Demonstrators protest Connecticut’s stay-at-home order to combat the pandemic on May 04, 2020 in Hartford, Connecticut. (Photo: John Moore/Getty Images)
Demonstrators protest Connecticut’s stay-at-home order to combat the pandemic on May 04, 2020 in Hartford, Connecticut. (Photo: John Moore/Getty Images)

The BulletinSeptember 17, 2021

NZ’s weapon against vaccine misinformation

Demonstrators protest Connecticut’s stay-at-home order to combat the pandemic on May 04, 2020 in Hartford, Connecticut. (Photo: John Moore/Getty Images)
Demonstrators protest Connecticut’s stay-at-home order to combat the pandemic on May 04, 2020 in Hartford, Connecticut. (Photo: John Moore/Getty Images)

The Covid-19 minister says New Zealanders aren’t falling for misinformation like people overseas and an expert reveals why, Justin Giovannetti writes in The Bulletin.

There’s nothing holding back New Zealand’s vaccine campaign. That’s the message from Covid-19 minister Chris Hipkins after hundreds of thousands of extra Pfizer doses arrived in Auckland this week. The supply shortages are over and the government wants every Aucklander who can to get a jab by Sunday. With a possible move out of level four next week, delivering vaccines is now the most important part of the country’s Covid-19 response.

The 31%. However in recent days the vaccination programme has slowed considerably and nearly a quarter of eligible New Zealanders have yet to book a vaccine appointment. Only 69% have booked or received a second dose. Misinformation has played a role in fuelling vaccine hesitancy overseas, but it’s unclear what impact it might be having in New Zealand.

There’s nothing wrong with asking questions about the vaccine. People have a right to be curious about the Pfizer jab and what’s in it. The ministry of health has helpful information on that, including the ingredients, which are a tiny amount of mRNA with some fat, salts and sugar. The government notes that there are no animal products, fetal materials or microchips–there’s misinformation about all three floating around online.

Medsafe, the government’s medicine authority, also publishes all adverse reactions and confirmed deaths (only one) associated with the jab in a series of weekly safety reports. The latest one was put out on Wednesday. Earlier this week the country’s chief coroner had to respond to claims that an Auckland teenager had died as a result of receiving the vaccine, Stuff has reported. There’s no evidence of that.

Misinformation becomes problematic when it leaps from social media to the real world. Earlier this month a Covid-positive man absconded from a quarantine facility. The man’s social media feed was full of posts containing vaccine misinformation, The Spinoff has reported. “Misinformation kills,” microbiologist Siouxsie Wiles said at the time. “It kills because it encourages people to do terrible things.”

RNZ has the first-person experience of a family driven apart by a vaccine argument. It charts a familiar tale seen in many places overseas, where views from before Covid-19 have become more extreme.

The government says it isn’t overly worried about misinformation. There have been a number of small protests against the lockdown and vaccines in New Zealand, but nothing like the mass movements growing in Europe and North America, according to RNZ. However, there have been incidents, including earlier this week where Stuff reports two women were giving flyers with vaccine misinformation to teens leaving a Lower Hutt high school. I asked Hipkins for his thoughts on misinformation:

“What we’re also seeing from overseas is that Covid-19 is morphing into a pandemic of the unvaccinated. Yes, vaccinated people are affected by it, but nowhere near as badly as unvaccinated people are…I think New Zealanders are more informed about vaccines than we are seeing abroad. We’re not seeing people being sucked into misinformation at the same rate as they are around the rest of the world. I’m incredibly proud of New Zealanders for that,” said the Covid-19 minister.

There has been a change in the attitudes of some New Zealanders.  A very unscientific way to track the changing approach to vaccine misinformation is through responses to this newsletter. The Bulletin has always enjoyed a healthy conversation with its readers (and please do keep it coming). Some of that feedback goes back years. In a few cases, people who may have been unhappy with lockdown last year and asking good questions about the country’s elimination approach have adopted increasingly bellicose language. The change has been pronounced since the country entered level four lockdown last month. What was once a grumble about He Puapua is now the contention of a mass coverup and complicity in global genocide.

But what does the data tell us? I asked Kate Hannah, a cultural historian at Te Pūnaha Matatini and an expert in misinformation, what’s going on. Few people in New Zealand are more qualified to talk about the situation. She said both Hipkins and the changing vibe of The Bulletin’s email inbox capture a snapshot of where this country is at. Her inbox has been similar to mine, she adds.

“What we’re also seeing is more insidious information around the vaccine programme. People who say they are seeking more information about the vaccine are using the pro-social language of love: ‘Only you can make the choices over your family and your body, we’re here to support you.’ But the point is to dissuade people from getting the vaccine,” she said.  “For many people the idea of masks everywhere, especially outside Auckland, is very unusual. They are in that fear space and then getting the love language bombing is quite enticing.”

New Zealand has a secret weapon against misinformation. It’s the two degrees of separation thing and it’s why Hannah thinks Hipkins is right that misinformation isn’t as pronounced here. While it still happens, people in New Zealand are more likely to know who is spreading misinformation and speak with them about it. That human touch is important.

There’s also a second habit that is helping the country. Influencers who can dominate social media across the English-speaking world with misinformation don’t quite make it in New Zealand, according to Hannah. That slows things down.

“In New Zealand we like our misinformation packaged up by New Zealanders for us, which suggests that tactics need to change and we need local agents to pick it up. That localness gives us that one or two degrees of separation thing and the resilience that provides. People know each other better. There are advantages to being small,” she said.

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