Web gossip sparks corporate anger

Fact, fiction apparently intermingling on anonymous rumor mills

by Tomoko Otake

Two major life insurers were battered by a swirl of rumors in September as several message boards on a popular Web site began predicting their demise.

An Internet user views a popular Web site that houses a myriad of online message boards.

The Web site, Ni-channeru (Channel 2), is known as a hotbed of gossip on almost every subject under the sun. One category is dedicated to the insurance industry, where anonymous Web surfers can freely set up message boards with titles of their choosing.

The comments suggesting an imminent collapse of the insurers turned out to be false. But officials of the life insurance industry, which has seen six of its members go under in the past four years, had a hard time laughing the incident off.

“I bet these messages are having a negative impact on every insurer, driving many policyholders to cancel their policies,” said one industry source, requesting anonymity. “But there is nothing you can do about it, because if you take legal action, you would end up being mocked and attacked even more on the Web.”

While the incident demonstrates how individuals are speaking more freely and openly about corporate giants, it also highlights the possibility that the rumormongers of cyberspace could potentially affect consumer behavior as much as, say, TV commercials or newspaper stories.

Nippon Life Insurance Co., the nation’s biggest life insurer, tried in vain to stand up to the rumors, filing a motion with the Tokyo District Court in late March asking for the eradication of some 200 messages on Ni-channeru that insult the firm and its employees.

The messages contain comments about some of the insurer’s 60,000 mainly female sales representatives, referring to them by name and by section, Nippon Life spokesman Shohei Ueda said.

“Some of the messages were so crude, deriding their appearances and their private lives,” he said. “We could not ignore them.”

Although the insurer won a court order to have the messages deleted on Aug. 28, some observers say the firm’s action ended up deepening its wounds.

Hiroyuki Nishimura, the man who administers the site, displayed the court’s subpoena online. A flood of negative messages then appeared on the site, calling the insurer bad names and urging people to cancel their policies.

Nishimura could not be reached for comment by The Japan Times, but the message boards are reportedly his hobby.

At the peak of the fuss, messages concerning Nippon Life numbered thousands a day.

Perhaps the most stressful part of the ordeal was that the company couldn’t track down the people who penned the allegedly libelous messages because they are shielded by anonymity.

Rumormongers, who could be consumers, shareholders or employees, roughly fit into three profiles: those seeking a forum to complain about a specific company, those aiming to bring down rival companies, and whistle-blowers who divulge dirty secrets about their employers.

Then there are those who hide their identities and whose credibility is challenged on the message boards themselves. Thus the quality and credibility of the posted messages is difficult — if not impossible — to determine.

“Those messages are the same as bathroom graffiti,” said Jiro Kokuryo, a professor of business administration at Keio University who researches the effect of Internet communications on consumers. “You shouldn’t take them seriously.”

Nevertheless, many people are turning to online message boards as a source of information.

Yahoo Japan, a major Internet portal, said it has some 8,000 categories in its message board service and that about 85,000 messages are posted each day.

According to private research firm Video Research Net-com, about 2.43 million people accessed Yahoo Japan’s message boards in August, compared with 2.41 million who viewed Ni-channeru the same month.

Has the Internet turned people into rumormongers? Yoshiro Kawakami, professor of social psychology at Seijo University, said message boards have given people a new outlet to vent their frustration with companies.

“Big companies have long failed to deal with customer complaints adequately,” he said. “People are giving up complaining directly to the companies and are spreading the word on the Web.”

The proliferation of Internet message boards has been a big PR headache for many companies, but others see it as a business opportunity.

Take Digital Arts Inc. The computer software provider started a corporate Web monitoring service in July 2000 that uses its 100 servers to search up to 10 million Web pages a day. It then issues a report on all home pages and message board entries that include keywords specified by the client firms.

Companies can then view at a glance exactly what is being written about them on the Web. Digital Arts now has about 50 clients, including those in the service and finance industries, said Hirotaka Watanabe, an employee in the Net-monitoring department.

Internet startup Gala Inc. provides a similar service, as does Zuken NetWave Inc., a Yokohama-based software provider.

These firms mix search engines such as Yahoo, infoseek and goo with their own versions to cover a wider spectrum of Web sites. But the technology has its limits.

Many Web surfers invent humorous or malicious nicknames for the companies by substituting kanji that have the same pronunciation but different meanings to spell the name of the firm. Sometimes they just simply leave part of its name blank. Web monitoring services cannot pick up these keywords unless they are clearly specified.

Unfortunately, finding what is written on the Net is only part of the solution. The rest of it could be right under their noses, in the company itself, experts said.

“Companies should give up the idea of clamping down on unwanted information,” Watanabe of Digital Arts said. “The companies should look inside, see what is behind the messages, and try to rectify the problems, whether that be customer service, employee education or product quality.”