The 2020 U.S. presidential election has dominated much of the news cycle over the past couple of weeks, with social media playing a key role in the conversation.
What’s surprising, however, is just how vocal a certain set of social media users have been in supporting outgoing President Donald Trump, who lost to Democratic nominee Joe Biden on Nov. 3.
On Election Day in Japan, hashtags supporting his re-election topped Japan’s trending list on Twitter. Ever since, posts echoing Trump’s baseless allegations that the vote was somehow tarnished by fraud have appeared on a regular basis.
Such comments even appeared in response to a tweet by Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga that congratulated Biden and his running mate, Kamala Harris, on their election victory. It doesn’t take much scrolling to find posts that criticize the prime minister for offering his congratulations too quickly before descending into outright nationalistic rhetoric and conspiracy theories.
This isn’t just a reflection of how many Japanese social media users support Trump. Instead, the discussion that has taken place online since the election is a reminder of just how far disinformation can travel in the digital age and even the most ludicrous-sounding conspiracy theories can gain attention in Japan.
Japanese citizens have long been interested in the person sitting in the White House — former President Barack Obama proved so popular that his speeches have been reappropriated as English lessons — but Trump has taken it to another level. That’s largely thanks to the same type of media fascination that helped propel him to the presidency four years ago. On Twitter, accounts such as @TrumpTrackerJP and @DonaldTrumpJA translate his tweets into Japanese for anyone interested.
By the time Election Day arrived, however, a far more vocal online set unleashed pro-Trump hashtags, a far cry from simply observing his frequently baffling posts. Some social media users in Japan tend to share certain nationalist views, but seeing them come out in force to share fan art, express Japan’s support for Trump and generally celebrate the incumbent president during this year’s election was surprising. As Japan infectious disease expert Kentaro Iwata tweeted amid all the pandemonium, “I don’t know how you become a Trump supporter if you live in Japan.”
The reasons, though, are eventually clear. One tweet summed up what sounds perfectly reasonable — Trump has been vocal on the issue of abductions by North Korea, having called for Japanese citizens to be returned home. He has also taken a tough line with China, a policy Biden is unlikely to continue. Couple that with the mutual respect shared between supporters of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and those of Trump, and this makes sense from a partisan perspective.
Yet, if you start looking at all the tweets that include the pro-Trump hashtags, you will notice a lot of references to QAnon, a conspiracy theory that has gained prominence over the past 12 months. That includes Japan, where a group of followers made a coordinated attempt to get the pro-Trump hashtags into the social media ecosystem just before the election. Mission accomplished, as they spread disinformation and exposed all kinds of people to their debunked theories … and continued to do so well after Biden was declared the winner.
It’s worth noting that this isn’t just a niche set of conspiracy theorists exploiting a platform. Disinformation — or “fake news” — has been a major political issue since 2016, but 2020 has shown how difficult it has become to stop it from spreading.
The apparent distrust of traditional media isn’t helping matters either. Days after the election, another popular hashtag emerged that likened mainstream media to trash. Many social media users despise mass media and so that in itself is not a surprise, but in this case they were attracted to sites such as Epoch Times, a pro-Trump publication that frequently publishes conspiracy theories. BuzzFeed Japan’s Kota Hatachi dug into the data, and found disinformation coming from all over the place, including aggregator sites and “religious web pages.”
And it doesn’t stop there. A small but influential set of entertainers appear to have recently embraced Trump-style attitudes toward politics and the media, including rapper K Dub Shine and TV personality Fifi. These celebrities are making inaccurate claims bordering on pure conspiracy theory, and, while plenty online are quick to point out how ridiculous they sound, they still have enough clout to share misleading and flat-out falsified claims to a less tuned-in audience, especially younger fans.
The flow of inaccurate or flat-out false information was everywhere to be found on election night in Japan, highlighting the growing danger of disinformation. The mainstream media in Japan may have already shifted toward more feel-good stories about mayors named “Jo Baiden,” but the real takeaway from the U.S. election should be how much more complicated the social media landscape has become to navigate in order to find the truth.