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Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

PartnersDecember 4, 2020

Humour over rumour: How South Auckland is pushing back against 5G conspiracy theories

Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

A new series of videos uses comedy to debunk misinformation that’s proved to be particularly visible in South Auckland. Justin Latif spoke with local community leaders about why these theories find South Auckland such fertile ground, and what can be done to curtail their spread. 

“I have family who believes in all sorts of conspiracies and I sort of started to think it too.”

That’s JP. He’s been one of the mainstays in JGeeks, a massively popular singing, dancing, comedy group who have over 240,000 followers on Facebook and can reach millions with a single YouTube video. 

He’s also one of the actors in a video series aiming to dispel the theory that the fifth generation (5G) mobile network is behind cancer, birds dying and, most recently, Covid-19. The three-part video series, produced by Ngahere Communities in partnership with Vodafone, is designed to use familiar faces and a specific type of humour to reach the communities that have been most vulnerable to the spread of misinformation.

The videos were about engaging directly with the South Auckland community on the technological developments happening and what they mean for the local people, says Ngahere Communities’ Manawa Udy, the executive producer for the project. 

“Too often our communities are expected to just ‘get on board’ with new ideas and opportunities, but we need to journey through these big changes together. It helps to reduce the amount of fake news and give facts, not fiction,” Udy says. 

For JP, once he did his own research he cast the conspiracies aside. But for many others, it hasn’t been so easy. 

A screenshot from the first of three videos produced by Ngahere Communities in partnership with Vodafone to debunk misinformation about 5G. (Photo: Supplied)

Since Vodafone NZ announced the launch of a 5G network in August 2019, the industry has seen a spike in complaints and queries regarding the latest generation mobile network’s impact on health and the environment. There has also been a spate of arson attacks on cell phone towers around the country, with more than half of the incidents occurring in South Auckland, coinciding mainly with the alert level four lockdown. 

Auckland Councillor for Manukau Fa’anana Efeso Collins says it’s not surprising some people in the region are buying into conspiracy theories given the lack of trust many have of authority, coupled with a perception that the mainstream media isn’t a reliable source of news. 

“There’s a range of factors why some South Aucklanders don’t feel they can trust the government and what they see and hear through the news,” he says. “I know for many people in South Auckland, they are working really hard to make a life for themselves, but feel like they aren’t getting a fair go when it comes to housing, health and educational issues, and yet the mainstream media tends to only focus on a minority of residents who get up to no good. I’m sure for many, conspiracy theories can sometimes be a way to make sense of these perceived injustices.”

Newly elected Manurewa electorate MP Arena Williams moved into the area from West Auckland earlier this year. One of her observations is how Westies are more likely to shut down conspiracy theories on community Facebook pages than South Aucklanders.

“On the community pages in West Auckland, misinformation would come down a lot quicker, almost within seconds. People are actively angry at the administrators if they allow misinformation to spread – kind of in the same way we hold journalists to account. 

“Hobsonville, in comparison to Manurewa, has a number of journalists living in the area, and they are active with what’s happening and actively participating in those local pages. But here in Manurewa, there aren’t the same number of local journalists living here, with a real stake in the ground, and so there isn’t any fact-checking going on of information going out to the public”. 

She says the decline of local newspapers has created a vacuum in which conspiracy theories and misinformation thrive. And that hole has been filled by social media. 

“When those community Facebook pages grow to up to 10,000 members, they become a bigger and bigger community platform by which ideas can be promoted and it can really impact people’s daily lives. Facebook has replaced the role of the local newspaper, and so the people who play those roles of curating and editing content on those pages have a duty to be community-minded and be aware that people might not be consuming any other news.”

Coconut Wireless is a Facebook page created to inform and connect Pacific peoples all over the world. Given South Auckland’s demographics, it’s also one of the most popular pages in the area. The page, along with its associated platforms on Instagram, LinkedIn and Twitter has over 600,000 followers globally and reaches up to five million people a week. 

Māngere’s Mary Aue is the founder of Coconut Wireless and an avid watcher of social media trends. She first noticed conspiracy theories regarding 5G and the link to Covid-19 in early February, primarily coming from users in the United States. She says the theories then gained credence with the help of a number of sporting and musical celebrities.

“We in South Auckland have a natural distrust of authority as a whole, so while the theories weren’t started within our country, you could see these theories starting to take hold after a number of NRL players and people in the music industry shared these posts.”

She says Pacific people rely heavily on social media networks to stay connected to family in the islands and the United States. Therefore Pacific people living in New Zealand are much more likely to be bombarded with misinformation from overseas than people with smaller New Zealand-based family circles.  

“The way Facebook’s algorithms work, just engaging or replying to a person’s post ensures the post is seen more widely. So that’s why on our pages we just report and block straight away in terms of anything to do with fake news or fake profiles.”

Aue notes that anti-vaxxers are particularly likely to be pushing the 5G conspiracies, something which South Auckland doctor Va’aiga Autagavaia has also observed. He’s come across many patients who are deeply suspicious of the government due to their own health struggles. 

“I know from talking to patients, my own family and friends, they believe conspiracy theories because often they’ve had bad health experiences. For example, if someone has cancer, and the treatments may bring on harmful side-effects, even though the treatment is going to be beneficial overall, it still feeds into a suspicion towards the authorities. This is made worse when people don’t fully understand the treatment or their suspicions haven’t been understood or taken seriously by the doctors,” he says. 

