The 2020 U.S. presidential election has dominated much of the news cycle over the past two weeks, with social media playing a key role in the conversation.
What is surprising, however, is how a number of social media users have expressed support for incumbent President Donald Trump, who lost to Democratic candidate Joe Biden on November 3.
On polling day in Japan, hashtags supporting his re-election overtook those in Japan list of trends on Twitter. Since then, articles echoing Trump’s baseless claims that the vote was somehow tarnished by fraud have appeared regularly.
Such comments even arose in response to a Tweeter by Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga who congratulated Biden and his vice president, Kamala Harris, on their electoral victory. It doesn’t take much scrolling to find articles criticizing the prime minister for offering his congratulations too quickly before descending into nationalist rhetoric and conspiracy theories.
It’s not 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 ridiculous conspiracy theories can attract attention in Japan.
Japanese citizens have long been interested in who is in the White House – former President Barack Obama has proven so popular his speeches have been reclaimed as English lessons – but Trump urged him to another level. This is in large part thanks to the same kind of media fascination that propelled 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 much more vocal online set triggered pro-Trump hashtags, far from simply observing his often baffling posts. Some social media users in Japan tend to share certain nationalistic views, but see them manifest share fan art, express Japan’s support for Trump and generally celebrating the incumbent president in this year’s election was surprising. As an infectious disease expert in Japan Kentaro Iwata tweeted in the midst of all this pandemonium, “I don’t know how you become a Trump supporter if you live in Japan.”
The reasons, however, are ultimately clear. A tweet summed up what seems perfectly reasonable – Trump has spoken out on the issue of North Korea’s kidnappings, calling for the return of Japanese citizens to their homes. He has also taken a hard line with China, a policy Biden is unlikely to continue. Add to that the mutual respect shared between supporters of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and those of Trump, and it makes sense from a partisan perspective.
Still, if you start looking at all the tweets that include pro-Trump hashtags, you’ll notice plenty of references to QAnon, a conspiracy theory that has grown in importance over the past 12 months. This includes Japan, where a group of followers made a coordinated attempt to secure the pro-Trump hashtags in the social media ecosystem just before the election. Mission accomplished, as they spread disinformation and expose all kinds of people to their debunked theories … and continued to do well after Biden was declared the winner.
It should be noted that this is not 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 mistrust of mainstream media doesn’t help matters either. Within days of the election, another popular hashtag popped up, comparing mainstream media to garbage. Many social media users despise mass media and so this is no surprise in itself, but in this case, they have been drawn to sites like Epoch Times, a pro-Trump publication that frequently publishes conspiracy theories. BuzzFeed Japan’s Kota Hatachi scoured the data and found disinformation from everywhere, including aggregation sites and “religious web pages.”
And it does not stop there. A small but influential group of artists appear to have recently adopted Trump-style attitudes towards politics and the media, including the rapper. K Dub Shine and TV personality Fifi. These celebrities make inaccurate statements bordering on pure conspiracy theory, and while many online are quick to point out how ridiculous they seem, they still have enough clout to share misleading and totally spurious allegations to a less attentive audience, in particular. young fans.
The flow of inaccurate or categorical false information was pervasive on election night in Japan, underscoring the growing danger of disinformation. The mainstream media in Japan may have already turned to more welfare stories about the mayors named “Jo Baiden,” but the real takeaway from the US election should be just how much of the city’s landscape. social media has become more complicated to navigate in order to find the truth.