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Olympics logo scandal highlights power of the Internet critic

by and

Staff Writers

As news broke Tuesday that the 2020 Tokyo Olympics organizing committee would scrap its official logo after weeks of plagiarism allegations surrounding the designer Kenjiro Sano, users of the popular 2channel gossip website posted a flurry of messages congratulating themselves.

“This is the victory of the nera (2channel users)!!!” wrote one anonymous user. “Kudos to everyone who looked for works Sano cheated on,” wrote another. “The Fifth Estate is at your fingertips,” wrote someone else.

The emblem scandal that saw the 43-year-old award-winning designer pilloried on the Internet has once again demonstrated the power of individuals, who, with the time and the right search tools and technology, can launch collaborative investigative efforts against anyone with digitally traceable records — be it tweets, work samples or academic papers.

It has also highlighted the need for the organizing committee, which must start its emblem selection process all over again, to choose someone who can withstand such fierce online criticism.

The organizing committee held a news conference declaring its support for Sano’s logo Friday, only to reverse its decision four days later, in the face of new allegations that emerged over the weekend.

Some experts pointed out the similarities between the emblem controversy and the so-called STAP scandal from last year. In that incident, stem cell researcher Haruko Obokata faced an onslaught of online criticism over two research papers she co-authored, prompting her then-employer, the Riken institute, to launch a formal investigation.

In that case, dubbed “STAPgate,” blogs by research monitors, such as PubPeer in the United States and “11jigen” in Japan, spotted, shared and investigated allegations of misconduct — including plagiarism, fabrication and falsification of data — with speeds and depth unthinkable in the pre-Internet age.

“The allegations of plagiarism over Sano’s works, such as designs used on the giveaway tote bags and pictures of the Haneda airport lobby and Shibuya streets, were discovered first on the Internet and picked up by the mass media,” said Mitsuteru Tashiro, a project associate professor of online communication at Keio University. “It’s very similar to the way the Obokata scandal unraveled, in which it was the Internet users who first blew the whistle.”

He added that launching an “investigation” into a designers’ work is now just a click away thanks to Google image searches.

“A Google image search turns up images featuring similar colors and compositions, often in seconds,” he said. “With image-sharing services, such as Flickr and Pinterest, it’s now easy to find where a certain image might have been copied from.”

IT journalist Toshiaki Kanda, however, warns such “crowd journalism” can easily turn into “crowd bullying.”

“(The society we live in today) is the society of collective surveillance,” Kanda said.

Witch-hunting acts escalated partly because the Olympics logo was a carefree subject for people to talk about, compared with other matters of public concern, such as politics, the security bills or Article 9, he said.

Kanda added that in anonymous discussion spaces, such as blogs and Twitter, people feel uninhibited to criticize others.

“The nature of discussions on Facebook, which are based on real names, is contrastively different from discussions on Twitter,” he said.

Crowd journalism can be a “cathartic experience” for participating Internet users, giving frustrated individuals an outlet through which to band together and attack what they label as evil, said Sohei Hanawa, a lawyer who specializes in online defamation cases.

Hanawa said Sano should have admitted he was at fault when the plagiarism allegations first arose over the designs used for the tote bags, instead of blaming his staff. But such admissions of misconduct might have been difficult for a reputable designer like Sano, he added.

Meanwhile, the emblem case has shed light on the creative processes of graphic designers, who, unlike other artists, such as fiction writers and filmmakers, do not advertise their names on their products and have rarely felt the need to thoroughly explain their concepts to the public, said Takashi Kashima, an associate professor of sociology at Tokai University.

“The scandal has shown that our society is at a crossroads in the selection of designs,” Kashima said. “The question is, do we want to choose sophisticated designs created and selected by experts, or do we want to choose designs that have won the support of citizens even though they are viewed as unsophisticated and not valuable by experts?”

Public opinion will inevitably creep into future considerations surrounding Olympic emblems, as Toshiro Muto, the director-general of the organization committee, acknowledged.

“The situation is totally different from 1964 (when Tokyo hosted the Olympic Games for the first time),” Muto said at a packed news conference on Tuesday. “In today’s Internet society, the conventional, professionals-driven approach may no longer work.”

  • kenjacobsen

    What’s incomprehensible to me is why the judges chose a logo based on Roman characters for Japan’s 2020 Olympics in the first place.

    • J.P. Bunny

      Considering how utterly boring the logo was, it makes one wonder what the rejected designs were.

      • kenjacobsen

        The saddest thing to me is that Japan has a fabulous tradition of beautiful iconography and this logo completely ignores it for a totally Euro-centric look.
        I’m glad it’s getting tossed. It would have been torture watching the Japanese Olympic and seeing that logo everywhere.
        (By the way, I’m a professional designer and have been for over 30 years.)

  • Ahojanen

    I sense that some of online unanimous critics are real experts regarding subjects under review. This is particularly the case for “STAP controversy” last year. Without advanced level of scientific knowledge on the fields, the problem would never have surfaced.

  • ilovetataki

    Let children design the logo, and offer a full university scholarship as a reward. No corruption, no plagiarism.

  • Ron Lane

    In the concluding paragraph, Muto stated: “In today’s Internet society, the conventional, professionals-driven approach may no longer work.”

    *Professionals* were responsible for selecting this uninspired logo? Really? That logo could not have been selected on its merits alone.