Japan: Toxic Rain, Earthquake Weapons and Other False Rumors

This post is part of our special coverage on the Japan Earthquake 2011.

Following the 9.0-magnitude earthquake that struck Japan on March 11th, Twitter has seen an outpouring of prayers and information. #prayforjapan and #Fukushima have become trending topics, and several official hashtags have been set up to better share regional or topical updates.

On the downside, there have been numerous online rumors that making the rounds on Twitter, as well as chain mails. Some spread like wildfire, as idle curiosity and malicious intent meet with a strong dose of anxiety, exhaustion, and simple inexperience.

Prolific blogger, editor and critic Chiki Ogiue (荻上チキ) posted a comprehensive roundup of such online hoaxes about the earthquake (東北地方太平洋沖地震、ネット上でのデマまとめ), while dispersing logical advice on how to improve one’s instinct for sniffing out falsehoods, and what everyone can do so as not to add to the confusion. Ogiue is the author of several books about Internet culture.

The following is an excerpted translation of his blog post as of March 13th, 13:00 JST, published with permission from the author. All links lead to Japanese sources unless otherwise stated.

Like the Nikkan Sports article “Online information exchange is active, but false rumors also making rounds” describes, there has been a slew of online hoaxes. Many people have set up sites to gather useful information, so here I will list up the actual cases so we know to “be calm when encountering such information”. I will keep updating this post. Please contact me for corrections or more information at http://twitter.com/#!/torakare or seijotcp@gmail.com. Remember, the cases described in this post are only a few examples of the hoaxes out there.
All right, let me first explain what steps to take when a tweet, blog post, or e-mail grabs your attention. I'll use Twitter as an example:

1. Take a deep breath
2. Check the timeline of whomever RTed the tweet and confirm that they haven’t published any updates or corrections.
3. Ask yourself if that information requires you “yourself” to spread
4. Use the offical RT function unless you’re adding something new information. Always include the link of the source
5. Correct any mistakes, using the official RT function as much as possible

I understand the urgent need to help. Think about it this way, though – there’s absolutely no sense in someone without relief experience charging headfirst into an affected area and becoming a victim himself. It’s the same way with information, where damage is done by having a hand in flooding impertinent information or spreading falsehood.

Unless you’re a professional rescuer, it’s unlikely that the help required must be provided by you alone. Those not in affected areas can play an important role by leading a “normal” day. There will be many opportunities for activities that everyone should and can take.

It’s imperative that we work to obtain probable information from statements made by public institutions such as telephone companies and electricity companies, and experts speaking within their domain of expertise.

Toxic rain to fall?

Numerous online rumors have spread after Japan's deadly earthquake, such as a toxic rain threat. Image by Flickr user andi.vs.zf (CC BY-ND 2.0).

Numerous online rumors have spread after Japan's deadly earthquake, such as a toxic rain threat. Image by Flickr user andi.vs.zf (CC BY-ND 2.0).

This was a typical tweet:
“[Please spread the word] From my friend living in Chiba Prefecture. The weather forecast says it will rain from Monday. People living around Chiba, please be careful. The explosion at the Cosmo oil refinery will cause harmful substance to rise to clouds and become toxic rain. So when you go out, take your umbrella or raincoat, and make sure the rain doesn’t touch your body!”

Cosmo Oil made an official announcement claiming against this information.

Press room from Corporate Communication department Cosmo Oil Ltd:
Today, an e-mail with the title “Information for preventing secondary disaster from Cosmo Oil” was distributed to the general public. The e-mail says that “Because of the explosion of the oil refinery, toxic substances have dissolved into the clouds and will fall with the rain.” There is no basis for this statement. The tank that exploded contained LP gas, and it is highly unlikely that any gas generated by the burning will cause harm to human bodies.

We heavily apologize to the residents near the factory and to those involved for causing inconvenience and anxiety. “

The Twitter account for the PR department of Urayasu City in Chiba Prefecture also made a statement to back up Cosmo Oil's claim.

Please note that this hoax is separate from the issue of radioactive contamination.

Again, rumors of foreigners causing crime

“Foreigners might commit crime” is a rumor that always makes its way after a crisis. It's happened in Japan again and again, and is quite common overseas as well. For example, think of the prejudiced news against black people during Hurricane Katrina in the United States.

Here is a bundle of tweets concerning “People spouting prejudice amidst the earthquake confusion”.

