Jeffrey Miller

A Writer's Life

“Mad Cow Madness” spreading rumors & fear in South Korea

Yesterday, while getting to know the students in a new class that I started teaching, one of my students asked me if I were afraid of Mad Cow Disease.


Whoa, wait a minute. Where the heck did that question come from?


I remembered that there had been a ban on US beef in 2003 fueled by fears that a beef shipment from the US was suspected of containing meat from an infected cow (interestingly enough the cow in question was from a Canadian ranch). And later, in 2006 once partial shipments of US beef were allowed again, some bone fragments were found in some of the beef raising fears again.


No, I told the students in the class I was not afraid of Mad Cow Disease and that as far as I knew there were no reported cases of Mad Cow in the US.


Then this morning two more students in another class asked me the same thing—if I were afraid of Mad Cow Disease. I assured them—like I had assured my students yesterday—that I wasn’t and that I hadn’t heard of any Mad Cow Scare back in the States.


And then came the clincher: they asked me why the US was trying to sell bad beef in Korea.




I haven’t checked the local news here for a few days and when I did this morning, boy was I in for a surprise.


South Korea’s government insisted Tuesday that Internet-fuelled fears of mad cow disease are groundless, as the opposition and street protesters urged it to scrap an agreement to resume US beef imports.


Opening up the beef market is a key precondition for US legislative approval of a separate and sweeping free trade pact. Opponents say Seoul has not secured enough safeguards against the dangers of mad cow disease.


Seoul agreed last month to lift the ban, on the eve of a Washington summit between Presidents Lee Myung-bak and George W. Bush.


Seoul and Washington say US beef is totally safe. Newspapers said Internet scare campaigns, and a recent TV program, were fuelling irrational fears.


“The public frenzy over fears of mad cow disease does not seem to be dying down easily,” said the Joong Ang Ilbo in an editorial headlined “Mad cow madness.”


It added: “Internet rumors and political instigations have stirred up public sentiment to the point where there is no room for scientific truth or reasonable explanations.”


Police said they are trying to track down rumormongers who use the Internet and text messages.


“We will have to investigate further if someone is masterminding the dissemination of text messages, but we believe at this moment that the masterminds can at least be charged with interference with official acts,” said Yang Geun-Won, head of the national police Cyber Terror Response Center.


One such rumor falsely alleged a huge rise in the number of US Alzheimer’s patients due to mad cow disease.


An estimated 10,000 people Friday staged a candlelit protest rally against US beef imports, and about 7,500 on Saturday.


A total of about 3,000 people including schoolchildren staged candlelit protests in two locations Tuesday, waving placards reading “Do not sell mad cow” and “Out with Lee Myung-bak.”


Leave it to the Netizens to take matters in their own hands and fuel fears and spread rumors. And you know what, people are going to believe this kind of stuff. Just like my students who came up to me this morning and told me about the Mad Cow Disease. If it’s on the Internet it has to be true, right?


And get this, some people are demanding that President Lee be impeached because of this. Sadly, cool heads are not prevailing over this Mad Cow Madness gripping the nation.


Yeah, WTF is right.


  1. most of what’s on the internet is NOT true, and i think MOST people know that. Also, this isn’t just hype or rumor, why would a few thousand people JOIN together for two days of protest? not just students, or kids, or people who are “gullible” and mistake a rumor for fact. My sister who is in korea went to this protest, so did my uncle who ran for governor, so did my aunt, and grandparents, they had no idea my sister was even going, (we’re not too close with them) not that that’s important, but what i’m trying to say, it’s not just KIDS at this protest or speaking against this, i doubt the elderly (not adults) can even look at a computer screen. And blogs like this, people might believe what you wrote, you’re actually spreading false facts. If you don’t know the situation at hand to the root, i suggest you not speak on it like you know what’s going on. And if CREATING a rumor on the internet and causing THIS BIG OF A DEAL i’m sure all of us could’ve done it, i can start internet rumors and posts that the black plaque is back. i doubt anyone would believe it, except for a selected few.

  2. also; the high tension of the government don’t allow the people of the news to be abled to write exactly what’s going on in korea, EVEN in america, like fox news, we all know they contort the truth to make it seemingly more or less outrageous. Don’t believe everything you read on the internet .

  3. Young…beef from animals over 30 months of age IS and always HAS been sold in the U.S. and worldwide. I don’t know where you are getting your information that you have “researched”, but it is incorrect.

  4. well yea this is so true man

  5. It’s amazing that in one of the most Internet connected countries on earth there’s such a prevalent naiveté when it comes to the information flowing over the Web.

    Obviously this isn’t solely an Internet created phenomenon, the Korean news media have been misrepresenting the facts and those reports make it to blogs, and those blogs become sources for the “straight press”… Korea, right now, is trapped in a self-feeding cycle of disinformation based on fear, paranoia and xenophobia.

    This type of event has happened before, but I haven’t seen this level of fervour over such a long period of time.

    If you’re looking for past examples just take a look at the reaction to the 1938 CBS broadcast of “War Of The Worlds”.

    Wiki: “calculate[d] that some six million heard the CBS broadcast; 1.7 million believed it to be true, and 1.2 million were ‘genuinely frightened'”… [W]ithin a month, there were about 12,500 newspaper articles about the broadcast or its impact…”

    “While the War of the Worlds broadcast was in progress, some residents in northeastern cities went outside to ask neighbors what was happening (many homes still did not have telephones at this time). As the story was repeated by word of mouth, rumours began to spread, and these rumours caused some panic.”

    Sounds like today’s South Korea…

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