Down the rabbit hole and onto Instagram Stories, some of New Zealand’s most popular influencers are now regularly using their platforms to peddle fake news and conspiracy theories that could endanger public health. Jihee Junn finds out what consequences, if any, there are for those actively spreading mistruths.
When the government announced Auckland would be moving into level three lockdown for the second time, Zoe Fuimaono took to Instagram to vent her frustrations over the government’s “draconian laws”. She urged others not to buy into it, to seek out the “truth”, and not get tested if they didn’t want to. She said wearing masks wouldn’t work because the public didn’t know how to wear them properly, and that medical professionals would agree (they don’t).
In the last few weeks, social media platforms have been littered with comments in a similar vein from friends, co-workers and random strangers online, exasperated at the prospect of having to mask up and hunker down again. But while most are preaching to just a handful of followers at most, Fuimaono – better known as @blessedindoubles – is speaking to an audience of more than 63,000. Having successfully managed to turn her family life into a lucrative lifestyle brand, she’s now one of the country’s most popular influencers. But since the outbreak of Covid-19, Fuimaono has been taking to her platform in other ways, dishing out not just medically dubious advice but also conspiracies around an elite global cabal of Satanic sex trafficking rings which regularly make the rounds in QAnon circles.
But Fuimaono isn’t the only New Zealand influencer who’s been spreading misinformation to date. Melbourne-based New Zealand makeup artist Manisha Solanki (@slay_nisha), who has more than 8,800 Instagram followers, actress Briar Rose (@theebriarrose), who has more than 3,300 followers, and dance instructor Jadee Poppop (@jadeepoppop), who has more than 2,400 followers, have also been sharing QAnon conspiracies and expressing support for the views of Billy Te Kahika Jr, the controversial leader of the New Zealand Public Party.
Meanwhile, lifestyle blogger Vanessa Rehm (@vanessarehm) has also been posting similar content, repeatedly suggesting that 5G could be a cause of Covid-19. Rehm, who currently has just over 1,000 followers, previously boasted a following of more than 9,500 before deleting the vast majority of her followers and making her account private following this report from David Farrier.
Also making her account private is @Chanel.lavieenrose who reportedly told her 34,000 followers that “Dictator Jacinda Ardern has decided to postpone the election by four weeks, surprise surprise”.
Misinformation among influencers isn’t a new phenomenon, but the pandemic has accelerated its prevalence to a whole new level. The idea that world events are being puppeteered by a sinister “cabal” certainly isn’t a widespread belief, but it is a concerning trend given that prominent public figures like influencers have been found to be one of the “key distributors” of Covid-19 misinformation, producing or spreading just 20% of false claims but accounting for 69% of total social media engagement. And unlike crank “detox” diets or questionable self-help advice, Covid-19 misinformation is at risk of putting real lives and public health in serious danger. We’ve seen this happen with the anti-vaccination movement, and now with Covid-19, it’s happening again.
In recent months, social media companies have ramped up their efforts to tackle the onslaught of misinformation. Facebook says it’s taken down 7 million posts pushing false Covid-19 claims both from its main site and Instagram, which it owns, between April and June, and put warning notes on 98 million Facebook posts during the same period. So far, it’s proven to be the most tangible consequence for these influencers, with some of Fuimaono and Rose’s posts being labelled as “false information”.
But social media companies have rarely, if ever, been effective moderators of content from their own users. One study found that after reporting hundreds of posts touting false cures, anti-vaccination propaganda and conspiracy theories around 5G to Facebook and Twitter, 90% remained visible online without any warnings attached. And, as The Spinoff’s Duncan Greive pointed out last week, social media companies have little incentive to take real meaningful action, with Facebook “engineered to facilitate the instantaneous spread of misinformation and then rewarded for it with government communications spending to counter it”.
Unlike broadcasters, journalists or businesses, influencers are essentially unregulated. Over the last two years, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has sought to introduce rules to the industry, but its remit only extends to “when there’s a commercial interest and they’re acting as a platform for the advertiser”, says ASA chief executive Hilary Souter. “We [get involved] if it’s paid for through an individual, a political party or an advocacy group, [but] people expressing their opinion as individuals isn’t something that we deal with.”
Meanwhile Netsafe – which has experienced a 114% spike in fake news reports since June – is advising people to report fake accounts, or pages and domains repeatedly sharing misinformation. It says any reports made to Netsafe about fake news would be reviewed to determine if the Harmful Digital Communications Act has been breached. However, Netsafe says no breaches have been found so far, likely because the act only covers bullying, harassment and intimidation rather than the sharing of misinformation.
Despite the lack of formal checks and balances, influencers could still face other repercussions. Sommer Kapitan, a marketing lecturer at AUT, cites “market mechanisms” – such as a loss in followers, public criticism and brands ending their commercial relationships – as facilitators for self-regulation. Fuimaono, for example, has lost almost 900 followers in the last month, as well as her partnerships with Countdown and supplement brand Jeuneora (Fuimaono, however, says she terminated all her ambassador roles so that she’d “no longer be under contract and silenced by anyone”).
Meanwhile, influencer couple Art and Matilda Green were forced to backtrack and remove an episode of their podcast with Pete Evans who declared the pandemic “a fucking hoax”. The pair later said they “believed in being open to all opinions as a vehicle for learning” but had received a “large amount of feedback” that Evans’s remarks could cause harm.
Another market mechanism Kapitan cites is the role of social media marketing agencies – which often help to bring brands and influencers together – in setting contractual standards or guidelines for how influencers should behave. Kapitan says she’s yet to see any formal action on misinformation from agencies yet, but notes it’s “probably the first place where these changes will start to happen”.
Melanie Spencer, co-CEO of The Social Club, the largest influencer agency in New Zealand, says although its house rules don’t explicitly call out misinformation and fake news, it does ask its influencers “not to post anything illegal or dangerous”. Spencer says the agency is currently looking to include a specific note on the issue going forward “as this is an incredibly important development that our influencers need to be aware of”.
Kapitan says the lack of existing framework for influencers comes down to the issue still being so new. She says that while “the average person” has the right to freedom of speech as long as they’re not willingly trying to cause harm, it remains debatable whether influencers, with their elevated status as “role models” and ability to amplify their views to many thousands of followers, fall under that same umbrella.
“I think this is the first time we’ve had this kind of crisis and that means we all need to come together and figure out what role influencers play in our society; try and understand if they’re at the same level as a broadcaster, for example,” she says.
“If they have the same amount of importance [as a broadcaster] in some people’s lives, should we not be regulating them in a similar way? Should there be some kind of formal complaints process allowed and a set of standards shared among the group? I’m not saying yes or no either way, but we do need to discuss it.
“Like it or not, social media and influencers are here to stay. This should be a moment of reckoning.”