Unlike in neighboring South Korea, where "fact check" has become a widely recognized buzzword, in Japan the word calls to mind something foreign. Claims by public figures and in news reports often go unchecked across the country.
A group of academics, journalists and nonprofit organizations wants to change that. A new network, launched today in Tokyo and dubbed "FactCheck Initiative Japan (FIJ)" aims to encourage media organizations and others to fight "against the diffusion of false and highly questionable information."
"Our plan this year is to run a series of real-life experiments to come up with a set of guidelines for fact-checkers and create tech tools to support them," said Hitofumi Yanai, one of the founders of the initiative, who runs the media watchdog GoHoo.
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Other founding members include Kentaro Inui, a communication science professor at Tohoku University, and Atsuo Fujimura, the senior vice president of media business development at the popular Japanese news curation app SmartNews.
Data scientists from Inui’s Communication Science Lab and engineers from SmartNews will try to build an API-based database system that automates some steps of fact-checking using machine learning, artificial intelligence and natural language processing technology.
Apart from Yanai, Inui, and Fujimura, seven other individuals — three academics including journalism professors, a freelance journalist, an independent military analyst and two nonprofit organization directors — are the founding members. Although all 10 members will take part in the network in their individual capacity, their affiliated organizations could also support the cause. Yanai says the network will explore funding opportunities and tries to raise 10 million yen (about U.S. $90,000) in the first year to start.
The case for fact-checking
Although Japan has not been affected by widespread fake news stories disseminated with political motivations or for financial gains, a series of erroneous news coverage by leading newspapers such as Asahi and Yomiuri has stirred national debate about the country’s journalistic standards. The Asahi retracted serialized coverage it ran in the 1980s about Japan’s wartime military brothels that was based on questionable accounts of a former Imperial Army soldier who later admitted to making up the stories.
In 2014, Japan’s second-largest newspaper also retracted an "exclusive" story about a hearing and testimony made by late manager of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant and claimed that plant workers defied orders and abandoned the crippled reactor during the 2011 nuclear crisis — claims that were proved untrue after the "exclusive" document was made publicly available. In the same year, the paper also apologized for fabricating an interview with the president of Nintendo in one of their old stories.
The nation’s most popular newspaper, Yomiuri, had an embarrasing moment of its own when it retracted a collection of stories about a Japanese medical scientist who incorrectly said that he had “successfully performed world’s first heart muscle transplant using stem cell."
A study last year by the Japan Press Research Institute found that the public’s trust in the media is at the lowest level since the annual survey started in 2008. The research also highlights the change in patterns of news consumption; close to 90 percent of the respondents who said they get news from the internet said they primarily rely on news aggregation portals like Yahoo! Japan, and the majority of them do not visit newspapers’ official websites.
The public’s interest in the misinformation ecosystem seems to have been growing, albeit slowly, especially after the fallacious healthcare and medical information on a website with more than 6 million active users called WelQ became the target of public debate last year, which coincided with the global anxiety over the influence of fake news.
The owner of the website, one of the biggest IT companies in the country known for its mobile games and ownership of a baseball team, DeNA, came under fire after the content of its various websites including WelQ were found to be full of inaccuracies, plagiarism and copyright violations.
BuzzFeed Japan, a joint venture between BuzzFeed and Yahoo! Japan, first exposed that DeNA was guiding its contracted writers to circumvent copyright laws and quickly produce search-engine-optimized content, which eventually led to the closure of 10 websites with dubious claims and erroneous information.
The media reported the curated contents on WelQ mainly consisted of a patchwork of information from other websites written by non-expert anonymous bloggers without attributions and covered everything from headaches to insomnia to cancer. One article recommended that a centipede bite can be cured by "detoxifying the poison with hot water." Another claimed that stiff shoulders could be caused by "ghosts" hanging on one’s back.
Projects by traditional media outlets
Established news organizations have also been exploring fact-checking. Inspired by PolitiFact, for example, the Asahi scrutinized five speeches made by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe during the extraordinary Diet session in October last year and branded the article as a "fact check."
Since then, the newspaper has occasionally published articles setting out to verify the authenticity of the facts discussed by politicians. It has now become a regular feature, according to Yoshitaka Sumida, the deputy editor of Asahi’s political news department.
"Three reporters on the Diet beat have checked nine lawmakers and their statements since February. Even when our fact-checking attempt doesn’t warrant a dedicated article, this effort helps writing straight news stories," said Sumida in an email. "It is no longer an experiment."
While Asahi primarily focuses on what politicians say, another media giant, public broadcaster NHK, has been taking a different approach.
Its social media monitoring unit, "Social Listening Team (SoLT)," closely monitors Japan’s Twitter and Facebook on a 24/7, 365 days-a-year basis. The SoLT has proven to be particularly effective when news about natural disasters, street crimes and accidents breaks on social media, said Yoshinori Adachi, the senior manager of network and digital news division, who heads the SoLT project.
NHK has a vast network of regional offices all over Japan. When the team picks up a potential news item during such breaking news situation, according to Adachi, it immediately alerts the newsroom near the incident so that the local NHK office can dispatch reporters and start the news gathering and verification process.
Although its primary purpose is to help the broadcaster’s TV news programs, the team also actively reports on, and debunks, rumors and false stories through NHK’s official social media channels.
Breaking the corporate media silos
With the newly announced fact-checking initiative, will the old and new media outlets, tech companies and nonprofit organizations be able to work together to help the public sift through the information overload and discern what is fact and what is not?
Collaboration among media organizations to advance journalism and protect press freedom was one of the key themes of recent symposiums in Tokyo that were co-organized by the Committee to Protect Journalists and two Japanese universities.
Many panelists, including seasoned journalists from major news organizations, pointed out the difficulty of such an alliance in a culture where institutional loyalty is cherished and rivalries have been exacerbated under the bleak economic climate surrounding the media business.
Yanai hopes that FIJ will facilitate discussions among the media and fact-checking institutions and create a level ground for them to work together in the future.
"In the long run, I would like to see a dozen or so member organizations with specialized skills create fact-checking teams on different topics and issues that are socially important," he said.