Lies, damn lies, and Weibo rumors of Kim Jong Un’s demise

Your news, should you choose to believe it, came in from unnamed "dependable sources:"

"On the morning of February 10th at 2:45 pm, unknown persons broke into the residence of the highest leader North Korea Kim Jong En and shot him dead."

Suspicious traffic patterns had been seen outside of the North Korean embassy in Beijing, and this explanation, it appears, seems as good as any: Users of China's Sina Weibo, the local Twitter clone, forwarded the message more than 10,000 times. One user posted a picture of what Kim Jong Un would look like arrested. Another commented "in this weird country, that's not even strange."  

The chained Chinese media universe means that Weibo rumors are a lot more trusted than their Twitter counterparts. Chinese media coverage of sensitive subjects is often deliberately obfuscating, and Chinese viewers know it. A few days ago, Wang Lijun, one of China's best known gangbusters and the right-hand man of powerful politician Bo Xilai appeared to try to defect at the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu. While official Chinese media covered the defection, they mostly copied the official Xinhua report, which failed to mention the most important point: how it affects Bo's chances of promotion.  

Chinese official media reporting on North Korea is often further removed from reality than the way China reports on its own political process. (My favorite English-language example is a Xinhua article that compares nightlife in Pyongyang with New York and Tokyo.) Besides, North Korea itself is a black box: Even the best American articles often depend on rumors and hearsay to cobble together a portrait of the closed country. 

All these factors combine to give the Sina Weibo rumor -- started, it appears, by a random user with less than 200 followers -- enough traction in China to land on this side of the world wide web and into the pages of Forbes, MSNBC, and Huffington Post

It is possible that this Weibo user broke the story of a successful coup in North Korea, though it's extremely unlikely. My favorite explanation on the Twitter side of things comes from Shaun Walker, the Moscow correspondent for the Independent, who wrote "Possible that someone said he 'murdered an enormous family-sized bucket of fried chicken,' and something got lost in translation."

KNS/AFP/Getty Images


Filming Homs's horrors

President Bashar al-Assad's assault on Homs continues, and the world has watched it unfold in real time. For the past week, activists have uploaded gruesome videos of indiscriminate shelling and civilian shelling that has given viewers worldwide a ground-level view of the destruction of Syria's third-largest city.

Danny Abdul Dayem, a British citizen of Syrian descent, has been one of the most prominent activists to document the assault on the city. He is a former business management student who, during the past year, has made delivering aid and supplies to protesters his sole profession. He has been a resident of Syria since the 1990s, when his English mother converted to Islam and married his father.

Dayem was shot in August when standing on a Homs street corner - the bullet, he said, went in his waist and came out his back. "A car came by and threw a grenade, which I actually thought was a firework. So I looked at my friend and told him, ‘there's not even time for that kind of stuff,'" he told the BBC. "The car parked right behind me, two meters between me and the car, opened the window and started shooting. I actually didn't feel the bullet at first."

After fleeing with his family to Cairo and then London to recuperate, Dayem is now back in Homs to cover what has been the worst assault since the outbreak of unrest. He has uploaded a series of videos to his Youtube channel showing the destruction of the city. "Is this what the U.N. is waiting for, until there aren't any more children left?" he says in the below video, while standing over a dead child killed in a mortar attack.


Dayem's videos also track the rapid deterioration of life in Homs. While his recordings in late January show celebratory anti-Assad street demonstrations, his reports during the past week have grown increasingly urgent and outraged. "This is the life we've gotten used to: Rockets, bullets, killing children, dead in the streets, body parts," he said in the below video, reportedly filmed in the Baba Amro neighborhood of Homs, as a building burned behind him and a rocket crashed in the distance. "Why isn't the world helping us? Where is the humanity in the world? Where is the frickin' U.N.?"

With only a few foreign correspondents being smuggled into Homs, the reports by Syrian citizen journalists has become an increasingly vital source of news about the unfolding destruction of the city. It's dangerous work: One of international news networks' primary sources of news for events in Homs, Mazhar Tayyara, was killed by government shelling in the al-Khaldiya neighborhood of Homs in the early morning hours of Feb. 4. Tayyara, a 24-year old who went by the moniker "Omar the Syrian," was the fourth citizen journalist killed in Syria during the past four months, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Another of those four, Basil al-Sayed, was shot and killed in December at a checkpoint at Homs, while recording security forces opening fire at protesters. This is the last video he filmed.


But despite the risks, such reports have been one of the Syrian opposition's primary tools to spread its message. Another citizen journalist, Khaled Abou Saleh, made waves when he confronted the head of the Arab League observer mission in Syria, Gen. Mustafa al-Dabi, in the streets of Homs. In the video below, he implores the Arab League to stop the killing. In other videos, he is seen delivering a speech to an anti-Assad crowd and carrying the lifeless body of a young girl reportedly killed in Homs on Feb. 5. In the absence of sufficient arms to challenge Assad, these Syrians have only their video cameras.


Alessio Romenzi/AFP/Getty Images