The other day a message scrolled past in my Twitter feed:
Which made me think: if the sea off Fukushima really were boiling, I'm pretty sure we would have heard about it. Except if there were some sort of amazing cover-up, in which case why would NHK (which is, essentially, the Japanese BBC) be showing pictures? Doesn't make sense. But a quick search showed that the photo was being shared left, right and centre – everyone wanted to pass on the latest bad news. Some people even expanded the story to include an (also fake) evacuation order.
But where does a story like this come from? With some translation help from Morgan Giles, I was able to find the source of the photo: an NHK News report broadcast on 3/8/13. So that's the photo, but somebody must have misinterpreted it.
Most links on Twitter came via an Energy News piece, "BBC website links to report claiming ocean is ‘boiling’ in front of Fukushima Daiichi (PHOTOS)" (see note 1 below), which in turn linked to a fairly hilariously inept article on the Voice of Russia. The Voice of Russia's sole source is "a Twitter photo", though (journalism!), so it's not the root of the story.
Go further back a day, though, and you find an article published on The National Report: 'BREAKING… Fukushima Crisis Escalates Tons of Radioactive Waste Released into the Pacific Causes Ocean to Boil…', complete with that NHK screencap:
This does seem to be the genesis of the whole story. And, as noted above, the whole story is a lie. So why does it exist? A dig around the National Report website suggests fairly depressing motivation: if bad news makes money, making up bad news is good business.
Much of the website's content is collegiate-level satire – The Onion this ain't – but of late the editors have started to run a series of what appear to be intentionally shocking stories written just for the clicks. A few months ago, just after the Treyvon Martin verdict, it ran with the (false) news that George Zimmerman was to sue Martin's parents:
.. while today it's leading on some pretty nasty stuff designed to create immigration-related outrage (side note: anyone able to track down the guy in this photo? He'd have a lawsuit and a half..)
.. and as for Fukushima, the story proved so popular that it went back for another try. This time, a reporter was dispatched to the "village of Fukushima" (fail), and photographed hundreds of dead whales:
.. which have been duly shared all around Twitter again by people too immediately outraged to check anything about the source – as tracked down by Masa Kanagawa, the whale photo is from a 2010 report in New Zealand. And this strategy of posting hideous, nasty rubbish online in the hope of scoring clicks from social media appears to be doing pretty well – here's Alexa's report for the site:
.. which, of course, runs lots of adverts. Links make views, views make clicks, clicks make money. And, meanwhile, all around the world, thousands of people are misinformed. Services such as Twitter might have revolutionised the way that real news can be almost instantly disseminated, but they've also done the same for lies, half-truths and bullshit – when people quite happily believe anything that's written on a news-like WordPress template, we're all going to have to cope with the damage.
Oh, and in the "village" (prefecture) of Fukushima? The situation at the plant is still very bad, but outside the exclusion zone life goes on in one of the loveliest places I've ever visited - do go if you can.
* Note 1: The BBC didn't actually link to the Voice of Russia report, it appeared in a web search result. But hey. On the scale of stupidity we're dealing with here, this ranks fairly low.