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Verification Defying Internet Causing Social Ills

Posted June. 12, 2008 06:22,   


Early this month, one writing entitled “Police, Murderers” was posted on “Agora,” the nation’s largest portal site Daum’s discussion forum.

The posting said, “While I participated in the candlelight protest against the resumption of U.S beef imports in the early morning on June 1, I saw a female college student in her 20s being strangled by a riot policeman. She may be dead.”

The writing, along with a photo, spread widely across the Internet, and criticism against “violent police” or “murderous police” escalated. However, it was revealed a day after the posting that the person who fell to the ground was not a college student but a police officer suffering difficulty in breathing, according to a police investigation. A man surnamed Choi was later arrested for spreading a “false rumor.” He confessed to police that he posted the claim because he believed that was what happened, though he was not completely sure.

The Internet is often called a “sea of information.” But in this sea a verification system for sorting through what is valuable information and what is not is nowhere to be seen. Concern is growing over the fact this imperfectly functioning treasure trove of information is causing huge losses to society and undermining the virtuous function of the Internet that congregates individual knowledge and turns it into collective intelligence.

○ Treasure trove of information lacking proper verification mechanism

Early last month, major portal sites provoked the ire of netizens searching for information on mad cow disease when the sites retrieved unrelated results such as Web sites for pregnant women and translation/interpretation service pages.

This is one of the immoral marketing tactics Internet companies employ. They induce netizens by keying in the most popular keywords of the day as related search words in their sites when they register to major portal sites as sponsors.

“Even in Naver’s iN, which solidified its position as one of the most popular search engines by directly giving answers to netizens’ questions, there is a lot of wrong information, in particular, information about medicine and other professional areas. Though someone posts right information, it just becomes one of a huge pile of information,” said a physician.

“Physically-ailing people are also vulnerable psychologically, so they easily trust information appearing on search engines if it is related to their diseases,” pointed out a 2006 report published by the Korea Information Society Development Institute.

According to the report, 16.7 percent of the respondents said they were victimized by wrong information. This means that one out of six netizens have found themselves in a fix due to misguided Internet information.

“Since false information on the Web tends to instantly spread through bulletin boards and blogs, it’s very difficult to ferret out the original poster, making it virtually impossible to ward off distorted information,” said an official of the cyber police section of the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency. “This distorted information damages society but nobody comes forward to take responsibility,” he added.

Web portal sites, which directly sway public opinion by ranking the most frequently read information, refuse to take any responsibility, saying, “What we do is arrange information. We have nothing to do with the content.”

○ False information turns collective intelligence into mob savageness

The excess of incorrect and unrefined information frequently leads to a situation where the information many people believe or want to believe becomes correct and right information, even though it is illogical and groundless.

Etiquette is also often lacking when people engage in discussions on the Web. When someone posts a writing that is different from what most believe, people post derogatory replies, accusing the poster of getting paid for the writing.

This has led quite a few progressive media scholars to call for self-examination, saying “The Internet industry is generous to malicious postings, but it ignores the fact that those postings deprive us of our freedom of expression.”

“It’s true that the Internet is an open space, but if some strike different chords, they are brutally bashed as if they were witches. When a majority of people are forced to keep silent, skewed and one-sided information is being created,” say Internet industry experts.

Song Gyeong-jae, a professor at Kyung Hee University, advised, “Portal sites should change their way of operation to live up to the original purpose of forum sites that invigorate discussions. Pro and con forums need to be run separately and mediators are necessary to increase each other’s understanding.”