An amazing thing happened after the news about Sony and North Korea broke: an anonymous Twitter account managed to convince many of the most prominent mainstream media outlets in the US that it was the official voice of North Korea. Articles in the Washington Post, Fox News, Slate, and Newsweek (as well as one Reuters tweet) quoted the parody account as if it were real. The repeated goof speaks volumes about the way the West perceives North Korea, and how you should read news that comes out of the country.
The account, @DPRK_News, claims to be the "Official News feed of Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea" and based in Pyongyang. It tweets what would appear, on the surface, to be a series of headlines and photos from North Korea state media.
In fact, the headlines are parodies (in the media's defense, the parodies are quite good, and even the real North Korean state media is frequently absurd and over-the-top). The account is run by two guys, Derrick and Patrick, who write at the legal blog Popehat and are most definitely not North Korean official spokesmen.
Supreme Leader Kim Jong-Un returns from martial arts training and meditation atop Mount Paektu, to defend people against Japanese aggression— DPRK News Service (@DPRK_News) October 13, 2014
U.S. African peoples decry aggression of high-handed and racist police. DPRK police embrace Kim Il-Sung thought, to cheers of citizens.— DPRK News Service (@DPRK_News) December 19, 2014
Derrick and Patrick have been manning it since 2009. On Tuesday, they gave an interview with Newsweek, in which they discuss duping other outlets in previous episodes. That's what makes this parody really impressive: people keep falling for it — despite the fact that some of these tweets are a little over the top, even for North Korea:
American newspaper declares Kim Jong-Un greatest North Korean alive! http://t.co/YEoEtiGJMy— DPRK News Service (@DPRK_News) December 23, 2014
RODONG SINMUN: Gangster fat man George R.R. Martin must be punished for showing of pornographic anti-DPRK cinema!— DPRK News Service (@DPRK_News) December 22, 2014
This isn't to knock anyone for mistaking @DPRK_News as real; these things happen. Rather, the interesting question is why this particular hoax ends up tricking people time and time again.
It may come down to the fact that the real North Korean state media is really, truly weird. It regularly calls the US things like an "arch criminal," "empire of devils," and a "toothless wolf." It threatened to "mercilessly destroy" Seth Rogen after The Interview's trailer was released and brags about the "epochal miracles" taking place in deeply impoverished North Korea. It's part-and-parcel of the overall message it gives to the North Korean public: America is out to get us, but the great North Korean people, led by the Kim regime, will prevail. That message makes sense with North Korea, but from outside it looks plainly ridiculous.
Derrick and Patrick managed to nail this tone. Though Patrick says he based it on Soviet propaganda rather than the pure North Korean stuff, Derrick combs through the Korean Central News Agency (North Korea's actual English-language propaganda outlet) archives for inspiration. They've managed to incorporate a lot of the hallmarks of KCNA's writing in the account. From the tone down to the details, like regularly quoting state newspaper Rodong Sinmun, the parody sounds a lot like the original.
In other words: North Korean state media is so over-the-top that it's hard to parody well it without ending up sounding pretty damn similar. This makes it much, much easier for Westerners — journalists included — to swallow the most insane statements that purportedly come from North Korea as fact. As a news consumer, you should be skeptical of stories about North Korea that seem too ridiculous to be true. Especially when they're really, really ridiculous: