Fact-checking the Japan earthquake: Has a tsunami hit? Is a nuclear plant compromised?

By January 4, 2024 Crisis and Disaster

On January 1, a 7.6 magnitude earthquake hit Japan – spreading out from the centre in Ishikawa Prefecture across the country. This earthquake triggered landslides, building and infrastructure damage, as well as high waves across Japan’s west coastline. The Japan Meteorological Agency, which has a three-tier system, first issued a “major tsunami warning” (the highest tier) and called for immediate evacuation of potentially affected areas. This has since been downgraded to a tsunami advisory, although aftershocks and rescue efforts are still ongoing.

Tsunami Confusion

While watching reports and posts about the quake on social media in real-time, we noticed a recurring pattern of misinformation being shared and reposted. After news of the tsunami warning was issued, we noticed a sudden rush of X accounts with blue checkmarks posting videos of large waves sweeping Japan and causing damage to buildings and roads.

These posts appeared to be “reporting” on ongoing events – some accounts have “news” or “updates” in their display names or usernames, while others preface their posts with captions like “Breaking News.” However, basic reverse image searches of the posted videos quickly show that they are from the tsunami which hit north-eastern Japan in 2011 and do not depict ongoing or current events. While large waves were trigged in the wake of the initial earthquakes, Japan has not been hit by a tsunami – posts depicting serious damage are highly misleading and can lead to unwarranted panic or confusion.

This misinformation is especially dangerous during ongoing emergency situations when users in the region might be turning to social media for updates. We further noticed that the accounts using these videos almost always have a blue checkmark on X (formerly Twitter).

The blue checkmark system (previously given to public figures or institutions) was revamped into a paid subscription last year. Any user who pays for a checkmark now has boosted visibility and, significantly, is able to earn revenue from “impressions” on their posts.  With the changes implemented in August 2023, accounts who subscribe to X premium are incentivised to post content that garners high views, replies and other interactions such as likes and quotes.This new system has facilitated opportunities for misinformation or intentional disinformation to overshadow accurate information – with shocking, provocative, or eye-catching content being boosted regardless of accuracy. Often described as “engagement bait,” this is presenting new challenges when it comes to fact-checking. While the blue checkmark previously represented reliability or official institutions, this is not necessarily the case anymore and it is important to approach these accounts with scepticism, particularly when it comes to serious information or claims.

Nuclear Danger

Another post which gained traction on social media claimed that the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa Nuclear Power Plant was impacted by the earthquake. The Kashiwazaki-Kariwa Nuclear Power Plant is the largest nuclear generating station in the world. Along with 44 other plants, it has been inactive since the Fukushima Power Plant disaster in 2011 to implement upgrades and safety improvements that meet new, post-2011 nuclear regulations put in place by the Nuclear Reaction Authority.

The post claims that the plant was “reopened 3 days ago” and radioactive water has spilled into the ocean.However, neither claim is accurate. While a decision was made in December 2023 by the Japanese Government to lift its operational ban, the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa Nuclear Power Plant is currently offline and further steps must be taken and local permissions obtained before it can restart. Further, no radioactive water spilled into the ocean – reports from Japanese sources instead confirm that two fuel pools overflowed onto the plant floor as a result of the earthquake. No leaks or damages were otherwise reported, and any spills were contained within the plant.

The Fukushima Power Plant Disaster following the 2011 tsunami has had long-lasting impacts that linger to this day. Given the seriousness of any leakage of radioactive content, the spreading of such misinformation about other nuclear plants has the potential to cause not only temporary confusion, but also negative sentiment and fear over wider nuclear concerns.

In previous emergency situations, social media has proven to be a useful and powerful source of updates and communication. However, as pointed out by NHK Japan on Tuesday, it is also apparent that misinformation and disinformation online continues to pose a real and noticeable risk. This is exacerbated by bad actors who hope to capitalise on disaster situations for their own financial gain.  The speed at which inaccurate information was posted and spread in the wake of the earthquake reinforces the need for heightened vigilance and solid fact-checking to counteract and debunk false claims.

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