The frequent occurrence of disasters in Japan has ensured that netizens are constantly on the lookout for online hoaxes. Following any large earthquake or typhoon, social media is typically flooded with all kinds of misleading posts and doctored images. Some are posted in a deliberate attempt to stoke panic, others have a more sinister bent.
The new coronavirus pandemic has spawned a number of mistruths around the globe, and Japan is certainly not exempt in this regard. The misleading posts have run the gamut, and range from such things as inaccurate ways of checking if you have the virus to rumors of an imminent nationwide lockdown. Entire articles have been written that focus on how experts are fighting misinformation surrounding COVID-19.
That’s standard operating procedure for social media users these days. However, the situation starts getting a little murkier when conspiracies enter the fray. People purporting to know the truth about major happenings is nothing new, but sites such as Twitter and YouTube are helping to spread their theories further and faster than ever before.
It doesn’t take much spelunking on YouTube to find videos that claim COVID-19 is a bioweapon created by China and it takes even less effort to come across claims in online communities or English-language discourse that the Japanese government has been manipulating case numbers (or hiding bodies even) because it wanted to protect its Olympic legacy.
For the most part, indulging in conspiracy is more a coping method than a nefarious way of manipulating people (although it can definitely be that as well). Researchers have determined that many gravitate toward such theories in an effort to establish feelings of control and security, among other things. It’s comforting to think that the government is pulling all the strings behind the scenes rather than knowing the real world is in chaos (and the officials trusted to be in charge are often just as lost as us).
The current pandemic illustrates why this approach can be so bad — especially in Japan, where a second wave of cases is pushing the country toward a more serious situation. This is a situation in which the actions of individuals everywhere weigh heavily on the final outcome, and misinformation — or even baseless speculation — can prove disastrous.
At the same time, experts and individuals on the front line of the COVID-19 outbreak in Japan have turned to these same platforms to cut through the noise in order to deliver a more accurate snapshot of what’s happening.
A handful of experts in the field of infectious diseases have provided a steady stream of insight into the pandemic and how it is playing out in Japan. Professor Kentaro Iwata of Kobe University has been speaking on the topic since the days of the Diamond Princess and, in recent weeks, has shared blog posts about the low testing numbers in Japan and how it reflects a deliberate government strategy.
Others, such as Fumie Sakamoto of St. Luke’s International Hospital, have used Twitter as a way to analyze whether the numbers were being manipulated ahead of the Olympics through data.
Web publications have also turned the spotlight over to medical professionals. Yahoo Japan offered a glimpse into what’s happening on the front line of the COVID-19 outbreak by letting Kutsuna Satoshi of the Disease Control and Prevention Center write an article that examines how it has been handling things while offering advice on how Tokyo specifically can avoid a massive increase in cases. BuzzFeed Japan has done the same multiple times now, letting those working closely on the capital’s response to the outbreak explain their positions.
One of the issues facing the response to the virus thus far in Japan is making it clear how dangerous it is to younger populations, who typically believe they’re unlikely to be severely affected by it (and don’t understand they could unintentionally spread it to more vulnerable people).
Reaching them where they go — primarily YouTube — could be one solution. In the same way that U.S. podcast host Joe Rogan invited an infectious disease expert onto his show, Livedoor founder-turned-YouTuber Takafumi Horie invited an expert to discuss the new strain of coronavirus that resulted in producing one of the most viewed uploads about COVID-19 in Japan.
As one Japanese doctor based in New York said online, Japan could easily find itself overwhelmed in a similar fashion to the Big Apple if people don’t take the right steps to help slow the virus’ spread.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
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