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Misa Matsuda

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Rumors and "fuhyo higai (harmful rumors)" during the ongoing disaster (2)

Misa Matsuda
Professor, Faculty of Letters, Chuo University

In the article that I submitted on May 19th entitled "Rumors and 'fuhyo higai' (harmful rumors) during the ongoing disaster (1)", I discussed the importance of considering rumors not from the perspective of being true or false, but rather from the perspective of whether they are felt to be true or not. I explained how, in a certain meaning, the actions that people take based on rumors can be considered as rational because people feel that the spreading rumors are true. However, since rumors cause social confusion, I introduced examples of measures that each individual can take against rumors.

I would like to begin this second installment by examining the characteristics of rumors spread via the internet. In recent years, rumors are spread not only through face-to-face communication, but are also often spread through communities using email or the internet. Next, I would like to address the problem of fuhyo higai (harmful rumors) by using rumor theory to analyze rationality, and then to propose a measure against fuhyo higai.

Rumors via email/Rumors via Twitter

In recent years, many rumors spread through email or the internet. This also applies to rumors which spread after the recent earthquake. Let's examine the characteristics of rumors via email and the internet as compared to rumors spread through face-to-face communication.

First, in the case of email and the internet, there is a record of who transmitted certain information. Several years ago, a rumor concerning the collapse of a particular bank spread via email. During the subsequent investigation, a woman was identified as the original transmitter of the rumor and had her case sent to the prosecutors. The woman claimed that she had sent the email in order to notify a great number of her friends about information that she had heard from someone else. Of course, there is no record for information heard from someone else, and it was impossible to verify the woman's claim. Since it is not possible to discover a particular perpetrator in the case of rumors about a certain bank or corporation, such rumors were often raised as examples of fuhyo higai in the past. However, in the case of email which includes a transmission record, the way in which such rumors are considered will undoubtedly change.

Moreover, compared to the ease of sending anonymous mail during the age of postal mail, the email used nowadays contains a conspicuous amount of messages which can be called happy or virtuous email. Such messages promise the user happiness if they convey the information or encourage all recipients to participate in blood donations. This happy email is in contrast to unhappy email, which threatens the recipient with unhappiness if they do not spread the information. In the case of email, the recipient has a record of the sender's identity. This makes it difficult to send unhappy email which promise to inflict unhappiness upon the recipient. Conversely, it is better to send email which promise happiness or call for cooperation; in other words, email for which virtue is the motive for forwarding. The rumor regarding Cosmos Oil was spread as chain mail because people acted out of virtue to notify their friends.

After the recent earthquake, praise was given for how Twitter was used to convey a variety of information that could not be conveyed by the mass media. Conversely, there was concern regarding the sudden spread of unfounded information posted on Twitter. Although there is rapid spread of information on Twitter, questions regarding such information are also resolved quickly. There are several factors explaining this phenomenon. One factor is the difference between email users and Twitter users. More Twitter users tend to access Twitter from their computers, thus making it easy for them to verify information. Another factor is the specificity of communication on Twitter.

"I've got some special information which I will tell only to you."-This is often the form in which rumors are spread from one person to the next. Or, rumors are believed to be the use of private routes to convey information which cannot be contained via the mass media or announcements of public institutions. In either case, a special relationship occurs between the sender and receiver of information. It is not simply a mechanical conveyance of information. In the case of email, the receiver feels that the sender was kind enough to specifically send the email to him or her (even if the email is also sent to other people). In response to that act of kindness, it is difficult to react by doubting the validity of information. However, in the case of Twitter, users do not send tweets to specific individuals; rather, users disclose information to the masses. Even if I obtain that information, it is not necessary for me to feel a debt of gratitude to the person who tweeted. It is therefore easy for me to demand proof if I feel any doubts about the contents of information./p>

In this respect, it can be said that Twitter is not a very appealing form of media for rumors. This is because Twitter does not construct the special relationship between senders and receivers which is found in rumors.

Rationality of fuhyo higai (harmful rumors)

There is no timetable for resolving the nuclear accident, and consumers are avoiding products made in regions believed to be close to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant and other disaster areas. Furthermore, there are reports of discriminatory language and behavior towards refugees. There have also been reports of overseas shunning of all of Japan and all Japanese products. Fuhyo higai arises when people act based on unfounded and incorrect information. Since it is difficult to pinpoint a particular perpetrator and because of the many people involved, fuhyo higai is often viewed as harm resulting from rumors. However, the following definition of fuhyo higai was given by Naoya Sekiya, a specialist in disaster information theory: "Economic damages caused when consumption or tourism is stopped by people who view inherently safe foods, products and regions as dangerous." Sekiya also explains that rumors and fuhyo higai are concurrent and that rumors are not always the cause of fuhyo higai.

