National / Media | Japan Pulse

Struggling to stay on top of fake social media posts in a disaster

by Patrick ST. Michel

Contributing Writer

Shortly after the Kansai region was rattled by a magnitude 6.1 earthquake on June 18, photos of the damage started popping up on social media. Tweets showed a bookstore that looked as if it had been turned upside-down, a damaged electronic sign at a train station and shattered glass in front of a ticket booth at Universal Studio Japan. These were shared quickly on the platform, as were countless other shots and videos from Osaka and the surrounding area.

In the hyper-speed media landscape of 2018, Twitter has become many people’s go-to stop for updates on breaking news, whether from established outlets or regular people caught up in the situation. Many in Japan watched last week’s earthquake unfold online, with many posts going viral. These included user @satnfc2, who claimed that a zebra was on the loose following the shake, and @happyura12, who shared a photo of what appeared to be a crack in the city’s Kyocera Dome. Others alleged a train had derailed. Scattered across some sites were posts that accused non-Japanese residents of Osaka of looting convenience stores or poisoning the water supply.

These were all fake. Posts spreading misinformation following the earthquake became so problematic that the Osaka prefectural government told people to beware of baseless information and avoid spreading it further. Other politicians shared similar messages, including Kumamoto Mayor Kazufumi Onishi. And he should know — his city’s 2016 earthquake inspired claims of a lion escaping a zoo along with the same xenophobic rumors that have cropped up in the past seven days.

The spread of misinformation — “fake news” if that’s more your speed — has long been an issue, but social media has accelerated it significantly. It’s no more glaring than in the early hours of a developing story, where facts are scarce but the Twitter timeline moves at a rapid pace. Mistruth can occur in the rush to find out who committed a crime (see the Boston Marathon bombing) or to assign ideological blame (see every terrorist attack or mass shooting in the United States and Europe).

In Japan, major breaking news such as natural disasters bring out a combination of internet trolls who engage in it for a laugh and those with more sinister intentions aimed at non-Japanese residents of the country, specifically those from China and the Korean Peninsula. It also extends beyond specific happenings and can just pop up randomly in feeds — one much-shared but inaccurate post from a few years ago purportedly showed a South Korean woman spitting into kimchi bound for Japan.

While plenty of netizens on 2ch and Twitter spread outright lies, Japan’s online media tries to work swiftly to counter falsehoods. In the case of the Kansai earthquake, sites such as Buzzfeed Japan and Huffington Post Japan posted articles pointing out the inaccuracy of these tweets (while also sharing helpful “earthquake safety” pieces). Other online destinations picked up on it, too, as did more classically mainstream outlets such as NHK. Yet speed is important in countering claims, and digital-first publications manage to move at the same tempo as the people creating mistruths.

It helps that the fragmentation found in U.S. media has yet to really take hold in Japan. A Journalism Research News report from April found that no major ideological divide between readers has emerged in the country, with people on the left and right reading the same news sources. Compare that to the United States, where a distrust of mainstream media has prompted many to embrace more politically slanted sources of information, at its most extreme resulting in many following “false flag” conspiracies and whatever the hell radio show host Alex Jones is talking about.

Japanese netizens have also become far better at sniffing out fakeries over the years. Chalk it up to frequent exposure — “matome” (summary) sites have tags dedicated to disproving social-media lies, while some Twitter users run accounts focused on debunking viral posts.

On June 18, many users reminded folks to be careful about spreading information, and called out those posting lies. They also reminded others of just what happened to the Kanagawa resident who posted the Kumamoto lion tweet —  he was subsequently arrested, although no charges were filed. The biggest obstacle to fighting fake news might be Twitter itself, as the platform suspended accounts of people who berated those spreading falsehoods. They got called out on that, too.

Importantly, many of them online understand the harm that slander and libel can lead to. A goofy post about a zebra might not cause too much damage, but accusations leveled at non-Japanese have resulted in deaths before — Koreans in Tokyo were killed by mobs after rumors circulated that they had poisoned the wells in the wake of the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake. Many on Twitter referenced this specific incident, a reminder that misinformation can have serious consequences.

Plenty of Japanese online users use disasters as a way to promote hate, but fortunately many more take the lessons from the past to heart and counter the haters before they can cause real, lasting damage.