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An anti-mask protest in Ohio in July (Photo: Jeff Dean/AFP via Getty Images)
An anti-mask protest in Ohio in July (Photo: Jeff Dean/AFP via Getty Images)

The BulletinNovember 12, 2021

NZ’s disinformation surge

An anti-mask protest in Ohio in July (Photo: Jeff Dean/AFP via Getty Images)
An anti-mask protest in Ohio in July (Photo: Jeff Dean/AFP via Getty Images)

Disinformation expert Kate Hannah talks with Justin Giovannetti and The Bulletin about new research that shows Covid-19 conspiracy theories and violent imagery are spreading fast in New Zealand.

The surge in New Zealand’s disinformation. Earlier this week a poll on the social media app Telegram claimed that 98% of New Zealanders want Jacinda Ardern removed from office and asked what her punishment should be. The leading option was hanging, with people also calling for a firing squad or public stoning. It wasn’t a joke, and is instead a small window into growing levels of disinformation (false information, meant to harm) in New Zealand.

On Tuesday, the same day a protest was held outside parliament, researchers at Te Pūnaha Matatini released a worrying report that Covid-19 disinformation is spreading rapidly, fuelled by increasingly racist and violent imagery. Kate Hannah, an author of the report and expert in disinformation, spoke with me about what’s happening online.

What has changed? About a month after Auckland entered lockdown, Hannah spoke with this newsletter about misinformation (false information, but not meant to harm) being seen at the time. It followed a warning from the chief censor that misinformation was on the rise. Hannah was relatively upbeat then, reporting that there was some misinformation, but New Zealand is small and people were generally looking out for each other online. Over the past two months everything has changed.

“It has just increased, to be honest, so much in the last two to three weeks, since the announcement of the vaccine mandate. That was a massive spike in engagement for people following and subscribing to groups on Telegram and engaging with content. It’s exponentially rising now, day on day. The amount of data we’re trying to go through now is near impossible,” she said.

The scope of disinformation. According to the TPM report, more disinformation has been detected over the past three months than during the entirety of the pandemic before the delta outbreak. It’s throughout New Zealand and not focused in any particular region. Much of the increase followed the government’s announcement in late October that it was extending a vaccine mandate to cover nearly 40% of all workers. Along with being more widespread, it’s also more targeted, and the language is more violent, according to Hannah.

“There is live time stalking of the prime minister, telling people where she’s been spotted and then telling people to go find her. In terms of the volatility, it feels very dangerous. Everyone is waiting for something to pop off and until it does, it’ll continue to feel like that,” she said.

Who might be behind the spreading? Much of the disinformation swirls around a perceived lack of vaccine safety and, conversely, calls to use unrelated drugs to treat or prevent Covid-19. However, much of the online conversation also branches off into other directions, often related to American conspiracy theorists like QAnon. According to Hannah, some of the movement today is based on those groups, along with a helping of white supremacy, fascism and misogyny. Nicky Hager writes in The Spinoff today about being troubled by good, principled people who joined a “fascist protest” at parliament.

Hannah adds: “For a lot of people watching the parliament protest on TV, it was a revelation to see all the Nazi and Trump imagery. A lot of people were surprised by that, but the movement has been partially overtaken and pushed by those ideologies and that’s becoming apparent. At the same time, people that have fears about their futures and people facing job losses because of the vaccine mandate have been red pilled”. A person who has been red pilled has had their perspective dramatically shifted. In the conspiracy theory space, that shift is often from genuine concern to ill-informed and dangerous conviction.

“We keep telling ourselves it’s a small minority, but it’s worrying for New Zealand’s social fabric,” she said.

Should we be concerned? Speaking with Hannah I was struck by a story I’d read earlier this week out of Glasgow, where the Cop26 climate summit is being held. Some activists at the summit were arguing that the entire world doesn’t need to be convinced to battle for the climate, only 3.5%. Erica Chenoweth, a political scientist at Harvard, has found that 3.5% of a population mobilised for protest is enough to move a government to action. I put the question to Hannah: why is a small minority in Glasgow seen as a viable movement to change the world while a small minority outside parliament is considered best ignored?

“I don’t want to be a doomsayer, but a very small and very committed minority of people have changed the world, for the good and for the bad, throughout human history. It will take more people caring, and doing more, to actively resist Covid disinformation. I do have cultural concerns about New Zealanders who generally want to let things slide,” she said.

On a positive note, nothing seen so far would indicate that anywhere near 3.5% of New Zealanders are actively engaged in Covid-19 conspiracy theories.

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