Actually, fuhyo higai does not occur from rumors and does not occur from unfounded and incorrect information. Rather, fuhyo higai is the unexpected result of rational behavior taken by individuals based on numerous forms of information. Such forms of information include official government announcements and mass media reporting, information available on the internet, rumors heard privately and word-of-mouth, and various information which includes personal knowledge and belief.

For example, consider the case of a company which has no information regarding damage to a business partner in the Tohoku region. The company does not want to be meddlesome and therefore refrains from making a telephone call. However, according to news reports, the infrastructure in the Tohoku region has not yet recovered. For the time being, the company decides to place orders with another business partners.-If the number of companies making this kind of decision increase, then business will become difficult many companies which were not damage in the earthquake. Fuhyo higai resulting from this kind of personal inference have no relation with rumors. The company in question did not blindly take a dangerous view of its business partner in the Tohoku region. Rather, the company made an incorrect judgment through private rational inference based on information gained from sources such as news reporting.

The similarity between fuhyo higai and rumors is that both begin with someone making a judgment based on personal inference or interpretation of an ambiguous situation. As in the above example, this is not limited to case in which required information cannot be obtained. In even cases when sufficient information is available, people conduct their own interpretations without blindly swallowing official government announcements or mass media reporting. This judgment is the result of distrust that the government and other public institutions are hiding information, uneasiness that the information is really desired cannot be obtained through public announcements, and disbelief that the situation is really as safe as announced by the government.

For example, let's consider the safety of food products. The problem is not the distinction between safe food products and unsafe food products. The problem is that people feel that they are capable of applying the classifications of "I believe this food product is safe" and "I believe this food product is unsafe" to food productions which are distributed as safe products. This classification is applied through personal inference based on all available information, including official announcements by public institutions and mass media reporting. Assuming that people have the ability and the capability to choose, they will rationally select the food products which they believe are safe. Showing numerical data and emphasizing the safety of food has little effect on people who make these kinds of inferences and judgments. Such attempts are the same as trying to dissolve rumors by disaffirming them with the truth. Even if numerical data is demonstrated, it will lead to different inferences such as distrust towards government announcements, belief that measurement methods are flawed, and the feeling of danger if numbers do not show absolute safety.

Measures against fuhyo higai

So, what can be done against fuhyo higai?

In the past, when rumors spread regarding the abduction of women in Orleans region of France, the sociologist Edgar Morin emphasized the effectiveness of opposing myths. Despite an official announcement of the fact that such abductions had not taken place, the rumor continued. However, the rumor was rapidly dispelled when information spread that the rumor was a discriminatory rumor against Jews. Specifically, the manager of the store where abduction of women was said to occur was Jewish, thus making this a discriminatory rumor against Jews.

Just as rumors are an information generation process performed by people, fuhyo higai are also actions based on inferences, interpretations and judgments made by people. If this is true, then fuhyo higai cannot be prevented simply by the necessary provision of sufficient amounts of accurate information by public institutions and other institutions, although such provision of information is important. Instead, it is necessary to provide opposing myths which affect the inferences, interpretations and judgments made by people. Such opposing myths exist in a separate dimension from facts which can be substantiated by proof and verified.

Unfortunately, I personally do not have the answer to the question of what constitutes an opposing myth in this ongoing disaster. Furthermore, I would like to urgently add that it is not effective when public institutions attempt to create opposing myths.

Recently, I have heard of many cases in which people are worried by fuhyo higai occurring in the Tohoku region. Such people go out of their way to use the internet to order vegetables and purchase products, and even go sightseeing in Tohoku. Upon hearing of such cases, I thought of their similarity to fair trade campaigns for support developing countries. In the case that selection is possible, such campaigns provide continual support for people suffering from fuhyo higai by selecting products from the region which is affected by fuhyo higai. Such campaigns include the construction of a product distribution system which enables such selection and is based on theory separate from the market system. Of course, it would also be good to have a system which enables individual support for corporations which were not known to the general public until now. It would also be preferable to have a system for smaller units such as cities, towns or villages. There is value in the idea of becoming a supporter of a specific region and providing continual aid to affected areas.

The Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake was a major impetus for changing the form of a Japanese society which was said to be lacking in volunteer spirit. Similarly, the recent unprecedented disaster possesses great possibilities for establishing social systems which do not currently exists.

In order to achieve this goal, we must recognize that disaster victims had the unfortunate luck to be involved in the disaster, and we must imagine that we too might have been a victim. This way of thinking will create long-lasting sympathy for victims of this great earthquake, tsunami and nuclear accident. It will also enable us to strongly possess the consciousness of subjectively taking responsibility for this uncertain future associated with the disaster. I would like to emphasize that we should not view fuhyo higai as unfortunate and unrelated occurrences, but as events directly linked to ourselves. Indeed, the most effective measure against fuhyo higai is the inferences, interpretations and judgments made by each person.

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.