Ahead of October’s election, the Electoral Commission is preparing for a potential wave of fake news targeting voters.
A rapid rise in mis- and disinformation over the past few years has officials tasked with overseeing October’s general election readying themselves for a challenging few months.
While the last general election took place in the shadow of Covid-19, and after claims of interference in other elections around the world, such as in the United States, the lengthy 2021 lockdown and the 2022 parliamentary protest were yet to occur. It was, therefore, before there was proper awareness of just how dangerous the spread of conspiracy theories could be – and the fact New Zealand wasn’t immune to it.
That spread happened in New Zealand relatively quickly. For example, at the start of that 2021 lockdown, disinformation expert Kate Hannah told The Spinoff that while there was some fake news being promulgated on our shores, we were a relatively small country and people tended to look out for each other online. A few months later, her position had changed. “It’s exponentially rising now, day on day,” she said of misinformation. “The amount of data we’re trying to go through now is near impossible.” This was in November 2021, not too long after vaccine mandates had first been implemented. In February of the following year, New Zealand’s parliament was shut down for close to a month by hundreds of “freedom” protesters, some of whom called for the then-prime minister Jacinda Ardern, and other political leaders, to be put on trial and executed.
While the furore over vaccines has somewhat quietened in the months since, largely due to Covid-19 regulations being all but dropped, that hasn’t stopped concerns growing over how this year’s election could play out. Conspiracy theories may be less visible in the mainstream, but they are continuing to grow and spread in certain corners of the internet – and there are ongoing attempts to have them spill back out into the public. Just yesterday, social media was awash with claims that US investment firm BlackRock had “bought” New Zealand, after the prime minister revealed a $2 billion climate change partnership. And last year, conspiracy theory group Voices for Freedom encouraged members to seek out roles within the election as a means of combatting a perceived “general decline” in our western democracy. “We are encouraging like-minded citizens to become involved, rather than be spectators to such decline. This includes becoming active participants in various associated roles,” the group’s co-founder was quoted as saying.
A larger number of new fringe political parties have also popped up in comparison with 2020, including the Brian Tamaki-fronted freedoms movement and the Liz Gunn-led Loyal NZ. While none have made a dent in the polls and it seems highly unlikely they’ll make it into parliament, that hasn’t stopped supporters making bold online claims of electoral success.
At a briefing for media in Wellington last week, the Electoral Commission was asked to address concerns about how it might counter a possible wave of fake news circulating on social media in the run-up to October 14. Chief electoral officer Karl Le Quesne said officials were keeping a close watch on what had been happening in other countries, particularly in Australia, when it came to the spread of misinformation and conspiracy theories. “It’s something we’ve been following quite closely and it’s informed how we’re approaching some of the issues or questions people might have,” he said.
In June, Australia’s electoral commissioner Tom Rogers said he was concerned about a rise in abusive content and false information being shared on social media ahead of the nation’s Voice to Parliament referendum on a proposed indigenous advisory body. “It worries me greatly,” Rogers said. “We’re adapting our own social media footprint and the way in which we engage with individuals.” Issues raised in Australia included polling staff being directly targeted or having their images shared online with false or misleading quotes attached.
Le Quesne was less direct when asked about his worries. “I wouldn’t say we are more concerned [than in prior years] but we are trying to get ahead of it. We have put a bit more effort into providing a broader range of information, more tailored to some of those common misconceptions,” he said. “We’re trying to be more proactive this time around… We’re working with the social media companies in the same way we have for a number of elections. We’ve found them to be pretty cooperative.
“There is a high level of awareness that there may be some risks and issues but we do a lot of training with our staff.”
Asked by The Spinoff about the claims that Voices for Freedom, or other groups, may be seeking to insert themselves into the electoral process rather than simply proliferating their messages online, Le Quesne said he was aware. “I have a lot of confidence that we have some really great people leading this process, we have some really great training and support for how it should run and then we’ve got a lot of eyes on this,” he said. “If people see anything that worries them or concerns them about the behaviour, we’ll be able to address it really quickly.”
Those comments echo how prime minister Chris Hipkins has responded. He told Stuff that people should keep their eyes “wide open” for potential election manipulation, while Labour’s election campaign chair Megan Woods told TVNZ that she trusted the Electoral Commission’s processes. Her National Party counterpart Chris Bishop agreed. “The Electoral Commission does a good job and we trust them to make sure they’re running things fairly,” he said.
Le Quesne told The Spinoff he was confident the commission’s “robust” hiring process would ensure that people hoping to disrupt the election from the inside wouldn’t make it through. Roughly 22,000 people were needed to run the election, and all would go through interviews and police checks and be asked to disclose any and all political links. “We ask them quite directly, ‘Do you have any political party affiliations or do you belong to any groups promoting political issues?’ And then we ask them if they can leave that at the door and deliver the election in a neutral and impartial way,” he said, without referencing Voices for Freedom specifically.
“We just want to make sure people can follow our processes, they can act impartially and neutrally, so that’s what our focus is.”
And if anyone had concerns, or false information was spotted online, Le Quesne said the commission could act quickly to shut it down. “We just want to reassure people that their vote will be secret, confidential, and we’ll be managing things really tightly,” he said.