National / Media | Japan Pulse

COVID-19 reveals fractured moral impulse of social media

by Patrick St. Michel

Contributing Writer

The outbreak of a new coronavirus in China, now officially named COVID-19, has sparked plenty of concern online — some valid, others more hyperbolic in nature. Like many global events in the social media age, the outbreak has also resulted in no shortage of fake news and racism. Both elements have recently surfaced in Japan, but the subject sparking plenty of discussion is face masks.

Face mask shortages have become common in China, to the point where manufacturers that have little or no ties to the field of medicine have started producing them. This scarcity has subsequently resulted in hoarding in Japan, extending to online retailers such as Amazon. It has also created a sizable resale movement on sites such as Mercari, where users are selling boxes of masks at highly inflated prices.

Resales quickly became one of the most talked about topics on Japanese social media and netizens were quick to shame those engaging in the practice during such trying times. Shock at the online prices for masks soon gave way to something resembling a campaign to discourage reselling, down to pictures of customers loading up on masks at stores coupled with messages imploring people to refrain from doing this (although, maybe they just secretly wanted to pad out their own stash?).

Social media has become a tool for shaming those engaged in bad behavior in Japan. The rise of smartphones has made the recording of such behavior easier than ever, while sites such as Twitter have made it simpler to disseminate footage of morally dubious activity, perhaps best summed up by the “part-time terrorism” boom of early 2019.

The current opposition to mask resales builds on these trends. It tries to be more proactive about getting people to stop doing a specific action, while also allowing people a chance to brag about their good deeds.

One recurring example of posts on Twitter contextualized how hoarding face masks was having an adverse impact on other people in Japan. A post from someone claiming to work at a hospital attracted attention, with the user urging people to stop stockpiling masks. The worker was running out of masks at work and was having to use just one each day.

The most common threads, however, simply highlighted the heavily inflated prices that even Daiso-brand masks were going for online, and pointed out the people trying to make a profit from them. Users uncovered truly ridiculous posts — including one in which 35 packs of masks were being sold for ¥75,000 by someone who claimed to have risked their health getting them — to rally people against resales. It didn’t matter how big or small the person in question was, if a Twitter user saw a chance to criticize resellers, they did. Or make fun of them via children’s toys, as one popular post did.

Eventually, a government account on Twitter said that it had called on services such as Mercari to monitor prices so they don’t get out of hand, and most of the platforms where the resales are being posted did observe a drop in prices. That said, a recent check of Mercari revealed items that were still pretty pricey. Still, some found an ingenious way around this oversight — savvier sellers sold items such as books at exorbitant prices, with a box of face masks thrown in as a “present.”

This issue has revealed the fractured moral impulse of the Japanese internet at large, split between those taking advantage of a grim situation in order to make some extra coin and those operating for the greater public good (such as people tweeting out pleas to offer fair prices to Chinese consumers who need them, or countering the barrage of resale news by promising to send dozens of boxes of masks free of charge).

Controversial film director Toru Muranishi, of all people, perhaps summed it up best when he wrote that events like this reveal the true nature of people.

For many online, they just want to make it clear that they’re on the right side of history.

Coronavirus banner