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[Newsmaker] Distrust of police and media, and fake news fuel outcry in medical student’s death

Mourners stand with umbrellas to commemorate the death of Sohn Jung-min in Banpo Han River Park in Seoul in May. (Yonhap)
Mourners stand with umbrellas to commemorate the death of Sohn Jung-min in Banpo Han River Park in Seoul in May. (Yonhap)
Lee Jin-ah, 43 and the mother of a 13-year-old son, has been following the updates of the death of Sohn Jung-min, a medical student who died in the Han River, every day, through news articles and YouTube videos.

“Because I have a son, I am emotionally attached to Jung-min’s father. I feel so sorry for him. It is so terrible to think that my child could be dead like that,” she said.

Lee does not know why Jung-min died, but does not trust the police investigation.

“I trust what Jung-min’s father says and I trust what YouTubers say. They provide more detailed information than the police.”

Lee is one of many in Korea who continue to harbor suspicions and demand the truth from the police, although the police investigation into the incident is coming to an end.

Following more than a month of investigation, police said they have done all they could. Police have analyzed evidence and statements obtained, including security and dashcam footage, smartphone information and witness statements. Police also conducted a hypnotic and forensic investigation into the friend who was with Sohn at the Han River, the friend’s father, mother and other witnesses. Police have so far found no incriminating evidence against Sohn’s friend.

However, thousands of online comments are still being posted that question the probe results and physical protests are being held to demand the truth from the police.

Experts say multiple factors have played a role in the prolonged public outcry over the incident: public distrust of the police, the delayed release of the probe results, rampant fake news and a lack of media gatekeeping.

Lee Woong-hyuk, a professor of policing at Konkuk University, said, “The first thing is that the trust of public institutions has been destroyed” in the wake of several incidents involving police collusion in the past.

Most recently, police faced backlash after not applying a special law to former Vice Justice Minister Lee Yong-gu, who assaulted a taxi driver in November last year, before quickly ending the internal investigation.

In 2019, the Burning Sun scandal rocked the nation with its involvement of several celebrities and police officials, raising suspicions of police collusion and corruption.

In addition to the distrust, the failure of police to provide information quickly compared to people’s fast-growing doubts made the incident bigger, said Kwak Geum-joo, a professor of psychology at Seoul National University.

“As uncertainties continued over the case, fake news flooded in and people began to believe conspiracy theories and even led to ‘confirmation bias’ so that people no longer believe what the police say,” she said.

Confirmation bias is the tendency to search for information in a way that supports one’s prior beliefs.

“A conspiracy theory is something of a nature that only a few people know. It feels like they have something powerful that others don’t know but they believe they know. By believing in conspiracy theories, people feel in control of something,” professor Kwak said.

Some YouTubers fully took advantage of the situation, creating dozens of videos under the theme of digging into Jung-min’s case.

According to NoxInfluencer, a statistics website tool, six YouTubers that consistently produced videos and live broadcasts of Sohn’s case generated up to 30 million won ($27,000) a month.

Last week, a YouTuber who spread “fake news” was sued by a law firm that represents Sohn’s friend. The YouTuber produced content arguing Sohn’s friend had asked a SBS reporter to make program Unanswered Questions, which aired on May 29, in favor of him.

Shin Ho-chang, a professor at Sogang University’s communication college, said the media is also to blame.

“YouTubers were able to grow so much because media outlets didn’t play a gatekeeper role and they danced to their tune,” he said.

“The most important principle of journalism is verification. They should report only verified news. But many of them have reported what was not verified. Many articles subtly hinted as if the friend were a murderer.”

As tens of thousands online spread false information and posted malicious comments, attorney Chung Byung-won, representing Sohn’s friend, announced last week a legal response to the defamation online. On Monday, Chung said he received about 500 emails over the weekend to ask for forgiveness.

By Shin Ji-hye (shinjh@heraldcorp.com)
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