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'It's a conspiracy': What drives people to shun facts for fake information? (Pt 2)

Trump supporters are seen marching in a protest at Hibiya Park in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward on Nov. 29, 2020. (Mainichi/Sumire Kunieda)

TOKYO -- In Japan and elsewhere, there are people who do not believe the coronavirus exists, and refuse to wear masks or get vaccinated. Many in this country are influenced by conspiracy theories flowing from the U.S. and Europe. But what hooks people onto conspiracy theories? The Mainichi Shimbun continues to explore this question in this second of a two-part series.

    "The coronavirus is the same as the flu." "The number of deaths is inflated. Hospitals get extra money if they say they have coronavirus patients, so they report deaths from different causes as being from the coronavirus." In November 2020, residents of Ashland, Ohio -- a great majority of whom support former U.S. President Donald Trump -- used claims like these to refuse to comply with the state government's mask mandate.

    Trump's actions were a factor in the claims. "'Covid, Covid, Covid, Covid.' By the way, on November 4 (once voting is over), you won't hear about it anymore," he said at a campaign rally. After this statement, some Trump supporters came to believe that scientists and the media were deliberately causing an uproar and slowing the economy to sabotage Trump's reelection. Trump kept attacking media outlets and scientists, and supporters of Trump and the Republican Party began closing their ears to facts.

    According to the Pew Research Center, only 41% of Republicans saw the outbreak as "a major threat" to "the health of the U.S. population as a whole," half the percentage of Democrats giving the same answer. While people are getting vaccinated in the U.S., states with greater numbers of Republican supporters have lower vaccination rates compared to other states. Among white Christian evangelicals -- Trump's base -- 45% expressed negative views toward vaccinations.

    A group is seen showing support to then President Donald Trump in Ashland, Ohio, on Nov. 4, 2020, even after voting day. (Mainichi/Sumire Kunieda)

    Believers of conspiracy theory QAnon refused to accept Trump's presidential election defeat, and were among the instigators of the Jan. 6 storming of the U.S. Capitol. They claim a deep state of elites inside the federal government conspires to control politics. According to QAnon, only Trump can defeat the deep state. Another of its major claims is that voting machines counted Trump ballots as Biden votes in the 2020 presidential election, and that Trump would have won were it not for election fraud.

    Upon returning from the U.S. to Japan, while I was thinking that the country was engulfed in a thick sickness, I found Trump supporters also protesting in Japan and refusing to accept his defeat. They held up signs reading, "The U.S. presidential election is not over yet," and, "This is a battle of good and evil!" Because they're Japanese, they are apparently called JAnon.

    I listened to this JAnon group's views while following their march of several hundred protesters. Many were earnest, passionate individuals who expressed strong hostility toward China and the media. One man in his 40s said definitively, "The Mainichi Shimbun and all the old media (media that existed before the internet) distribute fake news." Although we report facts we verify, this group calls us newspapers "fake" for not writing their version of "the truth."

    During the protest, a woman behind me yelled, "Aren't you ashamed? What a group of propagandists." Offended, I said, "I have never engaged in propaganda." She replied, "Even if you haven't, your superiors and the company do, right?" to which I replied, "No, I don't think so."

    A woman is seen casting a ballot during early voting for the 2020 U.S. presidential election in Ashland, Ohio, on Oct. 27, 2020. (Mainichi/Sumire Kunieda)

    The man I interviewed earlier chimed in pityingly, and said, "You entered another's territory. It can't be helped (even if you receive such treatment). Be careful." What? I'm inside the enemy camp right now? Since when did I become their enemy? I felt sad after this encounter.

    Conspiracy theorists claim "fraud is being carried out and concealed." Indeed, there are cases where this is true. Legacy media like us believe it is our duty to expose dishonesty and cover-ups. Although we are open to criticism that we do not completely fulfill this responsibility, being called "fake" is cruel, given our dedication to finding the truth.

    An acquaintance of mine has also latched onto conspiracy theories. They went as far as saying they would quit their company if forced to be vaccinated. I have kept in touch with them as I was advised to refrain from arguing with them, and "continue talking to them like you are a hostage negotiator." However, my acquaintance's opinions remain unchanged.

    The American Psychological Association highlighted a study on conspiracy theories by the University of Kent in the U.K. In the research, conspiracy theorists are described trying to satisfy three psychological objectives.

    Trump supporters are seen marching the streets near Tokyo Station while holding signs, including one reading, "This is a battle between good and evil!" on Nov. 29, 2020. (Mainichi/Sumire Kunieda)

    One is epistemic motives, or the need for knowledge; for example, the desire to know why a major event like a pandemic or terrorist incident happens. Some seek answers in the wrong places. The other two motives pushing people to conspiracy theories are existential and social; or the desire for security through information that explains why one does not have control in a situation, and the need to feel good about oneself by one-upping others, thinking they know they have access to a truth others don't.

    According to the research, measures effective at addressing conspiracy theories are: first, providing people with accurate information before they are exposed to conspiracy theories; telling and warning them that society is overflowing with conspiracy theories; and as a last resort, providing counterarguments to conspiracy theory content.

    To prevent false information spreading in Japan, citizens, media outlets, scholars and other individuals formed nonprofit organization FactCheck Initiative (FIJ). It has established a ratings system to measure information accuracy, with scores including "false," "unfounded," "misleading," "mostly accurate" and "inaccurate."

    Some individuals deliberately send and spread conspiracy theories or fake information while aware they are falsehoods. Motives for this include increasing website traffic and profit, expanding political influence, and stirring confusion. It is also important to contain such sources from disseminating misinformation.

    Trump supporters are seen marching the streets near Tokyo Station while holding a banner reading, "The U.S. presidential election is not over yet!" on Nov. 29, 2020. (Mainichi/Sumire Kunieda)

    Trump's Twitter account has been suspended since early January, and the social media giant also announced March 1 that it will attach warning labels to posts including fake information, such as coronavirus vaccine conspiracy theories. Twitter decided that accounts violating the rules twice will be temporarily locked, and after their fifth strike users will be permanently suspended from Twitter. The measures will reportedly be in place for English content and over time extend to other languages.

    Dominion Voting Systems, a U.S. voting machine maker targeted by conspiracy theories, filed a lawsuit for damages against Trump's personal lawyer, who continued to assert baseless falsehoods on TV and social media including that Trump ballots were switched with Biden ballots, and to Fox News and its hosts who disseminated the lies.

    Captivating online conspiracy theories and fake information is similar in nature to Islamic State group propaganda. An imam who provides counseling to youth previously involved in jihad or terrorist acts explained to me that exposure to concentrated propaganda via the internet and social media can completely brainwash individuals in as little as a few months.

    The imam said that youths taken in by Islamic State group dogma and indoctrinated with the idea that "Western Europe is the enemy of Islam" are not easily convinced even when shown the Quran and offered guidance. "Once they are brainwashed, it takes a long time to escape that. It's very difficult," he said as his cheerful, gentle expression turned to anguish.

    Conspiracy theories and fake information are putting democracy and human lives at stake. But it seems unlikely that conspiracy theorists' distrust of national governments and the media will be dispelled any time soon. The long battle continues.

    (Japanese original by Sumire Kunieda, Digital News Center)

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