It’s no secret that sumo has experienced an explosion in popularity overseas in the past few years.
The ability to watch bouts with English commentary in real time, coupled with significant increases in print and broadcast content centered around Japan’s national sport has added fuel to the fire of global sumo fandom.
Throwing gasoline on those flames are new media stalwarts Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, as well as streaming platforms like Twitch.
Unfortunately, the very services that have helped broaden sumo’s appeal over the past decade have also brought their own challenges and problems, most notably that of fake news.
Online information about sumo has increasingly been falling victim to many of the same issues that plague mainstream news, particularly the spreading of urban legends and disinformation.
As physicist Max Tegmark pointed out in a recent interview, propaganda and the incentives to manipulate people are not new and have been written about since at least the time of Machiavelli. What is new, however, is the combination of machine learning and propaganda. Algorithms designed to increase time on sites — and therefore ad revenue — quickly figured out the most effective way to do that (and ensure the content was shared) was to show people stories or posts that triggered strong emotions, particularly anger or outrage. Since truth or nuance are limiting factors in that pursuit, they tend to be shoved into the background or cut entirely.
The upshot for sumo is that among foreign fans there are now numerous theories that have become widely accepted but which have no basis in reality. The sport even has its own version of the Flat Earth Society — a subset of fans who have been tricked into believing the raised ring is a major cause of injury despite the fact that the data and anecdotal evidence show otherwise.
It’s also common to read newer fans ranting about the Yokozuna Deliberation Council as if it were the sumo version of the Illuminati. Hardly a week goes by without wild speculation online about a cabal of racists ensuring Japanese supremacy and blocking foreign rikishi from yokozuna promotion. Quite how almost two decades of Mongolian dominance and no native-born tournament winner for a full 10 years fit into that master plan is never explained.
The misinformation in sumo is magnified by the fact that the source material is in a language that the vast majority of newer foreign fans cannot read or speak. That leaves them reliant on Twitter accounts or YouTube channels run by people who — whether through ignorance or malice — offer a very skewed and inaccurate picture of what’s really going on in the sport.
In most cases those accounts are fan run and not subject to normal editorial checks and balances. Their existence in and of itself is not a bad thing. There should always be outlets for dissenting views and space for people to express their opinions. Every sport in the world has similar fan run sites or social media channels. Nonsense claims or bad takes can be found around the world in virtually any sport you can mention.
In most cases, though, those fringe voices remain just that, as there is a mountain of content being produced by people with actual insider knowledge and connections. Conspiracy theories and wild speculation are easily disproven.
For a variety of reasons that isn’t happening in sumo, and it’s allowing the knowledge gap to be filled by people taking advantage of a fanbase with a high percentage of people new to the sport.
One issue is, of course, the lack of journalists working primarily in sumo. English-language media in Japan is a small world but across mainstream publications and news agencies there are numerous people covering soccer and baseball. The number of writers or columns in English focused on the national sport? Just one.
That lack of dedicated journalists shows when Japan-based correspondents for foreign media organizations file stories on sumo. It’s rare to see one that isn’t riddled with errors.
Just this past week, a Reuters article containing at least five mistakes was picked up and shared by news organizations around the world. While no one is perfect and even those knowledgeable about the sport get things wrong from time to time, it’s sheer laziness to claim that a child is the “Under 10 World Champion” when two minutes on Google is all it takes to learn that no such tournament exists. Not correcting those errors when they are pointed out is similarly inexcusable.
The irony of course is that many of the same writers that have been guilty of filing sumo stories for years that verge on pure fiction were some of the loudest voices complaining about the “weird and wacky Japan” slant that often dominates coverage of this country.
The counter complaint from such writers is often that press access to ōzumō is harder to get than that for the Olympic Games or World Cup and that without proper access to rikishi and others in the sport, errors will continue to be made.
There is merit to that argument and the Sumo Association and its press club becoming more open to foreign media is something that absolutely should happen. Until it does, however, reporters and writers covering sumo for international media need to up their standards and not use their readership’s relative lack of knowledge about the sport as an excuse to engage in hyperbole or file stories lacking proper research.
If they don’t, there will continue to be errors and Fake Sumo News will become an even bigger problem.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
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