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MediaSeptember 7, 2020

Counting and Countering the infodemic: a deep dive into Covid-19 disinformation

Image: Getty
Image: Getty

Together with colleagues on The Disinformation Project, Kate Hannah has been studying the vectors and volume of false stories that wrap around the Covid crisis in New Zealand. Here she explains what they’ve learned, and what we might do to tackle it. 

As people, as communities, we connect to each other through story; it is through story that we make meaning, understand the past, and prepare for the future. Stories are the framework within which we express our selfhood, our relationships with others, and our values. “Stories are data with soul”: they help each of us develop what can be described as “narrative knowing”, where we understand who we are, and how we came to be that person. Stories contribute significantly to the ways in which we understand the world.

In the last months, we’ve all become accustomed to the difference between epidemics and pandemics; and the virus (SARS COV-2) and the illness (Covid-19). Now it’s time for us to become familiar with the infodemic. The World Health Organisation describes an infodemic as the “over-abundance of information – some accurate and some not – that makes it hard for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when they need it”.

This novel virus has only been transmitting throughout human communities since November 2019, and so the Covid-19 infodemic has been characterised by scientific uncertainty, debate, and a variety of public health responses. Researchers are rightly concerned about how people find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance as we move to stop the spread of the virus through individual and collective action, as we research cures and treatments, and as we develop vaccinations. We’re interested in the stories that are shaping people’s understanding of the virus.

The Covid-19 infodemic, like the pandemic itself, takes place within communities – communities which have different experiences of past pandemics, different measures of health and wellbeing, and have had different encounters with state services and state interventions. The pandemic and the infodemic are also taking place within different nation-states, with different political systems, worldviews, and approaches to healthcare. These contexts necessarily inform how people respond to the over-abundance of information they’re currently experiencing. Moving from simply understanding the nature of the infodemic, our team is working to assess the impact of unreliable information in Aotearoa New Zealand, interpret the stories or narratives within which this information is presented and distributed, and to understand how these stories link to conspiracy theories and fringe groups.

What we know is that those most marginalised by or disaffected within contemporary society are more likely to have lived experiences that might make them more susceptible to unreliable sources and untrustworthy stories. Tina Ngata’s summary of the reasons why “Make America Great Again” rhetoric and attitudes can have appeal to some within Māori communities, The Rise of Māori MAGA, discusses the very real impact colonisation and ongoing state racism has had on trust in government in Māori spaces and places.

The sentencing of the terrorist responsible for the March 15 2019 Ōtautahi mosque atrocities brought once again into high relief the ways in which white supremacism is enabled and enacted online, within virtual venues that offer alternative narratives to angry white men. The Disinformation Project  seeks to understand if and how Covid-19 disinformation is contributing to the prevalence of exclusionary or polarising rhetoric in New Zealand, and how this is seeping into conversations and stories in the mainstream media, and in political and civil society. Understanding this helps us understand each other, and work together to nurture and protect an open, inclusive society.

When the re-emergence of community transmission was announced on 11 August, the contexts for New Zealanders’ experiences of the pandemic and infodemic had shifted since our previous experience of community transmission between March and May. In February, when New Zealand recorded our first cases, the pandemic’s impacts were still largely being felt in Asia and Europe: in fact, most of the cases recorded during New Zealand’s first wave were seeded from international returnees. By August, when resurgence occurred, the UK, the US and Australia had recorded significant and uncontrolled community outbreaks, with differing public health and political responses.

The infodemic in Aotearoa back in March to May was characterised by the relatively consistent prevalence of stories based in unreliable or misguided information, circulating within social media networks and being reported or referenced by mainstream media. During this time frame, the most prevalent narratives referred to distrust in government or other official health information regarding the virus and its effects; disputed or speculated on the origin of the virus, including denying its existence, and a number of health and wellbeing narratives grounded in the rejection of mainstream medical advice. Since the resurgence in mid-August 2020, the nature of the infodemic, and as such, the narratives we are observing has shifted, with more extreme language and metaphors related not just to distrust in government health responses but a distrust of state authority more generally.

