Fact-checking collaborations are going after fake news “microbubbles” in Japan.

Spurred on by a snap election and global worries over fake news, Japanese journalists are working across newsrooms to verify information online.

By Masato Kajimoto
University of Hong Kong

A version of this story first appeared on Nieman Lab. It is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

When Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe dissolved the country’s parliament and called a national election in late September, Japan’s newest fact-checking initiatives saw an opportunity to test the waters.

As Abe’s party rolled to a decisive victory in late October, it did so relatively free from the disinformation battleground that has roiled national polls from the UK to Kenya to the US. But Japan’s snap election did accelerate conversations within the news media about working toward new forms and tactics for verification of information online, in a country where the concept of “fact-checking” has just begun to catch on.

“We haven’t really observed a viral fake story that has been widely distributed to the extent that we have seen in the United States,” said Hiroyuki Fujishiro, associate professor at Hosei University and founder of the Japan Center of Education for Journalists. “Instead, what we have in Japan is a great number of microbubbles of similar fakes that are shared five times, ten times each.

“Our next step is to find out how such bubbles are interconnected and form a network of influence.”

In the run-up to the October elections, FactCheck Initiative Japan, a four-month-old network of academics, journalists, and nonprofit organizations, launched a project to monitor election-related information such as hoax stories, politicians’ statements, and social media misinformation. It worked with five participating digital outlets, including BuzzFeed Japan and media watchdog GoHoo.

Around the same time, the JCEJ announced a similar initiative to debunk potential “fake news” stories on social media during the campaign, citing other recent multi-outlet collaborations like France’s CrossCheck. Individual journalists across 19 different media companies have taken part in the initiative. Japan’s second-largest circulation daily newspaper Asahi Shimbun, too, has been highlighting its new fact-check ratings system, and is currently the most prominent daily to regularly publish articles with a “fact check” label included in the headlines.

“We looked at First Draft News’ guide and realized in Japan, we have very little understanding of where false information originates or how it spreads,” Kayo Mimizuka, a JCEJ member, told me. Mimizuka, a former reporter from Kyodo News Agency, had successfully crowdfunded the translation of “A Field Guide to Fake News” into Japanese. The snap election, she said, was a chance to begin understanding the ecosystem.

Few use social for news

Most Japanese do not rely on social media as a gateway to news; Japan had the lowest percentage of people who share news online among the 36 countries sampled in the 2017 Reuters Institute’s digital news report.

YouTube, Line, Twitter, and Facebook are popular platforms in Japan, but the number of people who consume news in those places is significantly lower than in many other countries.

Of course, misinformation still flows on social platforms in Japan: Fact-checkers involved with FIJ and JCEJ’s initiatives identified numerous rumors and pieces of hyperpartisan content on social media that turned out to be bogus. But even some of the most infamous fake stories spread during the election campaign didn’t seem to have legs in a country with more than 100 million eligible voters.

FIJ partner BuzzFeed Japan, for example, debunked a made-up story about “Abe’s refusal to accept UN election observers.” The original false blog entry recorded 4,900 Facebook engagements and 2,300 Twitter shares, according to BuzzSumo analytics; BuzzFeed’s own debunking post was shared 3,900 times on Twitter.

Another notable case concerned left-leaning politician Kiyomi Tsujimoto, the former senior deputy secretary-general of the now-disbanded Democratic Party of Japan. Mainstream TV network TBS reported that a bogus tweet about her “formal application” to run on the conservative Party of Hope ticket was shared 2.2 million times — but fact-checkers found out that the actual number of social shares was a mere 230. (TBS later apologized and corrected the mistake.)

Japanese media has enjoyed high levels of public trust, especially among older generations, according to several national surveys (see this one conducted by the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communication in 2015 and this one by Japan Press Research Institute in 2016). That would seem to be an ideal condition for fact-checking from a legacy news organization like Asahi Shimbun. But it’s unclear if their renewed efforts to check politicians’ claims have reached beyond Asahi’s usual readership during the election campaign, and the paper has continued to be labeled “left-leaning,” and appeals to a largely left-leaning demographic.

A grassroots approach

The nonprofit news site News no Tane (the Seeds of News), a member of FIJ’s project also focused on fact-checking political claims, took instead a grassroots approach. The organization’s two full-time journalists worked with nine non-journalists they recruited specifically for the project: Five women and four men whose occupations ranged from stay-at-home mom to children’s book editor to university professor.

News no Tane (“Seeds of News”) editor-in-chief Yoichiro Tateiwa, a long-time journalist whose credits include Panama Papers coverage while he was at Japan’s public broadcaster NHK, said he found inspiration in similar approaches in Europe.

“They are not volunteers. They are getting paid for their work… and every member took it seriously with a sense of responsibility,” Tateiwa wrote in an email. One article he wrote, published at Yahoo News Japan, not only checked two claims made by Prime Minister Abe about tax revenue and the job market, but also documented the process of verification the citizen fact-checkers had gone through with him.

“After going through the fact checking process, I learned that politicians don’t tell outright lies, but what they say isn’t necessarily true, either,” Yoshiko Nakagawa, one of the citizen fact-checkers enlisted by News no Tane, said of her experience. Nakagawa helped gather data and other information about a consumption tax, read documents, found experts who could confirm facts, and even interviewed an economist to validate her conclusions. The journalists at News no Tane also checked the data with Japan’s Ministry of Finance and the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare before publishing the final story.

For all these fact-checking efforts, strategies ran the gamut, but the standards they each sought to maintain from the outset were rigorous.

“The FIJ does not interfere with project members’ editorial policy,” Hitofumi Yanai, a founding member of the initiative who runs GoHoo, said. Member organizations would share information, but mostly worked independently, picking topics and publishing to their own sites. “Each outlet has agreed to uphold certain principles and standards. I believe everyone involved in the project understood that.”

A separate review committee of five independent experts not involved in the fact-checking itself would evaluate every article submitted by a FIJ participating organization. FIJ’s website showcased only stories the committee deemed of high enough quality and which had appropriately followed the guidelines. (In all, the main site published 17 fact-checking stories in the two weeks leading up to October 22.)

JCEJ chose to disseminate to its fact-checking members a daily bulletin of election-related rumors and dubious information from social media, in particular Twitter, compiled by JCEJ founder Fujishiro’s team. Because many of the reporters participating in its project didn’t have official approval from their news organizations to do so, JCEJ couldn’t publish a complete list of the fact-checkers involved, according to Fujishiro. The site chose only to publish debunkings that had been validated independently by at least three journalists.

Dr. Masato Kajimoto is an assistant professor at the Journalism & Media Studies Center, the University of Hong Kong. He specializes in news literacy education, multimedia storytelling and social media in journalism. He is the project leader of the Asia Pacific Digital Citizens Project. Follow Masato Kajimoto on Twitter.

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