president Moon Jae-inn have plummeted after his parties success at the April elections, due to domestic political issues.
“Hygiene demonstrations”, refusing to wear masks and the large public gatherings possible in Germany even during the crisis elicit disbelief, incomprehension and horror in South Korea’s population. Generally, people accept the measures put in place by the government and most follow the official advice. Where regulations are not adhered to, they are enforced.
The Corona pandemic threatens the liberal constitution and the lives of everyone in Korea too. Currently it looks like the majority of the population will continue to cooperate with public health advice and that demonstrations such as the one held in Berlin recently will continue to be unlikely. A crucial reason is the effective combatting of disinformation.
The consequences of small groups believing themselves to be the arbiters of a higher truth can be dire. Once again two religious groups are at the centre of the recent dramatic rise in new infections. Of particular interest is the Sarang Jeil church, which is estimated to have between 2,000 and 4,000 members. Exact numbers are not available because the church leadership has refused to provide accurate lists and seems to be faking some evidence. Pastor Jun Kwang-hoon, described as charismatic by his followers, strongly encouraged participation in an unauthorised anti-government demonstration which some 20,000 people attended. In the week following the demonstration, around 750 new infections were linked to churchgoers, even without accurate membership numbers. Despite also having been infected, Pastor Jun and his entourage remain uncooperative.
The reaction of the public is a mix of surprised disbelief and sheer horror at the behaviour of this group, whose actions have discredited all Christian churches and their members. Church services are now only legal online and gatherings of more than ten people are illegal until further notice.
The government has expressed a zero-tolerance attitude toward uncooperative behaviour in regards to Covid-19 and has left no doubt that it will enforce it. The time of restrictions that many believed to be almost over continues. It is unclear for how long, but those responsible are believed to have been found. After months of closure, just when museums, libraries and public spaces were reopened, they have been shut again. Because the new infections are almost exclusively in the densely populated metropolitan area around Seoul, the uncertainty is particularly palpable this time around.
In the fight against disinformation there are many fronts. We will not likely see any winners.