Last week, an inaccurate tweet about suicide spread so far that both the Ministry of Health and the Mental Health Foundation had to respond. Hayden Donnell looks at what happened, and how the government could prevent a repeat.
Warning: this story contains discussion of suicide
On Sunday, the Ministry of Health and the Mental Health Foundation issued statements that would’ve seemed weird to those not perennially online. “The Covid-19 response may have significant effects on people’s lives, but there is no truth to rumours circulating around suicide numbers. A significant increase in serious mental health issues or suicides is not inevitable if we all act now to support our mental wellbeing,” the Ministry of Health wrote. The Mental Health Foundation was more explicit. “There is no evidence New Zealand’s suicide rates have increased over lockdown. There is no truth to this rumour. It is irresponsible, dangerous and untrue,” it said.
Both statements could be traced back to a single tweet posted by the anonymous Twitter account @vickithesaneone. The person behind the account said a police officer had told them there had been 61 suicides in one week. “It’s reaching six a day. Where are the media on this?” the tweet asked, adding the hashtag #housearrest so the figures would be linked to the alert level three lockdown.
“This is so dreadful,” National MP Judith Collins replied (she later insisted she meant the tweet was dreadful). Commentator Lizzie Marvelly retweeted it. Privacy commissioner John Edwards asked how the numbers compared to previous years.
The tweet had been shared about 700 times and seen by thousands of people by the time the Ministry of Health and Mental Health Foundation responded. The attention drew eyes to @vickithesaneone’s account. While recently it had been devoted to posting ultra-partisan right-wing content, with posts praising Donald Trump and calling for the abolition of the UN, that wasn’t always the case. Before 2017, @vickithesaneone was a benign personal account with a different username.
That old username, and several tweets, appear to link to a local board member who owns several businesses and works in the electorate office of a National MP.
However, when I contacted that person via text (calls were not answered), she said she didn’t know anything about the viral tweet on suicide numbers. The account @vickithesaneone was deleted just prior to my text.
Despite that denial, at least one @vickithesaneone tweet from 2011 links to a business still associated with the elected member. On balance, The Spinoff has decided not to name her.
If the person who posted the tweet is an elected member with political connections, it would be concerning if she was anonymously sharing false information on suicide. It’s equally concerning, though, that her tweet was credulously picked up and magnified by several people with substantial followings. The saga is another lesson in how quickly misinformation can be amplified and spread on social media, and a reminder not to trust data if you don’t know the credentials of the person sharing it, or the source they’re citing.
It’s also a reminder of tech companies’ failure to crack down on misinformation related to Covid-19. @Vickithesaneone wasn’t alone in sharing dubious, anonymously sourced suicide data. The ‘Plan B’ group, led by Auckland University epidemiologist Simon Thornley, put out a press release last month saying an unnamed DHB official had told them there had been an increase in suicides. That appears to have helped fuel an uptick in suicide speculation. Anecdotes about a potential rise in suicide numbers are popular on social media.
Google, Facebook, and others committed to suppressing the spread of inaccurate or unverified health information after conspiracy theories undermined the response to the Samoan measles epidemic last year. However, they’re struggling to enact those measures for Covid-19.
That’s partly because the virus is new, and correct scientific information is being developed. As The Atlantic notes, “the feed abhors a vacuum”. If people can’t get authoritative facts quickly and easily, their Google searches and social media feeds will still throw something up, even if it’s not accurate.
But these tidbits of potential misinformation are also potent because our sclerotic institutions are still too circumspect about putting out potentially corrective data. While prime minister Jacinda Ardern and Dr Ashley Bloomfield have been widely and justifiably praised for their daily briefings, officials haven’t always communicated clearly, openly and quickly with reporters during the pandemic. The government and its departments can seem like they’re operating by the rules of a pre-internet world, when trust in institutions was higher and the speed of their communication wasn’t so important.
In the case of suicide, accurate statistics aren’t easy to collate at pace, and there are good reasons why they might not be easy to access quickly. A death isn’t deemed suicide until it’s ruled to be one by a coroner, and that process can take months. But there are legitimate fears that suicides will rise during and after lockdown, and before this flare-up, director of public health Dr Caroline McElnay and Bloomfield both told media they didn’t have any information to hand on the subject.
Only police commissioner Andrew Coster had addressed the topic head-on. “In terms of police data on mental health or attempted suicide… our demand has remained steady over the past four weeks. However, that doesn’t mean people aren’t struggling,” he said on April 23. That cautious approach may be justified, but it’s worth noting that the cost of caution has gone up in the social media age.
More unsettling information gaps exist elsewhere. On Monday, Ardern hit back at a Wall Street Journal report that claimed New Zealand would suffer more economic damage from the Covid-19 pandemic than Australia. She told Newstalk ZB’s Mike Hosking she would rather rely on the advice of her Treasury than overseas journalists. NZ Herald Wellington business editor Hamish Rutherford argued if Ardern has reliable economic advice, she should release it to reassure the public.
Journalists including Newshub’s Michael Morrah have complained about their difficulties extracting facts and figures from the Ministry of Health. In mid-April, NZ Herald reporter Derek Cheng wrote about reporters’ flailing efforts to get an understanding of the country’s contact-tracing capabilities. Last week, Otago University epidemiologists criticised a lack of clarity from the government on how many of the country’s Covid-19 cases still have no known source.
All these unanswered questions leave gaps that can easily be filled by internet nonsense. As the Mental Health Foundation noted earlier this week in response to @vickithesaneone’s tweet, that can be dangerous. “We are worried about the impact these rumours will have on people who are currently vulnerable to suicide. Whenever we have a public discussion about suicide, people who are currently suicidal or who are vulnerable to suicide are always listening,” it said.
If the government wants to lessen the danger posed by malicious rumours, and stop the spread of misinformation by bad actors, it needs to play its part.
Information should be freely available to reporters all the time, not just the 40 minutes after 1pm.
Where to get help
Need to talk? Free call or text 1737 any time for support from a trained counsellor.
Lifeline – 0800 543 354 or 09 5222 999 within Auckland.
Samaritans – 0800 726 666.
Suicide Crisis Helpline – 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO). Open 24/7
Depression Helpline – 0800 111 757 or free text 4202. This service is staffed 24/7 by trained counsellors
Samaritans – 0800 726 666
Healthline – 0800 611 116
Counselling for children and young people
What’s Up – 0800 942 8787 (for 5–18 year olds). Phone counselling is available Monday to Friday, midday–11pm and weekends, 3pm–11pm. Online chat is available 7pm–10pm daily.
Kidsline – 0800 54 37 54 (0800 kidsline) for young people up to 18 years of age. Open 24/7.
For more information about support and services available to you, contact the Mental Health Foundation’s free Resource and Information Service on 09 623 4812 during office hours or email firstname.lastname@example.org