16 Sep 2020

Midweek Mediawatch: A maelstrom of misinformation

From Mediawatch, 8:05 pm on 16 September 2020

On this week's Midweek Mediawatch, Hayden Donnell talks to Karyn Hay about who's responsible for Facebook comments, and how the media should cover peddlers of misinformation.

Advance NZ co-leaders Billy Te Kahika and Jami-Lee Ross, and a woman who was jailed for breaking isolation rules.

Advance NZ co-leaders Billy Te Kahika and Jami-Lee Ross, and a woman who was jailed for breaking isolation rules. Photo: RNZ / Liu Chen

Who's responsible for Facebook comments?

Newshub's story on Freya Swarbridge's struggle with what's colloquially known as "long haul" Covid-19 was informative and, at times, moving. It received a big response when it was posted on social media, mostly from sympathetic people.

But scattered among those positive comments were several abusive and inaccurate accusations.

"How much did y'all pay her," wrote one person, implying Swarbridge was making up her health condition. Another falsely claimed Covid-19 was a Chinese bio weapon.

Swarbridge's fellow Covid-19 long-hauler Jenene Crossan picked up on Newshub's failure to moderate those more questionable comments. 

She asked the organisation to be more aggressive muting trolls. "Duty of care is crucial," she said on Twitter.

Crossan has been outspoken about her treatment by the media since becoming New Zealand’s 37th Covid-19 patient. She called out the New Zealand Herald for using one of her tweets to construct a news story in August

Her most recent criticism raises the question of whether news organisations are taking enough responsibility for the comments posted on their social media.

That issue has been the subject of long-running debate.

In Australia, the Sydney Morning Herald, the Australian, the Centralian Advocate, Sky News Australia and The Bolt Report have been held legally liable for defamatory Facebook comments about the indigineous Northern Territory youth detainee Dylan Voller.

New Zealand news organisations haven’t faced the same level of legal accountability. However, RNZ did get sanctioned by the Online Media Standards Authority in 2016 for failing to delete threatening Facebook comments about then-prime minister John Key in a timely fashion.

Both those judgements were about eliminating the abusive and insulting comments that often pop up below news stories.

But the media is also dealing with an increasing deluge of misinformation and disinformation on their social media feeds. 

In 2018, news organisations’ Facebook live videos were repeatedly overwhelmed by organised anti-1080 spammers.

Many of those activists have now been absorbed into Billy Te Kahika Jr’s conspiracy-fuelled following, and they are still highly active online.

The majority of the abusive comments on the story Crossan complained about came from Covid truthers.

New Zealand got another reminder of the danger of those sorts of views recently, with the news that a second person connected to the Auckland Covid-19 cluster had died.

Moderating false comments should be a priority for news organisations committed to the truth. 

The problem for organisations like RNZ and Newshub is that comment threads under news stories often number in their hundreds. The abuse that upset Crossan was buried in a 680-strong comment thread.

Weeding out the misinformation in those threads takes huge amounts of staff time. That's a problem in increasingly sparsely resourced newsrooms. Ironically, newsrooms don't have the resources to keep up with Facebook comments, partly because Facebook is taking so much of their revenue.

A graph comparing newspaper revenue to Facebook and Google revenue in the US

A graph comparing newspaper revenue to Facebook and Google revenue in the US Photo: Thomas Baekdal

Calls for Facebook to take responsibility

Facebook has repeatedly tried to pass itself off as a “platform”, eschewing any editorial oversight for the content posted on its site, even as that content has fuelled genocides, mass shootings, and the rise of dangerous, globe-spanning conspiracies like QAnon. 

That doesn’t wash with most media organisations, which argue the social media company has the power and resources to put more limits on misinformation. When the Voller decision was issued, News Corp released a fiery statement pinning the blame for the defamation on the social media site, which doesn’t allow news organisations to pre-moderate comments on their pages.

“It defies belief that media organisations are held responsible for comments made by other people on social media pages," it said. "It is ridiculous that the media company is held responsible while Facebook, which gives us no ability to turn off comments on its platform, bears no responsibility at all."

