18 Aug 2020

Family at centre of rumours struggling with online abuse

5:34 pm on 18 August 2020

Fears about how the new coronavirus got past the border and back into the community is driving rumour, misinformation and online bullying, community leaders are warning.

Close up of african American woman hold modern cellphone texting messaging with friends, black millennial female using smartphone browsing internet connection, surfing web. Technology concept

(File photo). Photo: 123RF

Facebook is defending the steps it takes to stamp down on social media, but a technology commentator says it is not adequately dealing with the harm its platform is causing.

Netsafe's chairperson is warning social media users that they are not immune to legal action if they re-post harmful content.

Pacific Response Coordination Team chairperson Pakilau Manase Lua said the family affected by a false rumour on social media about breaking into a border isolation facility was struggling with what had been written about them.

There was a lot of fear in the community as no-one knew when and how the virus re-emerged.

"I think it's terrible that people are finger pointing and blaming something that's completely out of their control of this family," he said.

"There's also a lot of hateful messaging, and very vitriolic feedback from members of the community, when in actual fact they're a victim of something that's been around for some time now.

"Clearly, the misinformation is not just limited to that. There's a lot of conspiracy theory and talk of the virus being a hoax, the 5G stuff all floating around the internet and that's being shared unfortunately by people in a panicked state, confused and in the dearth of no real, true information to share they're sharing the rubbish."

It was important to know the ethnic make-up of those who are infected so the community understands the risks, but without blame being placed on any group.

"If you look at the actual ethnicity data, Pacific and Māori make a very tiny proportion of the overall cases that have been in New Zealand, most of which have flown into the country from overseas, so it would make sense that you would get transmission in South Auckland as the gateway for the virus.

"I don't think most sane rational people would go out there to race-bait, or to cause unrest, but unfortunately when you're in an industry [media] sometimes the temptation is there to try and grab a headline, just a few rogue elements out there in the wider community who create fake news and like to distribute things to incite."

Police said they were not investigating the social media post about the family under the Harmful Digital Communications Act.

An internet law specialist and Netsafe chair, Rick Shera, said a victim of such posts could also make a complaint to Netsafe, and take the case to court if it was not resolved.

They could also take a case for defamation or breach of privacy.

"It's not just the original source, anyone who spreads this sort of material can themselves be liable," he said.

"Of course, the likelihood of an individual taking action against hundreds of people who might have spread this is low, but that doesn't mean to say that people shouldn't be aware that by spreading misinformation they could be brought into these sorts of processes."

Technology commentator Paul Brislen said Facebook had to take more responsibility.

The media giant stopped being a neutral platform for people's views and comments when it began suggesting content, he said.

"We've got laws in place, they just don't get tested a lot because people say 'well it's just too big a problem'," he said.

"I think we've got to start somewhere and we've got to start holding them to account and get them to come up with the solutions to help solve this problem."

In a statement, Facebook said it was "aggressively going after misinformation about Covid-19" and had teams across the company dedicated to that effort.

"We remove content that could lead to imminent harm, and we've applied warning labels to millions of pieces of misinformation," a spokesperson said.

"Conspiracies around the virus continue to be fact-checked by our partners around the world, and we block vaccine-related hashtags which contain known misinformation to reduce its visibility across our services."

Meanwhile, Pakilau Manase Lua, a member of the Pacific Leadership Forum, said the information gap around the source of the latest outbreak was causing people to come up with their own theories.

"We've struggled this time around because this has hit us right in our backyard ... we don't even know where the source of this current outbreak is and that's what's causing the fear, not so much that our Pacific family have it, but they can't pinpoint where they got it from.

"That's the scary thing, not just for Pacific and Māori, but for every New Zealander. And I think that should be the priority rather than finger pointing. Find out where this started and pour your energies into making sure it doesn't happen again."

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