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Okinawa Gov.'s 'China connection' nothing but 'fake news,' but spreads via internet

Okinawa Gov. Takeshi Onaga (Mainichi)

With the self-explanatory phrase "fake news" recently entering the public's consciousness across the world, the Mainichi Shimbun decided to look at an apparent case of fake news in Japan -- which reveals a darker side of the world wide web.

    The case in question relates to Okinawa Gov. Takeshi Onaga and his apparent connection with China. "Onaga has been shown favoritism by the Chinese authorities, having sent his daughter to China in order to study," the unfounded rumor claimed.

    It is not known exactly who started the rumor about Onaga, or when it first emerged, but it has been circulating for a while. There is a saying that, "Rumors eventually fade away," but in this present age of the worldwide web, some rumors never seem to disappear from the internet -- making those who are being talked about feel continually troubled.

    In response to the rumors, Onaga -- who has two sons and two daughters -- continued to deny the claims and told a prefectural assembly in Okinawa in October 2015 that, "My eldest daughter works in Okinawa Prefecture, and my youngest daughter studies at a university in Saitama Prefecture. They have never even been to China."

    In April 2017, Onaga also opened up during a lecture in Okinawa, stating that, "The propagation of abuse on the internet is extraordinary. It's both agonizing and saddening how easily people can fall into the trap of believing certain things they read on the internet."

    A quick retrospective search about the rumor about Onaga on Twitter reveals that the right-wing satellite television broadcaster, "Japanese Culture Channel Sakura," sowed the seeds of doubt as early as Aug. 1, 2014. In one of its online programs called "Okinawa no Koe," (voices of Okinawa) the broadcaster showed footage of a host and a commentator referring to Onaga -- who was the mayor of the Okinawa Prefecture capital of Naha at the time -- saying that, "His daughter is apparently studying in Beijing right now."

    Commenting on the footage, the right-wing channel later told the Mainichi Shimbun, "We just reported what we'd heard many people in Okinawa say. At a later date though, we also showed footage of Onaga denying the claims during a prefectural assembly." However, the broadcaster removed program footage from a number of websites immediately after its interview with the Mainichi Shimbun.

    In addition, straight after the program was released, a couple of tweets concerning the rumor appeared on Twitter. Shortly after these tweets, certain Twitter users started tweeting repeatedly that "Onaga has sent his daughter to study at Peking University in China, and is now being shown favoritism (by the Chinese authorities)." Notably, a specific university name and not just a city, was stated on this occasion.

    The spread of this fake news was relatively limited at first. However, when Onaga became a candidate in the Okinawa gubernatorial election in November 2014, the rumor began to spread. "The marriage partner of Onaga's daughter is a senior member of the Chinese Communist Party," said one of the tweets -- which was then retweeted numerous times.

    In April 2015, Toshio Tamogami -- the former chief of staff of the Air Self-Defense Force who has over 250,000 followers on Twitter -- took the fake news to a higher level.

    "Okinawa Gov. Onaga's daughter went to Peking University in China to study. After that, she married a Chinese man who works for a governmental organization in Shanghai. Apparently, the husband is the son of a Princelings member and a senior official of the Chinese Communist Party. Taken all this into consideration, it is easy to understand why Onaga is against the relocation of the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma to Henoko," wrote Tamogami in a tweet.

    Around the same time, a weekly magazine released an article denying the rumors, but the speculation did not go away. Tamogami has declined to comment about the matter, and as of June 16 the tweet still remains on his Twitter timeline.

    Furthermore, since the rumor was labeled as false by the media, the gist of the speculation has changed: "The story that was refuted relates to his youngest daughter. But the story regarding his eldest daughter is different."

    Since autumn 2015, additional social media posts have emerged such as: "The eldest daughter has married a senior official from Shanghai, and the youngest daughter is studying in China."

    And even today, inaccurate gossip about Onaga continues to spread -- reminding us about the danger of "fake news" gaining momentum online.

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