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Rising online hate comments, fake news causing real-life h…

High profile cases of misinformation and fake news have become more prevalent in Korea.[JOONGANG ILBO]

High profile cases of misinformation and fake news have become more prevalent in Korea.[JOONGANG ILBO]

There are increasing calls to restrict malicious comments and the spread of fake news as the punishment for such acts remains diminutive compared to its harms.
In February, false information spread about McDonald’s Korea when an online post on Everytime, an anonymous online community for university students, claimed that mouse legs were found in the fast food chain’s french fries.
The writer of the post said he could tell they were mouse limbs because he often performs experiments on rats.
A Ministry of Food and Drug Safety test result two weeks later proved that the mouse leg was actually a fry made from a potato with black spots, resulting from internal bruises or higher sugar concentration.
“We reacted promptly but our reputation was unavoidably damaged for two weeks until the Food Ministry analysis was disclosed,” a McDonald’s Korea spokesperson told the JoongAng Ilbo on Wednesday.
Outback Steakhouse had its own issues last year when an individual who claiming to be an employee said online that the family restaurant covertly changed food ingredients to cut back on production costs.
When the company warned about legal action against the fake news, the writer uploaded an apology statement saying that he is unemployed and had lied.
False rumors based on groundless claims are becoming more prevalent in Korea, especially as social media booms.
The so-called “cyber wreckers” — online streamers who cover controversial subjects to rake in views — usually pinpoint-target certain individuals or organizations with negative content based on groundless rumors, stirring up hatred among the public.
In the worst-case scenarios, it can lead to suicide for victims of cyber finger-pointing.
The social and economic costs incurred from hate comments mount to 35 trillion won ($27.7 billion) annually, according to the Barun ICT Research Center at Yonsei University.
There are related laws that punish fake news and malicious comments, but the penalties are widely regarded as a slap on the wrist.
The law concerning information and communications networks imposes up to a three-year sentence, or a 30 million-won fine, against people who defame another person by disclosing factual information. A seven-year sentence or a 50 million-won fine is imposed against those who defame others with false information.
The Criminal Act stipulates that a person who publicly insults another shall receive up to a one-year term in prison or a fine under two million won.
“Even if defamation charges are convicted, courts usually end up ruling not guilty or sentencing fines under the pretext of free expression,” said a source from a financial company who requested anonymity.
Some companies have capitalized on the soft punishment.
A dairy company in 2019 had intentionally spread fake news on internet cafes that its rival company’s product had an “iron powder” taste. A police investigation revealed that the dairy company had engaged a public relations agency to orchestrate the attacks on the rival company.
Heads and employees of the dairy company and the public relations agency each received fines under 30 million won.
“Efforts to transform online culture in a positive fashion are necessary,” said Lee Myoung-jin, a sociology professor at Korea University.
Online communities in Korea adopted a real-name system to prevent social damage coming from malicious comments in July 2007, but the Constitutional Court unanimously ruled the move unconstitutional in 2012.
Lawmakers drafted a bill to disclose IDs and IP addresses of online community users in December 2020 following the suicides of public figures due to malicious comments. The evaluation procedure is still at a preliminary stage after facing fierce public backlash.


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