Most New Zealanders have been exposed to misinformation and are increasingly concerned about it, according to a survey by the Classification Office. The internet and social media are identified as key sources - while experts and government are trusted more than news media. The Chief Censor says it shows the need for urgent action but that call could also prompt pushback.
The national survey of more than 2300 people aged over 16 concluded misinformation is “undermining trust.”
The Edge of the Infodemic: Challenging Misinformation in Aotearoa found 82 percent of those surveyed were “somewhat or very concerned” about the spread of misinformation in New Zealand and a majority of respondents thought "more should be done about the problem".
The survey found 81 percent of respondents said the volume of misinformation was “increasing over time". Only 14 percent said it was less common or sensed no change, though no timeframe was specified.
“We have seen this play out around the world, and here in New Zealand,” Chief Censor David Shanks stated in the report’s introduction.
“The terrorist who carried out the horrific attacks on mosques in Christchurch went to great lengths to ensure that his white supremacist ideology would reach far and wide online,” Shanks said.
Of those surveyed, 75 percent said false information about Covid-19 was “an urgent and serious threat.”
Two-thirds of people said misinformation had a significant influence on people’s views about public health. More than half of respondents believed it had a significant influence on politics.
The linkage between conspiracy theories and real-world harm had been concerning the Classification Office for some time prior to the pandemic, Shanks said.
"Many of us will have read articles online, seen posts, or had conversations that seem completely at odds with what we know about the virus. Some of us will have seen these theories migrate from digital to physical forms, such as troubling flyers in our letterbox."
The report says New Zealanders tend to distrust online sources of information.
Only 12 percent had high trust in news and information from internet and social media users - and 83 percent think this group frequently spreads misinformation on purpose.
But 79 percent also said they get news or information from social media and also use it to verify information.
The report found New Zealanders have a relatively high level of trust in news and information from scientists, researchers or experts (78 percent) and government agencies and officials (64 percent).
Six out of 10 respondents reported high trust in New Zealand’s news media - a more favourable result than the responses recorded for overseas news media.
However more respondents thought local news media “somewhat more likely” to spread misinformation than government agencies or scientists and experts.
The report concluded susceptibility to misinformation was associated with lower levels of trust in the news media - and higher levels of trust in news or information “from people they know personally.”
“Sources of news and information - and trust in those sources - tended to be similar across ethnic groups,” the report concluded.
But it found “moderately or highly religious people” were “significantly more likely to get news or information from a local community gathering place” and friends and family.
Almost two-thirds trusted the news they personally consumed - and New Zealanders were more likely than those surveyed overseas to be sceptical about news from social media and online search engines.
Trust was higher when it came to news about Covid-19, with 62 percent stating mainstream news coverage of was the best source of pandemic information and only 12 percent said they thought social media was better.
The report found high levels of concern about “twisted and spun” news. The AUT's researchers said that showed New Zealanders want "factual information - and not opinion dressed up as news."
“We must take the findings of this report and meet this moment with meaningful action, because New Zealanders are telling us this matters,” Shanks said in the Edge of the Infodemic report.
The report says more than half (55 percent) of New Zealanders think government agencies and officials are best placed to take action, and the report’s findings support stronger action against the spread of misinformation.
The report found found that a majority of respondents (72 percent) “tend to disagree that people should be able to say what they want on social media if it might be false or misleading".
Another 22 percent "tend to think there shouldn’t be any limits on what people say” and just 4 percent strongly agreed with that statement.
Earlier this month the government also announced a review of media content regulation aimed at better protecting New Zealanders from harmful or illegal content.
The Chief Censor has backed such a move since 2019.
Recently he told a conference on social media the way we regulate media is not fit for the future.
“Broadcasting is not a mandate for the Department of Internal Affairs, but the media ecosystem and the info ecosystem is all merging and morphing into one. The boundaries between the regulatory frameworks are blurring and breaking down and we have an important opportunity to start rethinking what the fundamentals look like,“ he told Mediawatch recently.
In the new report he wrote: “A consistent regulatory approach across non-digital and digital misinformation alike is needed. There could be scope to look at what a better coordinated, modern approach to misinformation may look like as part of that broad review.”
This push, and Classification Office’s new report, come at a time of growing debate about hate speech laws and increased free speech advocacy.
“Addressing misinformation doesn’t mean telling people what to think, or stifling debate with more censorship – but Kiwis want to know they can trust the news and information they’re getting, and government can work together with communities to combat misinformation,” Shanks in the report.
The Classification Office / Te Mana Whakaatu is an independent Crown entity responsible for classifying material that may need to be restricted or banned. This can include films, books, video games and online content but not news media content covered by other regulators such as the Media Council and the Broadcasting Standards Authority.