Last week yet another strange story from North Korea shot across the media: Dictator Kim Jong-Un had allegedly executed his uncle by feeding him alive to 120 fierce dogs. The story was quickly debunked—while Kim had undeniably had his uncle purged and killed, the dogs had been the invention of a Chinese satirist. Even before the story's origins had been uncovered, skeptics were pointing out reasons to think the tale was probably untrue.
All of which raises the question: Why did so many outlets run with such a thinly sourced and dubious story in the first place? Max Fisher offers some ideas:
A friend who's covered North Korea for several years and has visited the country, Isaac Stone Fish, now of Foreign Policy, once joked to me that as an American journalist you can write almost anything you want about North Korea and people will just accept it. Call it the Stone Fish Theory of North Korea coverage. We know so little about what really happens inside the country, and especially inside the leader's head, that very little is disprovable. But the things we do know are often so bizarre that just about anything can seem possible….
As I wrote in 2012 when the U.S. media were briefly aflame with nonsensical rumors that Kim had been assassinated in Beijing, the images out of the country are so bizarre and hard information so scant that there's little to prevent our imaginations from running wild. We are ready to believe anything.
Add the sort of cultural barriers at work when Westerners do not recognize the fingerprints of a Chinese satirist—the flipside of those Chinese journalists who unwittingly repeat spoofs from The Onion—and I think Fisher has a pretty compelling theory. Indeed, I think you can extend this past the Korean example to a general thesis about rumors:
1. The less transparent a society, subculture, institution, or individual is, the more people will believe weird stories about it.
2. The more strange things about a society, subculture, institution, or individual are already known to be true, the more people will believe still weirder stories about it.
3. If you combine secrecy with strangeness, the weird tales will multiply.
If you plotted that as a chart, Kim's kingdom would occupy the point in the upper right-hand corner, where both secrecy and strangeness max out. When reading reports about North Korea, you should adjust your BS detector accordingly.