Facebook’s failure to limit the catastrophic amounts of misinformation and disinformation it hosts was illustrated again recently, in a Buzzfeed a report based on a leaked internal memo from one of the company's former employees.

The memo from data scientist Sophie Zhang reveals the scale of misinformation that Facebook hosts, and the huge number of powerful politicians using the platform to manipulate potential voters.

Zhang says she has lost count of the number of politicians she has taken enforcement action against across the globe. Her work was done without much, or often any, oversight, and she says its slapdash nature almost certainly left her with "blood on [her] hands". 

Facebook says it's making moves to clamp down on misinformation. It recently cut an ad from Advance NZ, which falsely claimed New Zealand had passed a law requiring forced vaccination.

But getting Facebook to act morally and take proper enforcement action is likely to be a long-term, and potentially futile effort.

In the meantime media organisations may have to make more concerted efforts to police the content on their pages.

The question of how to cover Billy Te Kahika Jr

Facebook comments sections aren't the only place where the media is grappling with the question of how to handle misinformation.

As Billy Te Kahika Jr and his conspiracy-fuelled followers continue to gain traction, news organisations are working out how to deal with his movement responsibly.

Some are faring better than others.

Newshub Nation was criticised over an interview with Te Kahika Jr in late August, which some felt gave the former blues musician a platform to peddle false information without being properly fact checked.

David Farrier also criticised Newshub over the weekend for some stenography journalism on the recent anti-lockdown rally in Aotea square. The Herald also came under fire in early September for publishing conspiracy content.

On the other side of the coin, the Herald's David Fisher recently wrote an account of one of Billy TK's meeting in Opononi, where every false claim was flagged and fact checked.

Newshub has also done some impressive work. Its online story on Newshub Nation's interview with Te Kahika contains rigorous fact checking.

Te Kahika's theories are increasingly dangerous to public health.

They helped motivate 1000 people to gather in Aotea Square last week, with the group defying restrictions on social gatherings to protest a currently non-existent lockdown.

Given their increasing prominence on social media, it's possible the media needs to decide a set of guidelines or principles for dealing with demonstrably false information, similar to how they dealt with the trial of the March 15 mosque gunman.

Lessons from the US

The US media has been dealing with the question of how to cover deliberate misinformation since Donald Trump 2016 general election campaign.

Interviewing Trump is similar in some ways to interviewing Te Kahika. 

Both leaders spout false claims that journalists struggle to fact check them in real time, and tend to obfuscate when confronted with their own outlandish statements. 

Even if it's against their will, reporters can easily end up becoming vessels for misinformation.

In 2016 TV networks like CNN had a habit of simply carrying Trump rallies live, broadcasting multiple false claims with no pushback. 

That network has learned a little from that mistake, and now employs reporters like Daniel Dale to carry out breathless fact-checks of the president's claims.

Many US journalists also seem to be constrained by the expectation to appear "unbiased". Organisations like Media Matters have long argued those strictures are allowing the US to descend into a breed of facism without an appropriate level of press outrage.

Media Matters' Parker Molloy tweets a compilation of news stories on Trump musing about a third term

Media Matters' Parker Molloy tweets a compilation of news stories on Trump musing about a third term Photo: Supplied

This has come up again recently, as Trump has repeatedly mused about negotiating a third term. 

That would be illegal, and in defiance of the Constitution. But you wouldn't know that from many news reports, which tend to report his comments with a kind of ‘view from nowhere’ objectivity.

If there's a lesson to be learned here for the New Zealand media, it's that they shouldn't allow the standards of "objectivity" to be manipulated by bad actors.

When someone like Te Kahika, Jami-Lee Ross, or even a more mainstream politician like Jacinda Ardern, says something untrue, it's good practice to call that out, and not just dutifully print the lie alongside an opposing view. 

That kind of “both sides” journalism doesn’t get people closer to the truth. Instead it distorts it, delivering what New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen calls “symmetrical accounts of asymmetrical realities”.

It's worth noting that Fisher's excellent report on Te Kahika's rally in Opononi was labelled comment. Every word of it is backed by research. It gets as close to the truth as possible. It calls out bullshit. Last time I checked, that's what news is meant to do.