Satirical image of 'South Korean first lady at flood cleanup' misleads Facebook users

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After South Korea was drenched by record downpours in August 2022, an image purportedly showing the country's First Lady Kim Keon-hee cleaning up flood damage was shared in multiple social media posts. The image, however, was doctored. While some users seemed to understand the image was satirical, others appeared to be misled. The original image actually shows firefighters clearing debris from a flood-hit area. The picture of Kim was taken from reports about a visit she made to the grave of a former president in June 2022.

The image was shared on Facebook here on September 5, 2022 with a Korean-language caption that reads: "Undisclosed photo of Myung-shin doing community service in an area hit by flooding."

Myung-shin is South Korean First Lady Kim Keon-hee's original name.

The image shows a rural area where the ground is littered with broken branches and other debris. Kim, pictured wearing a black jacket and trousers as well as a mask and gloves, appears to be helping to clear up the debris.

Several other people -- whose relationship with Kim and her husband, South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol, has come under scrutiny -- also appear to be pitching in.

The Hankook Ilbo newspaper reported on the controversy that erupted after a university professor accompanied Kim during her official duties, while The Hankyoreh reported the alleged connection between Yoon and a fortune-teller before he became his party's candidate for president.

Screenshot of the misleading Facebook post, captured on September 14, 2022

The same image was shared alongside similar claims on September 5 on Facebook here and here; as well as on South Korean online forums Clien and Ajji.

It circulated after South Korea was hit by its heaviest rain since weather observations began in August.

At least 11 people died in the record-breaking downpour and flooding, which forced more than 5,300 people to evacuate their homes.

While some users recognised the image had been doctored, comments on the posts indicated that a few users were misled to believe it was genuine. 

"I don't think we can call it community service. It looks like they arranged this detestable scene to placate [the public]," wrote one user.

Another said: "They're not even wearing community service clothes. They took the photo just for show."

Satirical forum post

The same image was posted on Ddanzi, a South Korean forum where users are known to share satirical images of political figures, on September 4.

Most of the comments on the post indicated that users understood the image was intended to satirise Kim and her online fan club.

According to local media reports (here and here), the fan club had claimed Kim was pictured in mid-August helping with cleanup efforts in an area affected by flooding.

The picture the fan club referred to appeared in a report by Yonhap News Agency from August 29.

Below is a screenshot comparison of the doctored image shared on Facebook (left) and the photo used in the Yonhap News report (right). Matching features, including a shed and lamp post (1) and piles of debris (2 and 3), have been highlighted by AFP:


A screenshot comparison of the doctored image shared on Facebook (left) and the photo used in the Yonhap News report (right) with matching features highlighted by AFP

The caption on the photo, credited to the National Fire Agency, reads: "Firefighters clean up flood damage."

The reports said the photo was actually taken on August 17 in Buyeo County, South Chungcheong, which is 141 kilometres (88 miles) from the capital Seoul. The area was hit by heavy rain, and the individual that Kim's fan club had claimed was the first lady is a firefighter.

Through a reverse image search on Google, AFP was able to trace the photo of Kim inserted into the altered image to a report by the South Korean news organisation News1 from June 13. 

Below is a screenshot comparison of  Kim as she appears in the doctored image (left) and the original photo of Kim captured by News1, flipped horizontally (right):

Screenshot comparison of  Kim as she appears in the doctored photo shared on Facebook (left) and the original photo of Kim captured by News1, flipped horizontally (right)

The caption for the News1 photo reads, "President Yoon Seok-yeol's wife Kim Keon-hee places a flower at the grave of former president Roh Moo-hyun in a visit to Bongha Village in Gimhae, South Gyeongsang, on the 13th."