National

Tokyo firm urges caution against surge in coronavirus-related disinformation on April Fools' Day

by Tomohiro Osaki

Staff writer

A Tokyo-based risk management firm is cautioning against a potential surge in coronavirus-related disinformation on April Fools’ Day, alarmed by the recent spread of what it perceives to be baseless rumors on social media that the government is secretly preparing for the start of a Tokyo lockdown that day.

Unsubstantiated rumors pertaining to COVID-19 have been swirling online for months, but gossip with a more urgent tone and more fear-mongering in nature has emerged in recent days, making digital literacy against false rumors more important than ever, according to Tokyo-based Spectee Inc.

The firm says it uses cutting-edge artificial intelligence to monitor, collect and analyze the deluge of online information.

“Previously, the most common types of coronavirus-related misinformation and disinformation we would see were primarily medical and health-related, as in, ‘granite has the power to kill the virus,’ or ‘drinking lukewarm water is effective against the virus,'” said Kenjiro Murakami, head of Spectee.

But as the number of COVID-19 cases has risen and the prospect of a citywide lockdown — floated by Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike as a possibility — loomed large over Japan last week, Murakami said the firm detected a rise in rumors over the weekend that go far beyond misguided health tips.

Examples it flags as disinformation include a widely shared text message that says, quoting an unnamed CEO of a “listed restaurant company,” that a three-week lockdown in Japan is slated to begin on April 1 — this Wednesday.

The firm also cited another prominent rumor circulating on social media over the past few days that claims Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will “hold an emergency news conference tonight or tomorrow evening” to announce that a lockdown will be imposed on Tokyo starting Wednesday.

Asked about these rumors, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga categorically denied Monday evening that there have been any such discussions.

“These rumors are getting more similar to what we would sometimes see in the aftermath of earthquakes and other natural disasters, such as disinformation quoting public authorities like the Self-Defense Forces as saying a water outage will occur in certain regions in a matter of hours,” Murakami said.

He expressed concern that this year’s April Fools’ Day — when “people tend to think they can go about telling lies with impunity” — might see an exacerbation of this trend toward harmful disinformation inspired by the novel coronavirus.

“Disinformation and fake news never do society good, but in times of crisis like this where we live side by side with danger, we tend to lose not just calm but the ability to discern incorrect information, and thus are more likely to fall for it,” Murakami warned.

But, he said, the deceitful nature of these rumors doesn’t necessarily rule out the possibility that a lockdown will indeed be imposed on the capital in the immediate future. Given the rapidly escalating situation, it is possible that the course of events over the next few days will end up mirroring the picture detailed by these rumors, he said.

“Suppose a rumor went around saying ‘an earthquake will happen tomorrow’ and the quake actually did happen the following day. The fact the quake occurred doesn’t necessarily mean the information that circulated at the time was genuine and trustworthy,” Murakami said.

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