For a couple of hours yesterday afternoon, Tokyo actually felt a bit dangerous. As the city sweltered through a blisteringly hot afternoon, news began to spread on Twitter that police had just arrested a man at Shibuya Station – and, more scarily, he was carrying a gun. ‘The cops are subduing an old geezer with a gun in Shibuya,’ wrote one user at 4.24pm, accompanied by a not-terribly-conclusive photo (the tweet has since been deleted). And from there, Twitter did what it does best in the absence of any solid information: turn rumours into wild speculation. Within half an hour, users were reporting that a man was running amok with a pistol in one of Tokyo’s biggest stations – yet the mainstream media remained frustratingly quiet on the story.
As NHK revealed in a brief news report later in the day, there was a good reason for that. The ‘gun’ was actually nothing more dangerous than a pistol-shaped cigarette lighter, which the maniac… er, man had been showing off while waiting for the Denentoshi line train to leave. When other passengers raised an alert, police halted the train and subdued the unfortunate fellow, who was taken back to the police station for questioning before being allowed to go home. The resulting panic, as a post on the Rocket News24 site observes, was just an example of false rumours, known in Japanese as dema (from the English ‘demagogy’). Here’s how it goes:
There’s a man brandishing a gun-shaped lighter: FACT
There’s a man brandishing what looks like a model gun: MISTAKE
There’s a man brandishing a gun: RUMOUR
A man fired a gun: RUMOUR
A man is running amok with a gun: OMG! WILD PANIC
Just something to bear in mind the next time you reach for the ‘retweet’ button.