Fake news, presidential tweets and irresponsible website curating. What’s the media world coming to?
IT SEEMS LIKE THERE’S an entire industry dedicated to explaining Donald Trump’s ascent, with any number of reasons: the anger of those in the Rust Belt left behind by globalization; the frustration against the establishment; and last but not least fake news, which churned out negative and false information about Democratic Nominee Hillary Clinton.
Across the Pacific from Trumpland, I thought Japan was a safe distance from the fake news movement. After all, even liberal satire such as the U.S. comedy show “Saturday Night Live” and the Onion website have yet to find fertile ground here, perhaps out of fear of political backlash. Yet the recent quasi fake news scandal surrounding DeNA, one of the most respected and innovative social networking and online gaming companies in Japan, was a reminder that all media, anywhere can be manipulated.
The company admitted it lacked understanding what it takes to be a responsible media and that its control over accuracy was lax
Buzzfeed Japan was the first to report last October that the popular healthcare information website called WELQ, owned by DeNA, had run many stories touting medical programs that were not based on scientific facts. The site had stories that claimed that black seeds were a panacea that could cure anything but death, featured headlines that linked allergies with certain restaurants and once even stated that ghosts cause stiff shoulders.
WELQ was one of DeNA’s 10 curation platform services, which gather and present information on specific topics. The information can range from links to news mashups, but the sites generally do not create new content. There are no rules, of course, but for a healthcare site, one would expect the curation to be selective.
It was found, however, that the content was uploaded without any proper editing or attribution. Articles were also outsourced to crowdsourcing websites, using writers with little or no background in professional healthcare writing. Buzzfeed also revealed that WELQ gave contributors a manual that all but encouraged plagiarism, instructing writers how to paraphrase already published articles without attribution. It did attempt to dodge liability by running a disclaimer that it was not responsible for the accuracy and efficacy of the information and that readers should be held accountable for any action taken based on their stories.
AFTER BUZZFEED’S REPORT AND the following public outcry, DeNA, founded by Harvard educated, visionary business entrepreneur Tomoko Namba, announced the temporary shutdown of WELQ and nine other of its media websites on Dec. 5. The company admitted it lacked understanding as to what it takes to be a responsible media and that its control over accuracy and copyrights issues was lax. (What was ironic during DeNA’s three hour plus news conference in December was that Namba, who stepped down as the CEO to take care of her cancer stricken husband, admitted that she herself had turned to academic papers and books when researching the disease rather than relying on web information.)
But why did DeNA, which had started as an online auction site before branching out into social media and gaming, decide to tap into the media business? The answer is easy: more money and growth. During the news conference, DeNA CEO Isao Moriyasu said that the company’s gaming business peaked in 2012, and the company had been searching for other areas such as media related businesses.
It bought curation media sites, such as iiemo a mobile service for custom home improvement and interior design and another media site called MERY from serial entrepreneur Mari Murata reportedly for ¥5 billion in the fall of 2014, and gave Murata an executive position at DeNA to oversee the media business. Unfortunately, Murata, who reportedly lives in Singapore, has yet to comment on the scandal nor was she present at the DeNA press conference.
While it is true WELQ’s false information wasn’t politically motivated like much of fake news, DeNA did prioritize a monetizing scheme over newsworthiness, including using click bait tactics. The DeNA manual also encouraged writers to focus on often searched issues, and told them to write longer so that the search engines would highlight the content.
Of course, Japan, with its history of anonymous posting, has many websites whose information accuracy is dubious, such as Naver Matome, another curation media, let alone “2 Channel,” a rumor mill and the ground zero of slanders. But I’m beginning to wonder if anyone can be trusted as accuracy may be taking a back seat to sensationalism in the race to gain more clicks. Yutaka Hasegawa, a former announcer at Fuji TV, came under fire after he wrote a blog with a sensational title, “People who need dialysis due to their fault should entirely pay on their own. If they cannot, kill them.”
Hasegawa, who quit the network after alleged expense account fraud, had been a blogger popular for controversial statements. In a recent Asahi Shimbun interview he said he was advised to use extreme words to gain page views, adding that he became numb as he escalated his rhetoric. At its most popular, his blog claimed 33 million page views. But he lost all his TV contracts and other writing jobs after the scandal.
Does a solution exist? Shigenori Kanehira, a journalist who travels to places like Iraq and Afghanistan for his weekly news program on TBS, told me that technology is the culprit. He said that the amount of information has become so massive that journalists are overwhelmed and readers cannot tell what’s true or false. Some might not even care.
It’s easy to say professional journalists have to do a better job at setting an example in spite of budget cuts. It’s hard to be optimistic in a world controlled by tweets from President Trump.
Ayako Mie is a staff writer for the Japan Times.