The nature of an infodemic is that perceived reliability and trustworthiness are understood across regional variation, geography, ability to access information, access to healthcare, and community identity. Stories about Covid-19 in Aotearoa New Zealand speak to our communities in different ways. When these kinds of stories arrive on our shores, like the virus itself, they have more traction where there are pre-existing inequities and injustices. Stories which seem to relate Covid-19 to a distrust in the state intersect with existing state and societal racism, or narratives about health and wellbeing, often result in pattern-seeking where stories that best fit with a person’s or community’s experiences and world views are more likely to be embraced.

The size of the infodemic has remained relatively static since March. What has increased, however, is the prevalence of mainstream media mentions of the word “conspiracy”. So what has happened? Firstly, there has been serious and justified critique of state failure to engage with Māori, Pasifika and the disability community during the first wave of the pandemic, making it clear that in this “team of five million”, some are more equal than others. Since the first wave of community transmission of Covid-19, however, Aotearoa New Zealand has adopted a number of internal and external stories about the virus, its management, and the way forward.

While there is increasing and appropriate international scientific discussion of uncertainty about the efficacy of certain policy settings or public health interventions, these discussions have been politicised. Anti-mask rhetoric in the United States, Australia, and now New Zealand in past months reveals how an emerging scientific consensus on the prophylactic properties of mask-wearing to reduce viral spread has been interpreted within other, pre-existing narratives of spiraling state or government control and what is described as the imposition of the state on individual rights. It was inevitable that such conversations would make their way here: however, the discussion of these conspiracy stories in mainstream media, political discussion, and on social media helps develop false consensus – the idea that these stories, because they are so prevalent or familiar must therefore have an element of truth.

The emergence – and popularity – of Covid-19 disinformation stories in New Zealand that can be easily and readily incorporated into organised and global conspiracy overarching narratives indicates some level of success for key international and national conspiracy theorists in manipulating people’s uncertainty and fear about the virus as a recruitment tool. Understanding these theories, what or who they target, and the values that underpin them helps us as civil society to identify which of the infodemic’s disinformation stories will be the most persistent, what harm they can cause, and, importantly for the media, the coded ways in which they are discussed within mainstream conversations.

The Covid-19-specific conspiracy theories observed in New Zealand, especially since August 13 2020, are largely linked to established conspiratorial narratives about the presumed intent and motivation of scientists and science. These are conspiracies related to the virus’s origins and to speculative cures. The other key group of stories which are amplified now relate to the behavior and motivations of governments, nation-states, leaders, and organisations like the United Nations or the World Health Organisation.

These reflect the increased presence of US-based disinformation, or conspiracy re-worked for a New Zealand context, and present significant challenges to Aotearoa New Zealand’s civil society, political discourse and communities. Fear and a sense of isolation or disconnection from the “team of five million” have given these ideas credence; commentators, academics, and politicians have dogwhistled in their direction. As communities, as families, as individuals, what can we do? Step back into our collective and personal “narrative knowing” of the power of story, and reflect on how our individual and collective experiences attract us to certain narrative frameworks, and recall how story draws us in.

The Disinformation Project team is a transdisciplinary group of established and emerging scholars with research interests spanning data science, statistical methods, data visualisation, philosophy of conspiracy theory, critical science and technology studies, public understanding of science and technology, and cultural history. They are Max Soar, Te Pūnaha Matatini, Centre for Science in Society, Te Herenga Waka – Victoria University of Wellington; Victoria Louise Smith, Faculty of Science, University of Auckland; M.R.X Dentith (PhD), University of Waikato; Daniel Barnett, Department of Statistics, University of Auckland and iNZight Analytics; Kate Hannah, Te Pūnaha Matatini, Department of Physics, University of Auckland, and Centre for Science in Society, Te Herenga Waka – Victoria University of Wellington; Giulio Valentino Dalla Riva, School of Mathematics and Statistics, University of Canterbury; Andrew Sporle, Department of Statistics, University of Auckland and iNZight Analytics

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