03.10.2022 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

Crazy Fakes as a Sign of “Cartoon Reality”

Crazy Fakes

More recently, we have been looking at a fake story about North Korea supplying arms to Russia, which the author believes to have originated from a Telegram channel of dubious validity. Unfortunately, the story had two curious sequels.

First, the excitement reached such a level that on September 21, 2022, the Vice Director General of the General Bureau of Equipment of the Ministry of National Defense of the DPRK issued a press statement saying the North had never recognized the “illegal ‘sanctions resolution’ of the UNSC on Korea fabricated by the US and its satellites,” but “we have never exported weapons or ammunition to Russia before and we will not plan to export them.” The representative of the DPRK’s Ministry of National Defense described the US statements as baseless, adding that their aim was to discredit North Korea’s image, and therefore “the US had better stop the silly words picking on us and keep its mouth shut.”

In response, on September 22, Pentagon Press Secretary Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder reiterated that “we stand by the information that we provided earlier.” In other words, Russia is seeking to buy munitions from North Korea, and while there is no direct confirmation of this, “one should not confuse unsubstantiated rumors and classified intelligence”, especially when the news has been declassified for propaganda purposes.

  Second, the world has recently got another example of the media grabbing news from invalid sources if it contains the “right” propaganda message. It is about the wave of rumors of a coup d’état in the PRC that has swept through foreign social media. It turns out that…

  • Xi Jinping was arrested and placed under house arrest, Premier Li Keqiang was also detained. Former PRC’s General Secretary Hu Jintao and former Premier of the State Council Wen Jiabao are behind the coup. A photo of “Xi Jinping’s arrest by the police” was often attached to the news. However, the policemen in the photo are on average 8 years old, their uniforms are not all-Chinese but Hong Kong, and next to Xi stands the then (the photo was taken in 2017) head of Hong Kong, a man of sufficiently conspicuous appearance to be confused with anyone else.
  • A convoy of vehicles 80km (yes, that’s right) long is on its way to Beijing. This is accompanied by a video of some trucks driving down some road. However, the movement of such a convoy would have caused a notable logistical disaster, not to mention the fact that news of the “convoy movement” had been breaking for more than half a day, during which time the military vehicles would have had to arrive somewhere at least.
  • 6,000 flights from China were cancelled, also there are no train tickets on sale – although any attempt to use Flightradar or other software immediately refutes this fake, and the link leads to The Great Era, the publication of the anti-Chinese and anti-communist Falun Gong sect.
  • It is clear that events of this kind would have left an information trail on the internet anyway, even taking into account that it could have spilled over into attempts by the coup organizers to control the information space more tightly. Nevertheless, there has been no effort to “tighten the screws” in the Chinese information field.
  • Interestingly enough, in the Russian segment of the internet this news was spread by bots of Ukrainian origin.

The Russian Sinologists, especially Ivan Zuenko, were quick to reveal the fake, and the tide washed over as quickly as it had sprung.  Journalists were fairly quick to trace who had reposted the news and when, as social media shows action sequence. Although the news on this topic had an introduction stating that “information appeared in a lot of Chinese media”, it was eventually revealed that the “initial source” was Jennifer Zeng, a US citizen of Chinese descent.

Judging by social media, Zeng works for an American foundation and researches the PRC, which she refers to exclusively as CCPChina. This is a typical “China insider”, none of whose predictions have yet come true. But she has a social media channel full of reports that the Chinese Communist Party has invented the coronavirus and covered it up; the PRC economy has already collapsed or is about to collapse.

Basically, Jennifer Zeng is not alone. Korean experts well remember the story of Park Yeon-mi, who in the mid-tens was perceived as a “female version of Shin Dong-hyuk”, but then, when inconsistencies in her testimony began to be discussed in the mainstream Western media, she “became outdated” and started a social media channel with similar content: for example, about “UFOs are flying over North Korea.” The story was accompanied by a story taken from North Korean television, overlaid with both special effects and “English” subtitles. However, Park’s audience included Korean speakers who pointed out to her that the translation did not correspond to the original. Park answered that she did not understand these claims because the translation was taken from the “official” social media channel. However, it later turned out to be a fake news channel with satirical news, and the author has only one question: was Park Yeon-mi so oblivious to Korean that she was unable to distinguish “Kuwait” from “Wonsan” by ear?

There are several important conclusions to be drawn from such stories.

First, how fragile is the psyche of internet dwellers who are hooked on the needle of emotional “horror-horror” news. All it took was one lady on social media for thousands of people to start spreading and discussing her nonsense in all seriousness. And although unlike “fed to dogs” Jang Song-thaek, it took a day rather than a week to expose it, a story like this still leaves a lingering residue.

Second, neither in the case of Zeng nor Park do we see the mass ostracization of a man who, to call things by their proper names, was caught making a blatant fake. And this points to a very important observation about the specifics of propaganda. Fakes of this kind are aimed at two types of audience:

  1. Those who already believe that China or North Korea are “horror and Mordor” in general. Such fakes only strengthen their faith. That is why the photo of “President Xi and the Hong Kong Police Young Friends Club” was attached to the news and those doing so did not smell a rat.
  2. These are people who are far removed from China or Korea but crave hot news for the same reasons that people like to read conspiracy theorists, or watch horror films or shows about the end of the world. Both have the opportunity to critically analyze the news, but lack the will to do so. Conspiracy or detailed insider stories about the “secrets of the Madrid court” have a fascinating plot that is interesting to follow rather than looking for inconsistencies in it.

 Third, this story illustrates how easily what the author calls “cartoon reality” has crept into the world and it is not that the world around us is starting to look more and more like a comic book or a B-movie. Rather, certain political or social practices previously reserved for such a genre are beginning to be actively used in the current reality.

 Theoretically speaking, amidst a crisis of competence, we got people brought up on thrillers and in the holy belief that in real big politics everything looks like in Tom Clancy’s works. The Wag the Dog is not a satire for them, but a textbook.

But the logic of the comic book requires no rational explanation – we don’t ask the supervillain in the comic book how he managed to build a 12-story underground citadel under the city without the utilities finding out about it. In such a reality, an 80km-long convoy can only be spotted by one vigilant journalist, and three seven-year-old children can arrest the country’s leader, ignoring his security detail.

Meanwhile, when one has formed a picture of the world to such an extent that this news fits into it, it means a terrible detachment from reality, when one is so “aware of the truth” that the facts no longer matter.

Now think about the implications this entire situation has on the world politics. It is one thing for people to simply look to modern politics for Clancy-like conspiracy theories or clever ploys, but it is another for them to become politicians and start acting like characters from their favorite movies – an adventurous mindset leads to adventurous actions that affect our world, not the unreal universe.

As one of the author’s acquaintances wrote: “All this is already some kind of new information reality, from which we cannot fence ourselves off, but which we do not yet fully understand and do not know how to coexist with it without conflict. One day dissertations and textbooks will be written about it – but for now we are all hostages to it.”

Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, leading research fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of China and Modern Asia, the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.


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