25 Oct 2020

Should we fear fake news in our politics?

From Mediawatch, 9:10 am on 25 October 2020

Fears that foreign political consultants and fringe parties would turn Facebook followers and fake news into votes in the election proved unfounded. The major parties mostly ran a clean game online too. So is misinformation in political messages really something to worry about?

Dr Mona Krewel

Dr Mona Krewel Photo: RNZ Mediawatch

At the last election in 2017 worries about the political impact of misinformation were only beginning to emerge here as people tried to make sense of the role it played in the UK’s Brexit Vote and the 2016 US election. 

In subsequent elections in France and Australia and elsewhere, fake stuff and degrees of misinformation on social media became part of the campaign strategy even from established political parties. 

“I don’t want New Zealand to fall into the trap of the negative fake news style campaigns that have taken place overseas in recent years,” Labour Party leader Jacinda Ardern said in January.

But political parties here - including her’s - had to be prompted to sign up for the Facebook transparency tool which reveals how much parties spend on specific online ads, how often and who they target with those ads. (Labour, the Greens and ACT signed up before Facebook made it compulsory in mid June.)

As the election drew closer, the so-called ‘Bad Boys of Brexit’ claimed they had done a deal with NZ First to deliver “Winston on steroids” via social media. The National Party was putting out misleading memes on Facebook and Twitter and statistically-unsound graphics, some of which were deemed merely “mischievous” rather than misleading by the advertising watchdog.   

Billy Te Kahika Jr seized on Covid-19 misinformation and conspiracy theories in his bid to build support for his new political movement - later joined by former Botany MP Jami-Lee Ross and his Advance NZ party. Just two days from the end of polling Facebook removed Advance NZ's page for "repeated" violations of its misinformation policy.

Co-leader Billy Te Kahika Jr said he was "horrified beyond belief" at being de-platformed - while others asked what took Facebook so long to enforce its own long-standing terms and conditions.

But last weekend it became clear they had converted only a fraction of their Facebook following into votes. 

Do we really need to fear political fake news disrupting our democracy? 

Victoria University of Wellington Professor Jack Vowles told a university podcast early in the election campaign social media messages were definitely reaching more potential voters.

He said 3 percent  of people surveyed received political ads on social media in 2011. By the 2017 elections that was up to 12 percent. And another thing which means we ought to pay attention to parties’ social media election messages: we’re all paying for a lot of them.  

“It is an effective means of political communication now for parties and we've seen them transfer the resources they use to campaign from television to social media," he said. 

One of several National Party online ads featuring statiscaly exaggerated graphic.

One of several National Party online ads featuring statiscaly exaggerated graphic. Photo: screenshot

The New Zealand Social Media Study (NZSMS), led by Dr Mona Krewel and Professor Jack Vowles from Victoria University of Wellington’s Political Science department, scrutinised thousands of social media posts from political parties during the final four weeks of the campaign.

It’s part of the Digital Election Campaigning Worldwide project which analyses elections around the globe. In time it will reveal whether our political players are as prone to political misinformation as others. 

Dr Krewel told Mediawatch the study found New Zealand’s parties and their leaders overall ran positive messages during the campaign.

“Judith Collins and also the National Party have been more negative than Labour. However, this is normal, as challenger parties ... they use all forms of communication to level the playing field.”  

They not only post more, but also show a higher incidence of negativity and the traditional media pick up on that, she said.

For the same reason, the study found minor parties and their leaders have also been more negative than the major parties - and they are also more dependent on media attention.

But Dr Krewel said the amount of fake news and half-truths in the campaigns was pretty low. Several parties did not post any fake news at all - and most posts with misinformation were “half-truths”. 

National Party leader Judith Collins was criticised for posting a selective soundbite of Jacinda Ardern from the first live leaders’ TV debate. But Dr Krewel noted the party leaders were far less likely to post fake news and half-truths themselves.

That was generally left to parties’ online accounts - presumably to minimise the risk of blowback for the individuals. 

Is there an upswing in false claims online? 

During the 2017 general election campaign, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) received only 16 complaints about advertising with false content. 

But with 10 days to go before the 2020 election, Newsroom.co.nz reported it had received 80 - and even some Advance NZ ads were still circulating even after they had been deemed misleading by the regulator. 

The news media focused on Advance NZ and Billy Te Kahika Jr for online misinformation. 

Talk to the hand - Newshub's political editor  Tova O'Brien accuses Advance NZ leader Jami-Lee Ross of "peddling misinformation" during the election campaign.

Talk to the hand - Newshub's political editor Tova O'Brien accuses Advance NZ leader Jami-Lee Ross of "peddling misinformation" during the election campaign. Photo: screenshot / Newshub Nation

The media were right to focus on them, Dr Krewel told Mediawatch.

She said the worst offender was Advance NZ (half-truths: 31 percent, fake news: 6 percent) and the New Conservatives (half-truths: 16 percent, fake news: 3.7 percent). 

“Our data also shows that most of the misinformation was around Covid-19 and if this misinformation becomes widely spread, it has the potential to become life-threatening,” she said.  

News media have upped the game a with fact-checking during this campaign, such as Stuff’s The Whole Truth and Australian news agency AAP factchecks reported by other media

Dr Krewel said the higher the trust in the established media, the better are the chances that this fact-checking has a positive effect. 

“I think it is definitely very welcome when the traditional media fulfills its role as watchdog and keeps a sharp eye on the parties in an election campaign. The politicians get wind of being fact-checked pretty soon and might fear reputational damages. In particular, the major parties won’t risk too much reputational damage,” she said.   

Dr Krewel said some use traditional media criticism of their social media campaigns strategically.  

“Parties such as Advance New Zealand might care a lot less about this, as it is part of their rhetoric that the media elites want to silence them and that they are the ones who tell the truth,” she said. 

Regulatory authorities in all countries must understand how fast social media is and react faster to complaints, Dr Krewel said.  

But she said she thinks in general the study shows that regulations around campaigning in New Zealand are working. Compared to some other countries, there are more ways to complain about fake news in New Zealand and - if it’s bad enough - stop it from being repeated. 

The Advertising Standards Authority takes complaints about political party advertising. The Broadcasting Standards Authority, the New Zealand Media Council and the Electoral Commission also have a role.

“However, this monitoring still has some limits: if a Facebook post is ‘unpaid content’, then it falls outside the brief of complaints about advertising. And it can take some time until misleading content is taken down and until then it is on display,” said Dr Krewel.