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Blind spot: How a hoax about eye licking went global

"Erna Bernard" (2020-05-24)

id="article-body" class="row" section="article-body"> The horror! Alleged eye-licking enthusiasts might wear patches like this actress in the 2012 Japanese film "Another." Kadokawa Pictures From giant robot statues to 90-member girl bands, Japan brews up odd fads faster than you can say Hello Kitty contact lenses. So it's hardly surprising that news of a new trend centered on Japanese kids who were licking each other's eyeballs for kicks, and spreading pinkeye (aka conjunctivitis) in the process, made the rounds internationally two months ago.

It was just too good to resist. The trend was reported everywhere from Japan to the U.S., Europe, and Africa by sites from The Huffington Post to The Guardian, the Nigerian Tribune, and CNET sister site CBS News. But all these sites seem to have fallen for a hoax. And as other recent hoaxes have shown (remember the fake study claiming Internet Explorer users were stupid?), the situation is indicative of an enormous global media appetite for bizarre news from anywhere -- and a digital culture in which information spreads almost instantaneously.

But when the source is from a foreign language and culture, it's practically a recipe for fake news. Finding the source As Tokyo-based journalist and translator Mark Schreiber notes in the Number 1 Shimbun magazine, the story was repeated with little to no fact-checking. The source? A Japanese tabloid site. "An article in Japanese titled 'Shogakusei ni gankyuname hentai purei ga dairyuukou' (The perverted play of eyeball-licking is a hit among primary schoolers) appeared on Friday, June 7 on Bucchi News, a site for subculture enthusiasts," writes Schreiber, the editor of books on Japan's seamy tabloid news industry.

"The story's sole informant was 'Y,' an anonymous teacher at a primary school in Tokyo, who revealed how he had traced an epidemic of pinkeye at his school to 'hentai (perverted) play' in the form of rampant eyeball licking among students. Notably lacking in attribution and details, the story had all the trappings of an urban legend." Related stories High-tech toilet gets hacker warning; nothing is safe Giant fembots land in Tokyo's red light district Aim carefully with $130,000 crystal toilet Schreiber, a contributor to The Japan Times who has lived in Tokyo since 1966, contacted two ophthalmologic associations, a group of school clinicians, a professor of nursing, and a Yokohama-based ophthalmologist.

None knew anything about eyeball licking or an outbreak of pinkeye. He also contacted the editor who posted the original story on Bucchi News. "Expressing astonishment at how the story had gone viral in the foreign media, he evaded my questions about the identity of the writer. 'The story never claimed the problem was widespread,' he said defensively, implying that readers of his site are looking for thrills, not facts, and anyone who read the story in Japanese would clearly recognize the story's main purpose, which was to titillate." And titillate it did.

The tale was first picked up by Japanese sites Yomerumo and Naver Matome, the latter adding images of a young girl wearing an eye patch. That added some rocket fuel for a sensational media flight. All the story needed was a launch vehicle. Enter JapanCrush, a Japan trend site that states: "We don't select our articles: Japan selects them for us.

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