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Rumors and "fuhyo higai(harmful rumors)" during the ongoing disaster (1)

Misa Matsuda
Professor, Faculty of Letters, Chuo University

The Great East Japan Earthquake which occurred on March 11th resulted in the death of many people and the destruction of many lives. Additionally, the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident which was caused by the earthquake continues to threaten the livelihoods of many people even now. No timeline has been established for the resolution of the nuclear accident and a great number of people feel uncertainty regarding the future. This article will address the rumors which circulated after the earthquake and the "fuhyo higai (harmful rumors)" which are currently spreading. By doing so, I would like to propose a method for handling information while there is uncertainty about the future.

However, this article will address people who, despite being affected by the earthquake and nuclear accident and feeling uncertainty about the future, are able to lead the same lifestyle as before March 11th. The majority of such people feels concern about conditions in the disaster area, wishes to provide aid and is taking actual action. Even so, during their daily lives, such people do not notice that they are engulfed in confusion caused by gossip and are creating harmful rumors.

Communication for interpreting an ambiguous situation

Firstly, let's establish a simple definition for rumors, word-of-mouth, "dema (false rumors)" and other terms which have similar implications. Generally speaking, rumors are information that is transmitted from individual to individual. The validity of such information is often viewed as being uncertain. Conversely, word-of-mouth refers to when the information transmitted from individual to individual is viewed as being factual. In the case of "dema (false rumors)", information is viewed as being spread by someone with a certain intention (often a malevolent intention). After the earthquake, the term "dema (false rumors)" was often used in Japan. However, it is not appropriate to use this term when the person(s) spreading "dema (false rumors)" cannot be identified. Therefore, I will not use the term "dema (false rumors)" in this article. Now, the first important matter to be addressed is that, in many cases, the rumors being spread are being received as word-of-mouth. In other words, people are interpreting the rumors as being factual.

For example, on the day of the earthquake, one of the rumors which spread via mobile email in the Tokyo metropolitan area was that hazardous substances would rain down from the sky as a result of the fire at Cosmos Oil facilities. Many people considered this rumor to be factual or possible and therefore forwarded the message with the good intention of informing their friends. On the day of the earthquake, in addition to images of severe damage caused by the earthquake and tsunami to areas of the Tohoku region facing the Pacific Ocean, televisions in the Tokyo metropolitan area also showed repeated images of the oil refinery fire. Therefore, the rumor that the fire would cause hazardous substances to rain down seemed believable to many people.

In his book Improvised News, sociologist Tamotsu Shibutani defined rumors as follows: Communication performed by people engulfed in ambiguous situations in an attempt to conduct a meaningful interpretation of those circumstances by amassing their collective knowledge. Rumors are an information generation process that is participated in people placed in ambiguous situations. This definition applies regardless of whether post-factum examination shows the rumors to be true or false.

Indeed, rumors should not be viewed through the question of validity or fals0ity. Instead, rumors should be assessed according to whether or not people feel that the rumors are true. Actually, attempts to stop rumors from circulating by showing proof of their falsity have the opposite effect in many cases. When the authorities or the target of rumors produce information to deny the claims, new rumors start that such institutions are trying to conceal the facts. Once again, in the case of rumors, this phenomenon demonstrates that facts which can be proven or examined are not important. Rather, what is important is whether or not people feel the rumors to be factual. As in the expression "confused by rumors", action taken based on rumors is often considered to be irrational. However, since rumors being spread are seen by people as possible, it can be said that action based on rumors is actually rational in a certain sense.

Problems with rumors

One problem with rumors is that they spread anxiety throughout society. However, from the opposite point of view, rumors also provide an outlet for people's anxiety. Rumors often start from conversations between individuals who seek to share their anxiety with others instead of dealing with ambiguous situations on their own. Attempts to completely suppress the circulation of rumors without understanding this point are not only meaningless, they are also harmful. On April 6th, the MIC (Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communication) stated that "inaccurate information regarding the earthquake and other rumors raising anxiety among Japanese citizens" were being circulated on the internet after the earthquake. The MIC therefore requested that appropriate action be taken by groups related to the telecommunications business. This request was criticized as leading to internet restrictions. However, to begin with, it is impossible to determine if certain information is a rumor during the period when rumors are being circulated. Furthermore, placing restrictions on communication intended to interpret the circumstances of people will only increase anxiety. Anxiety which can no longer be verbally express will then burst forth in different forms. Therefore, the government should not have made such a request.

So, is some sort of measures against rumors unnecessary?

