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Beware of coronavirus misinformation, fake news: Japan expert

Kazuhiro Taira, a professor of media theory at J.F. Oberlin University in Tokyo, is seen in this photo provided by the individual.

TOKYO -- False rumors and fake news are spreading amid the global outbreak of the new coronavirus. Kazuhiro Taira, a professor of media theory at J.F. Oberlin University in the capital, answered the Mainichi Shimbun's questions about the reasons behind the spread of misinformation and what individuals can do to prevent it.

Question: Why is inaccurate information, such as hot water is effective against the virus, spreading?

Answer: As effective countermeasures and remedies for the new coronavirus have not been developed, people are keen to believe information that offers the slightest hint of a solution. False rumors spread mainly because of this kind of anxiety. Especially in Japan where future prospects are becoming increasingly uncertain due to the sudden closures of all schools and other responses, there's a deep sense of concern.

According to the "basic law of rumor" declared by American psychologists, the number of rumors in circulation varies with the importance of the subject to those concerned multiplied by the ambiguity of the evidence pertaining to the topic. The new coronavirus is life-threatening and is highly important to the public, but not much is known about it. It's important yet ambiguous, and is a great example of an issue that can trigger massive amounts of misinformation.

Another reason is the global-wide use of social media. Such platforms were already available during the 2009 flu pandemic, but on a much smaller scale. For example, active monthly Facebook users in the world totaled just over 100 million then, but now there are around 2.5 billion active users a month. In the blink of an eye, individuals can share various information and fake news across the globe.

Q: Why did people in Japan start buying up toilet paper?

A: "Panic buying" is not only occurring in Japan, but is also becoming an issue in other Asian countries including China and Singapore as well as in the United States, Australia and elsewhere.

A "self-fulfilling prophecy" refers to the phenomenon of someone behaving in a certain way expecting that something will happen, and that prediction coming true. Despite their local stores having supplies of toilet paper, many people may have become worried after seeing photos of stores with empty shelves on social media and started buying up the item.

Q: What do individuals need to look out for when dealing with this kind of information?

A: When coming across news that one might find surprising, or makes them want to share it with someone they know, they should firstly take a deep breath and confirm the source of the information. Doing so will ease their sense of alarm.

Apart from panic buying, some of the false rumors out there can lead to possible racial discrimination and prejudice. There's a risk that they could even trigger hate speech or violent attacks on Chinese people and other Asians. It's important to understand that one could be held responsible for retweeting misinformation with a simple touch of a smartphone screen.

Social media is a platform in which users do not attach much value to the accuracy of information. There's a research finding that even suggests that fake news posts have a higher probability of being retweeted than those dealing with correct information.

The Japanese government is asking people to refrain from nonessential and nonurgent outings. We should also avoid retweeting nonessential and nonurgent information online. Until now, reliable information has basically been released by public agencies. It's best not to retweet or share ambiguous information.

(Interviewed by Jun Kaneko, City News Department)

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