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Okinawa dailies fact-check, debunk rumors spread during gubernatorial race

Articles in the daily newspaper Ryukyu Shimpo, based in the Okinawa prefectural capital of Naha, that debunk rumors circulated during the Okinawa gubernatorial campaign. (Mainichi/Yuki Miyatake)

TOKYO -- Misinformation spread like wildfire over the internet during the Okinawa gubernatorial election, which ended on Sept. 30 with the victory of Denny Tamaki over the national ruling coalition-backed Atsushi Sakima.

Ryukyu Shimpo and Okinawa Times, two dailies based in the prefectural capital Naha, sought to fight the flames and the potential impact on voters' decision-making by fact-checking the flow of internet information and publishing their findings.

In on example, according to the Ryukyu Shimpo, rumors began to spread before the gubernatorial campaign's Sept. 13 kickoff that a Sept. 1-2 opinion poll by the Asahi Shimbun national daily had shown a 52 percent to 26 percent lead for Tamaki over Sakima. However, an Asahi public relations official told the Mainichi Shimbun that the paper had conducted no such poll, and that the rumors were "groundless." The Ryukyu Shimpo ran a report on Sept. 8 that the survey rumors were "fake."

Ryukyu Shimpo continued to sporadically report on its fact-checking endeavors. In its Sept. 24 morning edition, it addressed a tweet claiming that Namie Amuro, an Okinawa-born pop star who had retired on Sept. 16, was supporting a specific candidate. Ryukyu Shimpo reporters questioned the person behind the tweet, and interviewed the camp of the candidate named, and found that the content of the tweet was untrue.

Meanwhile the Okinawa Times, the other major daily in Japan's southernmost prefecture, joined with Tokyo's Hosei University to monitor and fact-check election-related information. The team gathered 60 pieces of information suspected of being fake, investigated their veracity, and the paper published the results.

Takumi Takimoto, leader of the gubernatorial election reporting group at Ryukyu Shimpo, pointed to the mudslinging that he witnessed in the Nago mayoral election this past February as one of the reasons that the paper decided to undertake fact-check reporting.

The construction of a base in the Henoko district of Nago, Okinawa Prefecture, to replace U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in the southern prefectural city of Ginowan was a major point of contention in the Nago mayoral election. In the midst of the campaign, rumors popped up that the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters professional baseball team was going to stop holding its spring training camps in Nago. Ryukyu Shimpo queried the team, learned that the rumors were untrue, and therefore did not publish an article about it. But Takimoto said that the experience showed him how easily falsehoods can spread and be taken as fact, especially through social media, and it terrified him.

"False rumors that have been debunked can still spread once they're on social media," Takimoto said. "I realized that we immediately have to say, 'That's wrong,' which is why we decided to do fact-check reports."

In their articles, Takimoto said, he and his colleagues are committed to reporting facts, without mixing in speculation. But, he said, they ran into information that they found very difficult to confirm, so its credibility was unclear. Challenges remain, such as how to allocate enough staff and divvy up tasks to confirm or discredit rumors quickly.

Fact-checking drew public attention during the 2016 U.S. presidential election, when U.S. newspapers and other media outlets fact-checked the veracity of information that was circulating online and elsewhere. The practice is now spreading worldwide.

(Japanese original by Ken Aoshima and Mami Yamada, City News Department)

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