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Distinguishing truth from falsity in times of disaster: A case study of the Noto earthquake

Distinguishing truth from falsity in times of disaster: A case study of the Noto earthquake
Distinguishing truth from falsity in times of disaster: A case study of the Noto earthquake


Social media has provided fertile ground for the spread of misinformation in the wake of the Noto earthquake that struck the country in the new year. How can social media users distinguish truth from falsehood and avoid spreading unfounded rumours?

Patterns of false rumors during disasters

Rumors have spread online about the January 1, 2024, earthquake that struck the Noto Peninsula and posed serious problems. Much of it was posted on Twitter, prompting Prime Minister Kishida Fumio to warn on January 2 that spreading malicious misinformation about the disaster would not be tolerated. Below I discuss the different types of rumors that spread during a disaster, the patterns they follow, and tips for responding to them.

A massive disaster generates widespread anxiety throughout society, providing fertile ground for rumors to spread. It was the same during the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, which shows that before the age of social media, humans had a tendency to engage in rumor mongering in times of disasters. Today, the Internet and social media contribute greatly to the speed at which rumors spread.

I think misinformation in times of disaster follows five patterns. I will describe these matters here, in the context of the Noto earthquake.

Rumors about the extent of the damage

Tsunami views during the March 11, 2011, Great East Japan Earthquake that was presented as having occurred during the Noto disaster, generated several million views. Unconfirmed information was also circulated about the causes of the earthquake, the fires that destroyed the centuries-old market in Wajima City, and the status of the Shika nuclear power plant operated by Hokuriku Electric Power Company.

Rumors of criminal activity

Unsubstantiated information spread that gangs of foreign thieves flocked to Noto. There were also numerous rumors about looting and other criminal behavior at the evacuation centers. As in previous disasters, the police authorities repeated this false information.

Fake rescue requests

Questionable rescue requests, such as “Help! This type of message makes it easy to repost, allowing false information to circulate about the true extent of the disaster.

Fake charity appeals

Some accounts requested donations via electronic money, requesting funds for future reconstruction and other needs.

Conspiracy theories

Misinformation has also spread that the Noto earthquake was caused artificially. Analysis by NHK revealed that in the roughly 24-hour period between the onset of the earthquake on January 1 and 5:30 p.m. on January 2, there were 250,000 posts about an artificially induced earthquake, some of which garnered nearly From 8.5 million dollars. Views.

Rumors have profound implications

Unfounded rumors often contain elements that arouse feelings or a desire to tell others. Strong emotions such as anxiety or anger, or altruistic motives, may lead some individuals to spread rumors. A study conducted by my research team showed that many people who engage in such behavior do so because they feel anxious or believe that spreading rumors is for the benefit of others or society.

But rumor mongering in times of disaster has profound effects. Not only can misinformation cause panic or confusion, it can also lead to confusion in evacuations, as some who must flee are forced to stay put while others, safe in place, take to the roads, or inappropriately handle relief supplies. . This could greatly complicate the situation in the affected areas and also negatively affect rescue efforts. Rescue teams may be deployed unnecessarily, placing a heavy burden on local government employees.

Social divisions widen the gap between those who believe rumors and those who do not. This can exacerbate exclusion or discrimination against certain groups, putting them at risk of retaliation.

But the most negative effect of rumors is that they complicate the process of obtaining accurate information. During a disaster, responding parties base their decisions on the assumption that they are working with accurate information. Correct information encourages behavior to protect human life and gives peace of mind to those affected by the disaster. But the spread of rumors reduces the reliability of information, making people skeptical and less able to make appropriate judgments.

Chasing pageviews as a motivator

Some have pointed to the attention economy as a reason for the earthquake rumors. In the modern digital space, the extent to which attention or interest is captured has economic value. In other words, when information online grows exponentially, outpacing the human brain's processing capacity, attracting people's attention becomes more important than providing truthful information.

