Malicious Hoax Aboard the MV Sewol

90386d1397764978-south-korean-ferry-mv-sewol-flips-1-2-sunk-shallows-people-trapped-sewol-1On April 16, 2014, a South Korean ferry capsized while carrying almost 500 people.  Roughly 300 individuals, mostly high school students, were reported missing.

This particular tragedy took some unusual twists and turns.  Initial reports claimed the number of survivors to be significant.  But as the truth emerged, the outlook became very grim.  It was an incredibly painstaking process.

Mysterious text messages began to surface from the ship.

“I am still alive… in the cafeteria please help me my battery is running out please believe me”


“My phone is not working I am inside the boat I can’t see anything”

These messages quickly circulated and spread like wildfire through social media, well after the boat had fully submerged.  The texts contained sufficient detail purposely designed to prey off the desperation of loved ones.  Predictably, hope soared.

The government abruptly squashed these revelations and announced that all messages were a malicious hoax.  But it should not be faulted because the speculation had been fueled by the media.  Even friends and family members conceivably shared in the blame.  Anyone who posted or shared these messages could be construed as guilty, regardless of their intent.

This in turn sparked violence at Jindo where the bodies were being recovered and identified.  Relatives accused authorities of not doing enough to save the children.  Many believed their loved ones were still alive.  They hurled objects and skirmished with authorities.

The circumstances surrounding the South Korean ferry incident are a prime example of a “viral blitzkrieg” — a bombardment of information designed to saturate a specific location, resulting in an emotional/physical response.

Here’s a question one might ask.  Could the intentional spreading of malicious hoax information have more turbulent consequences in real-time?  For example, could a phony bomb threat or false emergency evacuation order spread through a large crowd… fomenting a real-world panic?  The answer is yes.

The dilemma here is obvious.  In the current technological age, it’s impossible to verify the validity of social media content.  Information can be monitored but not controlled.  The problem worsens immeasurably when trusted, conventional media streams are utilized.  In theory, just reporting the story itself could exacerbate existing conditions on the ground.

Consider the impact of a live, televised human stampede in an NFL stadium.  Would such a unique occurrence be calmly disregarded by everyone?  Or would its transmission and viewing impact behavior in other stadiums?  Breaking news extends well beyond the act of relaying information.  It resonates.  It is a phenomenon.  There are consequences.

Let’s make three reasonable assumptions:

  • The pace of technology will continue to accelerate.
  • Malicious hoaxes will occur in the future.
  • A coordinated disinformation campaign can impact the emotional status of a large crowd.

If you believe these three statements to be accurate, the only logical course of action is to make the following information available to the general public.

People have a fundamental right to know…
that if they’re in a large, confined crowd and receive an emergency evacuation notice and/or panic-inducing information from their cell phone…
it’s almost certainly a hoax designed to create an artificially generated stampede.