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South Korean journalists team up to fight misinformation

The Korea Center for Investigative Journalism runs Newstapa, a website that includes the feature , which debunks online rumors

chat room example on misinformation
This is the image used for the story that debunked rumours made by Prof. Kim Choon-Taek. The two columns of text are screenshots from closed chat rooms where the rumours spread.

As the May 9, 2017 presidential election approached, the Korea Center for Investigative Journalism wanted to work on debunking misinformation. One of our biggest achievements during the election cycle was debunking the online posts written by a ‘Prof. Kim Choon-Taek.’ These posts spread rapidly among the elderly and stated that an opposition party candidate known as a strong contender is a ‘communist.’ Using ‘Professor’ in the byline lended more credibility to these posts and many people were fooled.

The reporting team for <Really?>, a feature on the KCIJ’s website Newstapa, investigated the origins of the ‘communist’ post. They discovered the post’s author was an 80-year-old man who was living overseas and was once an army colonel. He was not a university professor, but he could have held professorship in Army Staff College while he worked in the army more than 20 years ago. Our journalists reached him several times for an interview, but he declined to answer questions. After our story published, he stopped creating posts and the number of shares his posts received fell drastically.

KCIJ is the first and only nonprofit, online investigative reporting organization in South Korea. It was started in 2012 by a small group of journalists. They wanted to have an independent news organization against the political pressure from the conservative Lee Myung-Bak government that resulted in the intentional reduction of investigative journalism at the country’s major media outlets. KCIJ is funded entirely by donations from the public with more than 40,000 members who donate on a regular basis and operates independently from business or partisan interests. All journalists in KCIJ can write stories that verify or debunk rumors and mis- or disinformation, along with the stories behind it.

We focus on high-profile social issues or controversial topics at <Really?>, like comments from leading politicians, government announcements or arguments from stakeholders.

One of the unique features of <Really?>, compared to other existing fact checking websites, is that it does not publicly label whether the item is ‘fake’ or ‘misreported’. In fact, as the title of the page <Really?> suggests, the action of asking back to a certain ‘fact’ or ‘topic’, most of the items covered are not true.

Public response to our work differs depending on the topic, as some stories are shared more than 10,000 times on social media platforms, while others are 200 or fewer. Ever since the first <Really?> story was published in March 2015, it has gained more recognition from the public and now several South Korean media outlets regularly produce fact-checking articles (featured recently in an article I wrote for Poynter).

The biggest obstacle regarding <Really?> is that the fact-checking process depends entirely upon the effort of individual journalists. The verification process may take a long time, or is sometimes postponed because of breaking news. Since promptness is the key to increasing the value of a fact checking story, teamwork is essential.

Since we wanted to focus on <Really?> for the elections, in February we made a temporary team formed from teams within Newstapa that was dedicated to fact checking and verification. They would come up with potential stories to fact-check and discuss whether it is necessary to cover it.We covered statements made by presidential candidates or his/her presidential campaign, and prioritized inappropriate or erroneous comments that sparked debate.

Most of the disinformation we found related to the upcoming presidential election were claims made by extremist political groups. These disinformation campaigns mainly targeted older people who are not as versed in online platforms. Presidential candidates also started to attack each other with baseless claims and that, too, became our main focus for fact checking.

For a small-sized independent newsroom like Newstapa, it wasn’t practical to go after every single piece of mis- or disinformation, but we tried to verify those cases where groundless rumors were amplified by media reports or the comments of a leading politician, like the claims made by Kim Choon-Taek.
The workflow for <Really?> is similar to other newsrooms:

  1. 1. Journalists, researchers or editors present issues that needs to be fact-checked during the planning meeting with all members of the newsroom.
    2. Discussion takes place to decide which issue should be covered.
    3. The journalist investigates the issue and reports to the editor before writing the story.
    4. When necessary, more journalists are added to the investigation.

We don’t know if our <Really?> team has established an ideal collaborative system, but our temporary task force team assembled during the presidential election campaign period is a good example of how our team came together to cover a complicated and pressing issue.


Boyoung Lim is a former police officer with a focus on cybercrime investigation and international relations. She now seeks justice through anti-corruption and human rights investigation with her role as fellow with Newstapa, the Korea Centre for Investigative Journalism (KCIJ).

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