“People are hurting and they want some kind of explanation for their situation even if it doesn’t really make sense and so the conspiracies are validating the injustices and harm they have felt with their own experiences.”

He believes that the issues are complex but if doctors weren’t placed under such large workload pressures, they could explain things more fully for their patients and help dispel some of their concerns. 

“The way general practices are funded means a doctor can usually only spend up to 15 minutes a day with patients. In hospitals, doctors are usually pushed for time too. But if we could improve how we practice our ‘models of care’, to be able to build strong relationships and trust, we can address these things in an open and transparent way with our patients.”

The team behind the videos. From left; JP, Vodafone’s head of Māori development Kirstin Te Wao, Ngahere Communities’ Manawa Udy, Vodafone NZ’s senior communications lead Nicky Preston, entrepreneur Nikora Ngaropo and video director Jason Manumu’a. (Photo: Fia Roache)

The Taiwanese government has been celebrated for its response to Covid-19 where there have been just 597 total cases and seven deaths. An important part of that response was the use of humour as a highly effective way to curb the spread of fake news and conspiracy theories. The comic responses would often gain far more attention than the misinformation itself. 

And South Auckland marketing supremo Stella Muller agrees. The Ōtara resident’s creative agency Bright Sunday took a similar approach to a campaign run for the Ministry of Pacific Peoples (MPP) to combat misinformation being spread throughout the Pacific community. 

“Humour is a critical ingredient in how you package up content for our community and it’s definitely something we use. For our campaign with MPP, we reached over 800,000 people in one week, and we found that the influencers who used humour had the best engagement rates, even though they were slightly less well-known than some others.” 

She also believes using locals, rather than mainstream celebrities is crucial.

“It is so important to use our Māori and Pacific creatives from the community, as they’ll know by how much they should play it up or play it down and what’s funny and what’s crossing the line,” she says.

“In our communities, our superstars are right in our backyard, doing things to help our community, and they are the ones we respect. So when they are armed with the right messages and we give them the space to tell stories in their own way, the cut-through is amazing.” 

‘Humour to beat the rumour’

As you’ll see in these recently released videos, Covid-19 links to coronavirus, unfounded radiation concerns around 5G and a kid killing birds with a slingshot are all intertwined with educational messages about how safe and beneficial the 5G network will be. 

Ngahere Communities’ Manawa Udy pulled in popular South Auckland social media influencers Torrell Tafa and John-Perry Porter Te Anini (aka JP), along with technology expert, animator and entrepreneur Nikora Ngaropo who is also a member of the Digital Council for Aotearoa New Zealand.

Tafa, along with director Jason Manumu’a came up with the off the wall concepts for the shoots following a series of community workshops to gather questions, concerns and excitement around what 5G brings. He says using risque comedy is actually one of the best ways to connect with South Aucklanders. And he should know: his group Cougar Boys has over half a million followers on Facebook and YouTube, while his own personal Instagram account has 100,000 followers. 

“I would say my fan base is mainly Polynesian or from South Auckland. As Polynesians we really love comedy, and for us, it’s really a way of connecting. When my friends and I hang out, it’s really just non-stop laughter because when you can talk to someone through comedy, it’s an easier way to connect,” says Tafa. 

The three videos set out to explain or dispel a different aspect related to 5G. The first focuses on what 5G is all about, and why it’s a better network. The second looks at the conspiracy theories related to our health and the third debunks theories related to the environment as well as exploring all the benefits the network can bring to our lives. 

Vodafone NZ’s senior communications lead Nicky Preston says finding a comedic South Auckland-based group to produce the videos was crucial to making sure they were effective. She’d observed the way comedy had been an effective tool in Taiwan to counter misinformation and also saw it as an important way for the community to own the message. 

“Hopefully by dispelling some myths, and using humour to beat the rumours, New Zealanders will feel more comfortable that 5G isn’t something they need to worry about.”

Manumu’a says the videos came together through a mix of planning as well as making sure Torrell had the freedom to ad-lib on the day. 

“Because of my scriptwriting background I wrote a skeleton and then [Torrell] just rearranged and added his bits,” Manumu’a says. 

“When you watch his platforms, you can see his style in this. But I did warn him that it was right on the line but we thought let’s do it and then Vodafone can always say no as it’s stuff you don’t normally talk about in public.”

Tafa says they were pleasantly surprised when Vodafone gave them approval and credit the company for being up for any potential risks. 

“Because Vodafone gave us that creative freedom I think we have accomplished [the goal of the videos] because we’ve been able to have a laugh plus get in those key messages.” 

Vodafone’s head of Māori development Kirstin Te Wao says another key factor was making use of creatives who know South Auckland inside and out. 

“Part of the challenge the tech sector has is a lack of cultural diversity within key decision making roles that can translate into messaging that doesn’t resonate with many of the people within our communities,” she says.  

“Partnering with an organisation like Ngahere Communities means that we bring community concerns, voices and solutions to the fore in a meaningful way that resonates with them. As part of our commitment to Te Tiriti o Waitangi, we’re working hard to create meaningful, enduring and authentic relationships with Māori innovators and entrepreneurs like Manawa and her team.”

As Nikora Ngaropo explains in the videos, the new network’s download speeds will be like going from using a garden hose to a firefighter’s hose, opening up a world of possibilities; which, as the videos succinctly put it, “far, that G is so extra.”

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