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Blind spot: How a hoax about eye licking went global

Media finds weird news impossible to resist, even when it sounds too silly to be true. But it can fool people especially easily when coming from a place like Japan, birthplace of wacky trends.

Tim Hornyak
Crave freelancer Tim Hornyak is the author of "Loving the Machine: The Art and Science of Japanese Robots." He has been writing about Japanese culture and technology for a decade. E-mail Tim.
Tim Hornyak
6 min read
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."

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." It reported the humbug in English, referencing Yomerumo and Naver Matome, and quoting the unidentified teacher.

Eye licking
The singer for Japanese rockers Born is about to get an eyeful of tongue in the video for "Spiral Lie." Screenshot by Tim Hornyak/CNET

It grows legs
From there, the story soared overseas to a June 10 post on Shanghaiist, a regional branch of Gothamist that claims 500,000 unique visitors a month.

The following day, The Daily Caller's Sarah Hoffman picked up Shanghaiist's post, informing readers that "A rash of pinkeye cases has popped up in Japanese schools due to the new sexual trend of licking eyeballs." By then the hokum had assumed the title of an "anecdote" from a Japanese teacher.

David Moye of The Huffington Post jumped on the bandwagon on June 12, and from that point the story was unstoppable.

"In one classroom of 12-year-olds, one-third of students confessed to 'worming' or being 'wormed,'" he wrote. "Officials only noticed something was up when some of the licked students showed up to school wearing eyepatches, ShanghaiList.com [sic] reported" (The post has since been updated).

UPI; ABC News (expert quote: "It's a very dangerous trend, to say the least"); The Guardian (headline: "Eyeball-licking: the fetish that is making Japanese teenagers sick"); The Daily Beast (comment: "What is wrong with the world?"); and many others got in on it, initiating a social-media frenzy of tweets, shares, and likes.

Although the jig is now up, a Google search for "Japan eyeball licking" still produces hundreds of thousands of hits; the fabrication seems to have also spawned an official-sounding term for the dubious fetish: oculolinctus. I'll wager that few sites will bother to update their posts about this non-trend, and it will probably remain part of the collective Google-mind forever.

So why does a canard like this get repeated over and over again? By their nature, online news, social media, and the blogosphere constitute a giant, insatiable echo chamber where truth can easily be drowned out.

It can be an incubator for hoaxes. Earlier this year, Deadspin exposed the death of Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o's girlfriend Lennay Kekua, and her very existence, as a hoax after her story made the rounds in Sports Illustrated and other media.

The tech world is no different. In January, the Los Angeles Times, UPI, The Daily Mail and other sites reported on a crowdfunding campaign for an iPhone case called the Uppercup that could hold a drink. It looked dubious, and the Dutch marketing firm behind it essentially admitted it was a joke.

Meanwhile, a prankster fooled several news sites, including CNET's Crave UK, with a fake leak about a gaming tablet from Microsoft called the X-Surface.

"Much of the reason for the spread of hoaxes is simply speed, sensationalism, and social-networking culture," Amarnath Amarasingam, editor of the book "The Stewart/Colbert Effect: Essays on the Real Impacts of Fake News," tells CNET.

"The speed at which information is shared today is mind-boggling, and a particular news story can be seen and believed by millions of people before anyone thinks to question whether it is a hoax. Usually, the 'correction' doesn't spread equally as fast or far. So hoaxes continue to linger even after they have been proven false."

As Schreiber points out, nearly none of the journalists and bloggers writing up the eyeball-licking fraud are based in Japan (but the fraud got the better of The Telegraph's Danielle Demetriou in Tokyo). Thirty years ago, when Japan was economically relevant to world media and the Web didn't exist, Tokyo-based foreign correspondents could have investigated and debunked this story and it would have been dead on arrival.

Dewey Defeats Truman
News was fake even before The Onion. Wikipedia

Japan is full of weird news. I've spent a decade there and have seen (with my own eyes!) a plethora of bizarre stuff, from a bar with giant pneumatic fembots to a high-tech toilet studded with crystals and plenty in between.

And while many Japan-based bloggers have documented all this in growing numbers, they may not be terribly interested in verifying stories. Meanwhile, the number of mass media correspondents has dwindled amid cutbacks and greater coverage of China.

The number of foreign news organizations in Japan dropped from 288 in 2001 to 186 in 2013, according to figures from the Foreign Press Center/Japan; that mirrors a reduction of overseas reporters at U.S. newspapers.

Without boots on the ground, readers are more likely to be served up more moonshine.

"In this particular case I lay the blame on the translator," Schreiber tells CNET. "When you translate news, if you're smart, you learn to take things in their social or cultural context. Of course, it also helps to be on familiar terms with the source material. I compared the original Japanese with the JapanCrush translation and it was quite well done, from the grammatical standpoint.

"Unfortunately, the translator failed to exercise skepticism. He or she thought it was coming from a Korean-owned news portal that looked perfectly innocent, when in fact it was already twice removed from the source. But I think there's enough blame (or guilt if you prefer) to go around. People were looking for weird news and were delighted to get it. Why risk spoiling the fun by asking if it was true or not?"

And what about the unsung Bucchi News hack who penned this world-spanning tale, this generator of headlines, bylines, traffic hits, and ad clicks? I'll bet he got a big fat nothing for his trouble.

But to him goes the last laugh. He's probably at his desk, chain-smoking and noshing on instant noodles while spinning out another lurid fiction that will become news.