If rumors contain false information, then the spread of such information will result in people making incorrect decisions and engaging in incorrect behavior. This is certainly a major problem of rumors. An unfounded rumor of an attack by Koreans was circulated during the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923. As a result, thousands of Koreans were murdered by Japanese who believed the rumors. This is always the first example raised when considering the problems posed by rumors. Also of great importance is the phenomenon of self-fulfilling prophecy as defined by sociologist Robert Merton. This phenomenon refers to how people take unusual action based on assumptions and predictions, thus realizing the initial assumption or prediction. After the recent earthquake, there was panic buying of items such as water, rice, instant noodles and batteries. This panic buying occurred mainly in the Tokyo metropolitan area, and the shelves of supermarkets and convenience stores were temporarily empty. The action of panic buying was taken based on the assumption by people that certain commodities would become unavailable. If such an initial assumption was not made, there probably would not have been any shortages. This example of rumors being spread by initial assumptions is often seen in rumors regarding bank failures.

Critical thinking as a measure against rumors

In order to prevent rumors which cause social disruption like that described above, it is extremely important for public institutions and the authorities concerned to provide sufficient amounts of accurate information as necessary. However, if the information provided by such institutions is not perceived as factual, then people will seek information which seems factual and rumors will be circulated.

Therefore, the stance of each individual towards information becomes important. In 1938, an incident occurred on America's east coast in which people listening to a broadcast of the radio drama War of the Worlds fell into a panic. Sociologist Hadley Cantril examined this incident and pointed out the importance of conducting a critical ability of information. Today, the spread of the internet has placed more focus on media literacy as a skill necessary for living in the information society. The concept of media literacy also contains the ability to discern information. Although it is easy to advise people to refrain from believing all available information and to confirm the basis of information, it is much harder to implement such advice. Complicating matters even more is the fact that the falsity of rumors is not clear to everyone. Rumors seem possible.

I would now like to propose a specific measure that anyone can implement. That measure is to act during ordinary times to become familiar with the contents and form of rumors and chain mail which circulated in the past. Similar rumors are repeatedly circulated. For example, it is certain that rumors predicting the date of the next big earthquake will spread throughout the disaster area. The rumors which spread after the recent earthquake are similar to rumors which were circulated in the past.

Let's return to the rumor regarding Cosmos Oil. Not everyone who received the email participated in spreading the rumor. Many people noticed that the text of the email contained the phrase "please send to as many people as possible", a statement which is always found in chain mails. Other people noticed that they had received the same email from many different friends. Such realizations led many people to conclude that the rumor was chain mail. The internet manner of not forwarding chain mail has permeated society today, and this rule worked somewhat to prevent the email from spreading. Moreover, there were soon many tweets on Twitter seeking a basis for the rumor and a great number of people were examining the facts. As a result, it was determined within a relatively short period of time that the rumor was false. There were then an increasing number of tweets which called for people to stop spreading the rumor and the rumor ended faster than the email could be sent.

It is said that the use of email and the internet has increased the speed at which rumors spread. However, the contents of rumors remain as text when using email or the internet. It is therefore easier to critically review information than if rumors had been spread by mouth. This increases the speed at which rumors are dispelled.

I plan to submit the second installment of Rumors and "fuhyo higai(harmful rumors)" under ongoing disaster on June 16th. In this next installment, I will examine the characteristics of rumors which are spread via email and Twitter. In addition to circulating through face-to-face communication, many rumors in recent years are spread through email and internet communities. Many people criticize the internet as being a den of rumors. However, it is difficult to say that Twitter is an appealing place for rumors. The next installment will also use rumor theory to conduct an analysis of "fuhyo higai(harmful rumors)". By understanding the rationality of such rumors, I will propose a measure against "fuhyo higai(harmful rumors)".

Misa Matsuda
Professor, Faculty of Letters, Chuo University
The author was born in Hyogo prefecture in 1968. She graduated with an undergraduate degree from the Faculty of Letters at the University of Tokyo in 1991 and left the doctoral course in the Graduate School of Humanities and Sociology there in 1996. After working as a research associate in the Institute of Socio-Information and Communication Studies at University of Tokyo, as a full-time lecturer in the Faculty of Information and Communication at Bunkyo University, and as an associate professor in the Faculty of Letters at Chuo University, she took up her current post in 2008. She is a co-author of works including Personal, Portable, Pedestrian: Mobile Phones in Japanese Life (MIT Press, 2005) and Understanding Mobile Media (Yuhikaku Publishing Co., Ltd, 2002) and a author of Science of Rumor (Kawade Shobo Shinsha, 1998). Professor Matsuda studies the relationships between media and society from a dynamic perspective, rather than from the deterministic perspective which holds that the media changes society.