Winning page views as the primary and ultimate goal of online advertising is a good example of this concept. For websites supported by ad revenue, page views are crucial to generating the most ad revenue possible. As a result, these sites focus on attracting attention, not on the quality of the information they provide.

The attention economy has grown rapidly in recent years. It used to be that traditional mass media and online media competed for attention, but now that everyone on the planet can disseminate information, visits to websites created by private individuals and views on YouTube are a source of income generation. The more outrageous the content, the easier it is to get page views. This prompts YouTubers and others to post more and more explosive material such as performances, stupid stunts, or citizen arrests in order to attract attention.

In August 2023,

The hurdles for publishing on X are much lower than those on YouTube, and X can publish content much more widely. This in turn allows more people to participate in the attention economy. Thus, X has become a huge channel for spreading all kinds of rumors that attract people's attention. It has allowed the attention economy to permeate individuals, motivating them to post provocative material or spread misinformation, all in order to attract more followers or gain more impressions.

In the Noto earthquake, numerous rumors posted online were copied and reposted, creating a widespread wave of copied tweets. A large number of the repost accounts were not those that typically post in Japanese, the language of the reposted material. Clearly, posters, both local and foreign, were jumping in to gain impressions. Every time a disaster occurs, rumors are created or copied and spread widely.

Artificial intelligence accelerates social unrest

Generative AI has made it possible for any user to easily create fake photos or videos and deep fakes. False or false information can spread quickly in this way: we are now entering a new era of “second generation fakery.” For example, in the conflict between Israel and Hamas, fake images or videos generated by artificial intelligence are frequently disseminated in an attempt to influence international public opinion.

The spread of rumors does affect information sharing in times of disasters. Drone images of floods in Shizuoka Prefecture in 2022 spread across social media, but the images were actually fakes created by artificial intelligence. Creating these images did not require any specific artistic expertise; It turns out it was posted by someone using a service called Stable Diffusion, which is available to everyone. He later stated that he posted the photos simply by doodling on his smartphone from the comfort of his home.

Nowadays, pre-existing videos or photos are often used to spread rumors, but I predict that in the future, fake AI-generated photos or videos that are virtually indistinguishable from the original article will become mainstream. Advances in artificial intelligence technology could dramatically increase the volume of rumors circulating and exacerbate social unrest.

Dealing with rumours

To deal with rumours, we need to reflect on our behaviour, starting with the realization that we ourselves are vulnerable to believing them. Therefore, we must always be careful about the information we are exposed to.

In a study I conducted with my research group, 77.5% of participants who were exposed to unverified rumors did not realize they had been deceived. This was particularly true among those in their 50s and 60s, compared to younger participants, showing that rumors affect everyone, not just young people. We have to realize that any of us can fall into the trap of misinformation.

Research conducted in the United States also found that most people were overconfident in their ability to distinguish between truth and falsehood, and that they were the type most vulnerable to being misled.

It is also important to verify information. We must verify its reliability by looking at how other media or individuals have handled the information or by conducting image research. There are many ways to verify sources, and although verifying every source every time is difficult when we are drowning in a deluge of information, we need to stop and think for a moment to verify before sharing information.

X/Twitter includes a Community Feedback feature that allows users to report misleading content and add more information. This feature allows contributors to leave feedback on any post; If enough contributors rate this note as helpful, the note will be generally appended to the post. It may be helpful to review X Community feedback to corroborate the information.

But rumors aren't just a problem online. My research has found that rumors are spread largely through direct conversations with family, friends or acquaintances. Communications research has also shown that people find it easier to believe information that comes from those close to them rather than anything experts might say. We must be alert to the danger of believing what people we know say without verifying its veracity. Rumors spread through social media during disasters are also likely to be amplified through direct conversation.

Social media platform operators must make every effort to ensure the dissemination of reliable information. X's content screening function has been weakened since Elon Musk took over the platform. Respect for freedom of expression is self-evident, but stricter standards must be applied to false information that fuels social unrest. One important countermeasure is to limit the monetization of the spread of false information.

(Originally published in Japanese on March 14, 2024. Banner image © Pixta)




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