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SNS users with good intentions spread false rumors on Hokkaido quake

Users of social networking services (SNS) with good intentions have been circulating invalid rumors following the strong earthquake in Hokkaido on Sept. 6, prompting fear among victims.

People wanting to support quake-hit victims in Japan's most northern prefecture have frequently passed on realistic but misleading posts via SNS, although not many had malicious intentions.

"Please share this message -- This is information from Nippon Telegraph and Telephone Corp. (NTT). Broadcast towers are running out of electricity, and there is a possibility that people won't be able to use cellphones in about four hours," said an SNS post that went viral right after the earthquake. However, a representative of NTT Docomo Inc.'s Hokkaido branch told the Mainichi Shimbun that the company "had not sent out any such information," suggesting that the posted message was a false alarm. However, the representative also explained, "Base stations near key institutions like government offices work 24 hours, but there are stations that only run on batteries for a few hours." The posted information was not an outright error, since there were actually areas where cellphones stopped working.

There were many posts stating an incorrect range of areas that suffered from water failures like "city-wide water outages," which in reality occurred in limited places in the city of Sapporo. Trouble arose after the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan sent out misinformation on its official Twitter account about the water outages. The political party later apologized.

Practical jokes and racial slurs such as, "Lion escapes zoo," and, "A Korean threw poison into a well," that spread after the 2016 Kumamoto earthquake did not circulate this time. The spread of such fake rumors may have been minimalized due to the arrest of the originator of the lion tweet, raising awareness that false rumors are illegal, as well as the fact that the quake hit before dawn when there aren't as many SNS users. Meanwhile, there was a rise in partially correct information or supportive messages dispersed among compassionate people.

False information on the Hokkaido quake also spread on the free messaging application LINE. "A massive quake is expected to occur around 8 a.m. according to data from the Self-Defense Forces," was one case of disinformation blended in with seemingly helpful notices warning readers to be careful of heatstroke. It was dispersed among individuals along with a message to "provide information to others." This approach was similar to those used to spread chain mails.

Associate professor Naoya Sekiya from the Center for Integrated Disaster Information Research, the Interfaculty Initiative in Information Studies, at the University of Tokyo analyzed that, "A typical rumor that spreads at the time of a disaster is information that sounds true, due to its partial correctness, but is incorrect as a whole. False rumors grow on fear. Concerns about water, electricity and communication cause rumors in relation to such topics to spread via SNS."

The professor is urging people to avoid being deceived by fake rumors in times of disaster, which can be divided into several types.

(Japanese original by Kenichi Omura, General Digital News Center)

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