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Kim Jong Un's Twitter assassination

Why did China allow the rumors to circulate in the first place?
North korea kim jong unEnlarge
North Korean leader Kim Jong Il (right) and his youngest son Kim Jong Un (left) watch a parade to commemorate the 65th anniversary of the founding of the Workers' Party of Korea in Pyongyang, Oct. 10, 2010. (Petar Kujundzic/Reuters)

By now we know that Kim Jong Un is not dead.

But late Friday, in a flurry of internet attention, the young North Korean dictator was reported assassinated in Beijing. 

Stop the presses.

Here's what happened: China's microblogging site, Sina Weibo, reported that Kim Jong Un was shot dead in the North Korean embassy in Beijing at around 2 a.m. The rumor appeared more respectable when it was reiterated on a somewhat state-affiliated news source in Hong Kong.

Then, it hopped the wires over to Twitter, where it enjoyed a vigorous second wind. Reuters, Gawker, Huffington Post and, yours truly, GlobalPost, everyone had a say.

More from GlobalPost: Kim Jong Un, dead or alive?

Sightings of cars and security outside the embassy in Beijing fanned the flames, and the rumors took on a life of their own. In the age of social media, they go far and fast. And when rumors pertain to a place as closed as North Korea, where it's hard to verify anything ever, they could always turn out to be true.

Thus you get the cocktail by which Kim Jong Un was effectively assassinated by Twitter.

So, what is there to say about it now that the dust has settled?

Josh Benton, the founding director of the Nieman Journalism Lab in Cambridge, Mass., said that he thought "news organizations by and large did a fine job resisting the urge to report those rumors as fact."

"When they were reported, they were reported as rumors on Twitter, which is what they were," he wrote by email Monday.

Some news sources, like CNN, did seek out US intelligence officials to ask them whether these rumors had any validity. Most news sources simply reiterated the rumors, though called them such.

More from GlobalPost: After Kim Jong Il

Bradley Martin, an ardent North Korea watcher and journalism professor, said the onus is on us, the consumers of news.

"In today's 24-hour news cycle," he wrote by email, "there's not much we can do to stop news organizations from spreading such rumors first, checking on them later. We just have to be skeptical consumers of news."

And what should we have thought?

Well, Martin said for starters the "'news' was improbable, first because the security system for protecting the North Korean dictator is extremely elaborate, with separate security organizations spying on one another to make sure no one goes off the reservation."

"Kim Jong Un may some day annoy people sufficiently ... " Martin wrote, "that they plot against him, but this report came so quickly after his accession to power that it seemed highly doubtful any elements opposed to his rule would have had time and opportunity to organize sufficiently to carry out a plot."

Indeed, there are pockets of resistance that appear to be growing in the North. And check out this image of the young leader reprimanding the North Korean army. That's bound to kill morale.

But really, the most interesting thing to come out of Kim Jong Un's Twitter assassination is the fact that China allowed the rumor to spread in the first place.

China's Sina Weibo is often likened to Twitter, but the fact of the matter, as Regina McCombs at Poynter Institute pointed out, is that it is "not a free and open Twitter space. It's a very controlled and monitored space."

So, from a geopolitical perspective, it's interesting that China opted to let these rumors fly. It suggests that all is not well between China and North Korea.

Perhaps in his attempts to consolidate power, Kim Jong Un isn't stepping in line enough for China's liking.

As Adam Cathcart, editor of SinoNK.com, wrote in The Diplomat:

"All this suggests significant strains in China’s relations with North Korea. China has indicated it wants Kim Jong Un to relax the country’s militarism and open up to investment under Chinese protection. And the fact is he’s not doing that."

China also allowed recent coverage of a book by a Japanese journalist who interviewed Kim Jong Nam, Kim Jong Il's passed-over eldest son, over a number of years. Kim Jong Nam was overtly critical of the Kim dynasty, and China allowed that to circulate, too.

More from GlobalPost: Kim Jong Nam disses new North Korea

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatches/globalpost-blogs/the-rice-bowl/twitter-rumor-kim-jong-un