A cautionary tale of dogs, imposters and North Korea
An anonymous blogger is a tenuous enough source for a news story. But an imposter posing as that anonymous blogger?!
Perhaps not since "Curveball" - the now discredited Iraqi defector whose evidence was used to make the case for war - has an unreliable single source had such a field day.
The extraordinary claim that the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un had his uncle fed alive to a pack of hungry dogs comes from this posting on a Chinese microblog.
It's been pointed out by those who've unearthed the trail that all it took was a bit of Chinese and some basic curiosity. But as the sensational story was splashed around the world the original, extremely shaky sourcing on which it was based was lost.
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The post containing the gory details of the alleged execution is from a blogger calling himself Choi Seongho and claiming to be a North Korean newspaper editor now studying in China. His blog on Tencent, the country's second most popular microblogging platform, carries satirical comments about life in North Korea. He has 30,000 followers and he doesn't reply to direct messages.
He also has a namesake. There is a Choi Seongho very much alive and blogging on Sina, China's leading platform. The content is very similar, a mix of seemingly tongue-in-cheek North Korean patriotism and mild satire. But he has more than two million followers, was the first of the two to open an account, and although he keeps his identity anonymous, does reply to direct messages.
When asked by the BBC whether he was the source for the dog story, he denied it, saying; "The person on Tencent is someone trying to be me, who is not me."
Admittedly, many of the news organisations carrying the North Korean execution story have wondered out loud at its authenticity. Now we know the original sourcing, a single anonymous Chinese blog masquerading as another, more popular, Chinese blog, the story looks too weak to be worth the ink.
In the end, what all this tells us, as others have pointed out, is that when it comes to North Korea, we're too ready to entertain our darkest imaginings, even if we don't quite believe them ourselves.
It is certainly a dark and secretive place, but that makes it all the more important that we report the truth, not a sensational parody of it.