The shocking news that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un had his uncle executed by starving dogs is looking more and more like a dark joke than an actual occurrence.
But the speed and ferocity with which the story spread online just goes to show how quickly a poorly sourced article can become a global news item.
The original story, which began circulating among American and European news outlets last week, holds that last month, Kim ordered the execution of his uncle, senior North Korean official Jang Song-Thaek, for treason. That part of the story is true. Where things begin to diverge is in the details of how Song-Thaek was put to death. The now-debunked story that circulated last week claimed that Song-Thaek and five of his closest advisors were stripped naked and forced into a cage where they were fed to a pack of starving dogs who slowly devoured them while Kim and others watched.
The horror of such inhuman details probably explains why so many were quick to spread the story around. So quick, in fact, that most didn't check to see where the claims originated (even if they did caution that the account of the execution was not 100 percent confirmed).
According to the BBC, researchers looking a little more deeply into the story discovered that the account originated with a Chinese blogger calling himself Choi Seongho and claiming to be a North Korean newspaper editor now living in China.
Seongho's account on Tencent, China’s second most popular microblogging platform, is where he first shared the gory executing details with his roughly 30,000 followers.
But it appears that the person behind this Tencent account is not actually who he says he is. There is another Choi Seongho, who blogs on China's top platform, Sina Weibo, to some 2 million followers. According to the BBC, the Choi on Sina publishes content that is "a mix of seemingly tongue-in-cheek North Korean patriotism and mild satire."
It’s the same kind of content that the Choi on Tencent seems to be aping.
When contacted by the BBC, the Choi on Sina said that "[t]he person on Tencent is someone trying to be me, who is not me."
It's a similar—albeit much darker—situation to the purported Fresh Prince of Bel Air reunion hoax that floated around Twitter last week, sparked by a fake Will Smith account. But due partially to the language barrier between China and the rest of the world, the North Korean execution hoax travelled much further.
The Tencent blog was picked up by Chinese state news site Wen Wei Po, and even though Chinese state media doesn't have the best track record for sniffing out hoaxes related to North Korea, as the Onion proved a while back, their reporting on the issue was enough for western media outlets to begin republishing the fictional account of the execution.