People struggling in the aftermath of a New Year's Day earthquake in central Japan have been confronted with an additional challenge from social media misinformation, prompting experts to warn people to think twice before sharing unsourced reports.

"I keep my smartphone, keys and money in my pocket when I sleep," said a 45-year-old man staying in an evacuation center in Nanao, Ishikawa Prefecture. "There's information on social media about suspicious persons" wandering around the disaster area.

The man said he received a photo from an acquaintance of a silver van which he was told was being used in robberies of homes whose residents evacuated after the earthquake. The image showed the car's license plate.

He decided to notify others after being told that the information was already spreading on the internet.

A man shows a photo of what was described on SNS as a suspicious car saved on his smartphone in Nanao, Ishikawa Prefecture, on Jan. 7, 2023. (Photo partially pixelated for privacy reasons)(Kyodo)

The warnings were quickly disseminated among multiple shelters, but the van was later confirmed to be owned by a telecommunications company and driven by workers who were in the area to repair mobile phone base stations.

"We're working to help those affected by the disaster," the company said. "The spread of misinformation is unfortunate."

While it is unclear who first posted the information, its rapid proliferation was assisted by an individual who asked people on X, formerly known as Twitter, to spread it along with a picture of the vehicle.

This individual later came to understand the information was false and deleted the post and apologized. But the picture had already been reposted over a thousand times.

"I wanted to be helpful to the place where I was born and raised. I regret (my act) very much," said the person who is from the Noto Peninsula, the area worst affected by the magnitude-7.6 quake, while stressing the experience will not dissuade them from continuing to disseminate information about the disaster-hit area.

In a separate case, a woman in her 40s in Ishikawa was a victim of misinformation after her home address was shared on X in a post asking for help for her "son who was trapped" in a collapsed house.

The woman was contacted by both acquaintances and police, but not only had her house only sustained minimal damage, she also does not have a son.

"It is unforgivable to interfere with police work during an emergency," she said, asking for the post to be removed.

The issue of misinformation following the earthquake has also been noted by Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, who implored people to "strictly refrain" from spreading malicious, false information.

In a 2016 earthquake in Kumamoto Prefecture, a man who spread a false rumor that a lion had escaped from a zoo was arrested for allegedly interfering with the operations of the zoo.

"If you take baseless information seriously and spread it, it can confuse," said Jun Sakamoto, a professor who specializes in media literacy at Hosei University. "It does not matter whether you post it with a sense of justice or malice."

Sakamoto said it is difficult to completely eliminate information of questionable veracity. But he also said, "If you feel you lack evidence, then it is important to raise your voice and ask, 'What is the basis for this?'"

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