Warnings that call for safety and offensive terror-invoking phrases that carry the possibility of creating specific scapegoats are two different things. Don't let history repeat itself. I know it's a difficult time, but creating an enemy that is easily understood might invite false accusations and gratuitous violence.

There's also the tendency to bad mouth politicians. We're all unhappy but let's discuss “what a policymaker should do now” instead of claiming “this is why so-and-so is no good”. Pursuing accountability can come later.

The possibility of this disaster being an attack on Japan by an earthquake weapon
Out of the question.
Rumors of the deaths of famous people

With global attention came many unfounded rumors of the deaths of famous Japanese people.

Some examples:
“The creator of Pokemon died today in the #tsunami, #Japan. RIP: Satoshi Tajiri. #prayforjapan.”
“The Creator of Hello Kitty, Yuko Yamaguchi, died today in Japan. #prayforjapan”

This type of tweets almost always have no links to a source. There is no news reported in Japan, and again there is no information about its origins. Diffusion of incorrect information as a result of actions that stem from kindness is not limited to Japan. In order not to increase the amount of people abroad obtaining incorrect information from the Internet, it’s important to have assistance from an English speaker.

Chain email: “Ministry of Defence/SDF asking people to distribute relief supplies?”

As seen on this post:

There’s a copy-paste [email] going around which claims that the Self-Defense Force (SDF) and others are appealing for support in distributing relief supplies. In the email, it is written that “friends of the SDF …” but there’s no way that individuals are supposed to do this.

There is no confirmation of this on the websites of news agencies or the SDF. Here is a post describing how blogger k_ma_calon debunked it.

On top of this, the announcement below was posted on the Fukushima Prefecture website:

Relief aid from individuals
In order to avoid confusion, we ask that you please refrain [from distributing relief supplies].

On March 13th at 10am, I phoned the Ministry of Defense. They aid the copy-paste email going around the web is a hoax, that the SDF is not accepting [relief supplies]. They said that while local prefectures may themselves coordinate such collection of supplies, at the moment the prefectures are in a state of confusion. They stressed to please be careful with chain or copy-pasted emails. And they asked that people who receive such chain emails let the sender about this [hoax]. When I told them about the coverage, they said: “Thank you. Please help us avoid this [rumor] from spreading further.”

I wonder if they’ve already got lots of inquiries. I was able to communicate with them briefly. They already knew about the situation with the chain mails. They said that if they were really looking for help like this, there would have been an appropriate announcement from the media, from the government, and from administrative agencies. There’s no need to rush and do anything until that happens. If you absolutely want to do something, look for honest groups that are collecting donations, and donate to them.

Chain letters calling for donation
Chain letters with specific bank account information for donations are getting sent around. Donation itself is good but please first check the website of official or established organizations. Acting upon a resource such as a chain letters is very risky.

Here are other examples of hoaxes. Full translation omitted for the sake of brevity.

  • SOS information from the ground
  • Turkey to donate 10 billion yen
  • Don't drink water from Saitama Prefecture
  • Women should be careful of a predator pretending to be from Tokyo Electric Power Co.
Don’t bash the ‘information poor’
Poking fun that “people who were deceived are just not used to handling information” does no good. What we must do is work to reduce the number of people being fooled. Playing with “hoax distribution experiments” is the worst of the worst.

With a disaster like this, the lack of information, unstable emotions, and high levels of interest create a situation where it becomes easy for people to believe and re-distribute false information. That a certain amount of people will be deceived is inevitable. Minimizing the damage is the key. Pointing fingers to hoax distributors can result in fanning panic and disbelief. Let's try to handle information with calm.

In order to stay away from re-distributing unfounded rumors, don't instinctively react to the phrase “it seems” and try to get the official announcement of public organizations. Still, there may be no source but word-of-mouth if you're in an area with no information coming in. I repeat, don’t bash the information poor. The challenge here is to share factual information.

Note that there’s no such thing as an ‘information rich’ person who is never deceived. Or if you really are ‘information rich’, you should think about helping the poor first. Keeping in mind that you may be deceived.

Ogiue is continuously updating this post, as well as tweeting at @torakare.

This post was a collaborative effort by Tomomi Sasaki, Chris Salzberg, Takashi Ota, Ayako Yokota, Eric Yap, and Hisaho Tsutsumi. Thanks, team.

This post is part of our special coverage on the Japan Earthquake 2011.


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