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False Social Media Posts Cause Confusion in Quake-Hit Areas; X Users Seek to Earn Advertising Revenue By Boosting Views

The Yomiuri Shimbun
This message calling for rescue at a real address was posted on social media after the Noto Peninsula Earthquake and widely distributed. However, it was ultimately revealed to be fake (this image is partially modified).

False and misleading information was widely disseminated on X and other social media platforms immediately after the Noto Peninsula Earthquake, causing confusion in the affected areas.

The originators of posts like this are distributing wrong information apparently to earn ad revenue, by increasing the number of views they receive. This has prompted the government to strengthen its countermeasures.

False rescue requests

“My son is stuck under a chest of drawers and can’t move. Please help us.”

After a massive earthquake struck the Noto Peninsula on New Year’s Day, this message was posted on social media. It spread immediately and was even reported to the police.

The Ishikawa prefectural police dispatched officers, but they discovered the message was fake after speaking with residents at the address written in the message.

However, police continued receiving reports from others who apparently saw the same post. Unable to rule out the possibility that aftershocks had caused new damage, they had no choice but to dispatch personnel every time a report came in.

According to the prefectural police, another post claimed that people in a suspicious car with out-of-prefecture plates were looting at the scene of a fire. In fact, the vehicle belonged to a company that was in the area for restoration work.

“People may want to spread information to help people affected by the quake, but we’d like them not to circulate posts containing unconfirmed assertions,” said a prefectural police officer.

Fake videos were also posted one after another following the disaster.

One video posted on X showed a pitch black tsunami going over a breakwater and sweeping away many cars.

“This is a video of tsunami going up the Sekigawa river, behind the Tsukada soba noodle restaurant, in Joetsu City in Niigata Prefecture,” read a message posted with the video, which is less than two minutes long.

However, a road sign shows an address in Iwate Prefecture. Someone appears to have posted the footage after modifying video from the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011.

Similar posts were made by other accounts, and one was viewed about 600,000 times. The profiles for many of these accounts were written in English or Arabic.

“It’s upsetting that our restaurant’s name was used in a fake post,” said Makoto Takeuchi, 70, the owner of Tsukada soba restaurant.

X’s new system blamed

A change X Corp. made to its system last summer is believed to have encouraged the spread of disinformation.

X started giving part of its ad revenue to users that meet certain conditions, such as having at least 500 followers and putting up posts with view counts of at least 5 million during the past three months.

The system is designed so that the more views, the more money one gets. This has allegedly prompted some people to post disinformation to drive up their earnings.

Advertisers cannot choose which posts their ads will be attached to. As a result, ads for local governments and major companies, such as the Monbetsu city government in Hokkaido and Panasonic Corp., were placed with fake information about the Noto Peninsula Earthquake.

“It’s quite regrettable that our ad was displayed with such posts. We’ve already started implementing countermeasures,” said a Panasonic spokesperson.

Govt pushes back

It has been noted that X relaxed its surveillance of posts after Elon Musk’s takeover in October 2022, resulting in a rapid increase of disinformation and hate speech on the platform. The company’s introduction of the new system appeared to have accelerated this trend.

The Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry has asked social media operators to take countermeasures, with the deletion of inappropriate posts in mind.

According to the ministry, X froze an account that was seeking suspicious donations using a QR code. LY Corp. and Meta Platforms, Inc. have deleted posts that were clearly fake, and Google LLC launched a system to intensively monitor YouTube for a certain period of time.

A ministry expert panel plans to interview these social media operators as early as February. It will ask what measures they are taking to respond to disinformation over the Noto Peninsula Earthquake, so as to utilize their findings for future responses.

In a package of measures to support earthquake victims, the government has incorporated steps to deal with false and misleading information, with an eye on the use of Originator Profile, digital technology that identifies the senders of information.

“Among [the social media] platforms, the dissemination of fake information is most serious on X,” said Kazuhiro Taira, a professor at J.F. Oberlin University and an expert on media.

“In the wake of the airplane crash at Haneda Airport the day after the Noto Peninsula Earthquake, many messages were posted apparently to boost the number of views. X has to firmly deal with this problem,” Taira said.