January 06, 2014

Anatomy of a lobotomy

120 Dogs: Chinese Satirist's Tweet Takes All English News Media For A Ride

On 11 December 2013 at 02:38:07 UTC, the China-based online satirist personality known as Pyongyang Choi Seongho (or someone posing as him/her) posted a tweet to his/her Tencent Weibo account describing in detail how Kim Jongun had his uncle Jang Songtaek devoured by ravenous dogs. The original tweet can be seen here:
 The page features a background image of cartoon Kim Jongun giving the middle finger to his people from a balcony while flanked by senior officers. Given that the username is "choiseongho000", it's also likely this is simply a copycat account mooching off Pyongyang Choi Seongho's good name. One example of his/her style is this amusing tweet posted on U.S. Thanksgiving Day that says, "Today is Thanksgiving Day. Thanksgiving Day is the day for giving thanks to Kim Jongun. The American people eat turkey to thank him. What do you people eat?" It also includes a poster of Kim Jongun in sunglasses saying, "Don't know how to be thankful, then you'll get shot."

 More can be read about the Pyongyang Choi Seongho phenomenon at the links below:

 Even in China and North Korea it would still have been the morning of December 11 when the tweet was posted. The following day on December 12, the Wen Wei Po news source in Hong Kong published an article quoting the tweet word-for-word:

 A screenshot of the original tweet was included with the article on Wen Wei Po. The article also cites Pyongyang Choi Seongho by name as the original source. In addition to describing how Jang Songtaek and five accomplices were stripped naked, thrown in a cage, and fed to 120 wild dogs, the article also describes how Kim Jongun removed his uncle from power for supporting his exiled oldest brother Kim Jongnam in a potential power grab. It also says that no one else had the guts to arrest his uncle so they had to have Kim's second oldest brother Kim Jongchul come out of the woodwork to personally arrest him before fading back into obscurity because he'd be perceived as a threat himself if he actually tried to hold a senior government post. The Wen Wei Po article must have sounded plausible enough for the Straits Times in Singapore to publish the first piece in English on it on December 24:

 From there, the story snowballed across the mainstream English news media and it still seems to have momentum. Major English news outlets from the U.S. to the UK to India to Russia have been publishing the report:

Several have also taken a more cautious approach to the story, citing analysts and experts, but still all missing the obvious fact that the original source of the Wen Wei Po story was a tweet from a known satirist or someone posing as him/her:

 It's amusing that given our faith in modern global news media to get to the bottom of a story, no one has actually gone back to the Wen Wei Po article and caught this. All analysis in the swaths of content that have been devoted to this report since it came out stops abruptly at a linguistic wall between the English language Straits Times story and the Chinese language Wen Wei Po article.
 What do I take away from this? One, I'm reminded that language is always a barrier. Nowadays I think we imagine that global news organizations probably have multilingual experts from a wide variety of backgrounds covering all the bases. Maybe that's not the case. The ability of any one party to navigate fluidly across linguistic barriers will always be an advantage. Two, many Chinese news providers do sometimes play a little bit fast and loose with their sources when there is something that backs a viewpoint they support. Regardless of whether the tweet's content was true or false or whether the writer was aware of the source's reputation as a known satirist, Wen Wei Po saw it as something worth legitimizing. If Wen Wei Po is a government mouthpiece as some of the articles have said, then maybe that is telling. Or maybe not.