There is no question that everyone can write stories and upload them on social media platforms thanks to the development of information and communication technologies. This trend is welcomed, considering that the freedom of expression can be expanded. The problem is that fake news can spread alarmingly, causing lots of adverse effects.
Fake news takes the form of real news stories to convince readers of its reliability, although it is based on false information. And in most cases, such intentionally false news stories are motivated to promote political, social or economic interests.
Fake news was a burning issue during the U.S. presidential election last year.
In the run-up to the election, a gunman raided a pizza restaurant that fake news stories said was the base of a child sex abuse ring that included Democratic presidential runner Hillary Clinton and her campaign chief John Podesta. Those reports were entirely unfounded but that didn't matter.
The fabricated story that said ''Pope Francis shocks world, endorses Donald Trump for president'' also shocked the world. During a press conference on Oct. 2 last year, the pontiff spoke publicly about the U.S. election for the first time, saying ''I never say a word about electoral campaigns.'' Such false news stories might have affected the outcome of the U.S. election.
The dangers of fake news are no less serious in Korea.
Many of the wild reports about the ferry Sewol, which sank off the southwestern coast and claimed more than 300 lives in 2014, proved to be false. For example, an anonymous online commenter raised suspicions that the deadly ferry sinking was the result of a submarine collision. A Facebook account, ''Zaro _ Netizens' investigation team,'' created a stir by releasing via YouTube a documentary _ eight hours and 49 minutes long _ which it claimed ''contains the hidden, unbiased truth'' behind Korea's worst maritime disaster. Such arguments basically went against common sense, taking into account that it was impossible that all the sailors aboard the submarine could have kept the incident secret.
There were also plenty of fabricated news articles in the run-up to the removal of former President Park Geun-hye over a swirling corruption scandal involving her shadowy confidant Choi Soon-sil. One of them said that U.S. President Donald Trump spoke against Park's impeachment, telling CNN that he was concerned that the impeachment would affect the global economy.
Fake news was one of the reasons former U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon dropped his presidential bid. Even before his return home from New York in January after wrapping up his 10-year service at the U.N., corruption allegations were leveled against members of his family. Ban dismissed them as part of a fake news campaign intended to tarnish his image. Separately, there were rumors that the former U.N. chief had received bribes while serving as Korea's foreign minister.
More decisively, a fake news story quoted Ban's successor Antonio Guterres as expressing an objection to Ban's presidential candidacy, citing a U.N. regulation. South Chungcheong Province Governor An Hee-jung, also a presidential hopeful, believed the story was true and immediately lashed out at Ban. After the story turned out to be false, the governor withdrew his comments.
All this shows that Korea is no exception to the scourge of fake news. Allegations will continue to rise because the May 9 presidential election is only weeks away.
The prosecution vowed to crack down on fake news involving the election. In mid-March, Prosecutor-General Kim Soo-nam chaired a meeting of senior prosecutors to discuss ways to curb malignant disinformation activities ahead of the election. However, chances are high that fake news will spread quickly because of the limited time to verify such stories.
People implicated in producing and proliferating fake news can be punished under existing laws, but there have been mounting calls for enacting a new law because fake news takes the form of genuine news stories.
Some pundits also insist that social media platforms such as Naver must assume some responsibility for minimizing fake news as the distributor of content.
Germany is a case in point. The country's Cabinet last week approved a bill aimed at punishing social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter that fail to swiftly remove illicit content such as defamatory fake news. The bill envisions imposing fines of up to 50 million euros on social networks unless they remove ''obviously criminal content within 24 hours.''
But it is not easy for law enforcement agencies to punish those who produce and spread fake news. That's because police cannot intervene immediately if the false stories are uploaded online by registered media outlets. The Press Arbitration Commission must deal with a fake news case first under the relevant law.
A bigger problem might be that major media outlets could make false and distorted reports with ''certain intentions'' ahead of the presidential election. These concerns might run deep, especially taking into account our notorious divide along the lines of ideology, region and economic status.
Few will deny that journalism is in peril. And this is all the more so, given people's widespread distrust of news and the press.
Can we root out fake news? Probably not. We can only hope against hope that fake news will weaken if major news outlets commit themselves to fact-based reporting and the public is not swayed by demagoguery.
The writer is the executive editor of The Korea Times. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.