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False rumors spread again following recent earthquake off northeast Japan

This image is taken from Getty.

TOKYO -- Discriminatory remarks and unreliable information filled Twitter, YouTube and other social media outlets following a magnitude-7.3 earthquake that hit off northeast Japan at around midnight on Feb. 13, which registered an upper 6 on the Japanese seismic intensity scale of 7 in Fukushima and Miyagi prefectures.

    Similar phenomena have been observed each time a disaster occurs, and massacres of Korean people were triggered by false rumors that spread following the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake that hit eastern Japan. However, information today is disseminated at an incommensurably quick speed, compared to earlier times. How should we deal with such malicious misinformation?

    False rumors that were conspicuous on Twitter from immediately after the earthquake were claims that "Koreans" and "Black people" were "throwing poison into wells." Fake rumors that "Koreans threw poison into a well" and "caused a riot" had spread following the Great Kanto Earthquake, and it appears that online users imitated this.

    Misinformation spreads easily in times of disaster as people are anxious. There are also many cases where inaccurate information gets spread even though there was no ill intent behind it. An example of this is the inaccurate claim that an explosion occurred in a seaside area off the Chiba Prefecture city of Ichihara, east of Tokyo, as purportedly shown in numerous videos and images that went viral. There indeed seemed to be something like flames coming out of exhaust pipes at a factory. However, there have been no explosions or fires at the factory, according to the Ichihara City Fire Department.

    An individual affiliated with a company that has a petroleum-related facility in the city said that plants manufacturing oil products burn their surplus gas at all times. A great amount of gas was emitted as machines were halted following a power outage caused by the earthquake, which led to more flames being seen than usual, said the source. It appears that many people who saw this got the wrong idea.

    Following the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, fake rumors that "crime by foreigners is rampant" spread in areas hit by the disaster. A Tohoku Gakuin University researcher conducted a survey targeting residents of the city of Sendai, Miyagi Prefecture, and found that over 80% of respondents said that they believed the misinformation.

    False rumors that there were "Chinese, South Korean and 'Zainichi' Korean looters at fires" emerged following torrential rains that hit western Japan in July 2018. As for the 2016 Kumamoto Earthquake, a man from Kanagawa Prefecture, south of Tokyo, was arrested on suspicion of obstruction of business by fraudulent means for allegedly hindering a zoo's operations by posting fake information on Twitter, claiming that "a lion escaped from a zoo."

    What can be done to avoid unknowingly contributing to the spread of false information?

    Daisuke Tsuda, a journalist specializing in fake online information, said, "If you find unreliable information, you should wait for the media to report on it, rather than spread it immediately. Information in newspapers and on television is highly trustworthy."

    Tsuda added, "Clearly malicious tweets like those provoking discrimination should be reported one after the other." Twitter has a system to report ill-natured tweets. Tsuda retweeted problematic posts repeatedly, and called on people to report them, from immediately after the earthquake occurred. He said, "Provocative information in times of emergency leads to specific acts of violence. I hoped that by filing many reports in a short period, Twitter would prioritize dealing with them."

    A majority of the malicious posts that Tsuda retweeted were apparently deleted by the users who made the posts themselves. Tsuda said, "The quality of fake information has been improving by the year. There are also cases where images from several years ago are made to look as if they're happening now. Please check to see if they're real or not by using your web browser's search functions for images and videos."

    (Japanese original by Makiko Osako, Integrated Digital News Center)

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