North Korea, Gullible Reporters, and a General Theory of Rumors

By | January 7, 2014

Not a real person.Last
week yet another strange story from North Korea
shot across the media
: Dictator Kim Jong-Un had allegedly
executed his uncle by
feeding him alive
to 120 fierce dogs. The story was quickly
debunked—while Kim had undeniably had his uncle purged and killed,
the dogs had been the invention of a
Chinese satirist
. Even before the story’s origins had been
uncovered, skeptics were pointing out
reasons to think
the tale was
probably untrue
.

All of which raises the question: Why did so many outlets run
with such a thinly sourced and dubious story in the first place?
Max Fisher
offers some ideas
:

A friend who’s covered North Korea for several years
and has visited the country, Isaac Stone Fish, now of Foreign
Policy, once joked to me that as an American journalist you can
write almost anything you want about North Korea and people will
just accept it. Call it the Stone Fish Theory of North Korea
coverage. We know so little about what really happens inside the
country, and especially inside the leader’s head, that very little
is disprovable. But the things we do know are often so bizarre that
just about anything can seem possible….

As I wrote in 2012 when the U.S. media were
briefly aflame with nonsensical rumors
that Kim had been
assassinated in Beijing, the images out of the country are so
bizarre and hard information so scant that there’s little to
prevent our imaginations from running wild. We are ready to believe
anything.

Special Pyongyang edition.Add the sort of cultural barriers at work when
Westerners do not recognize the fingerprints of a Chinese satirist
— the flipside of those Chinese journalists who
unwittingly repeat spoofs
 from The Onion — and I
think Fisher has a pretty compelling theory. Indeed, I think you
can extend this past the Korean example to a general thesis about
rumors:

1. The less transparent a society, subculture, institution, or
individual is, the more people will believe weird stories about
it.

2. The more strange things about a society, subculture,
institution, or individual are already known to be true, the more
people will believe still weirder stories about it.

3. If you combine secrecy with strangeness, the weird tales will
multiply.

If you plotted that as a chart, Kim’s kingdom would occupy the
point in the upper right-hand corner, where both secrecy and
strangeness max out. When reading reports about North Korea, you
should adjust your BS detector accordingly.

Category: Liberty
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