The dark shadow of disinformation cast over our election

6:25 am on 22 July 2023

RNZ's new multimedia documentary Undercurrent outlines a disturbing spiral of mis- and disinformation in Aotearoa. How has it come this?

A solo mum, Fiona was house-bound with her kids. Whooping cough was working its way through all four of her children - the youngest was only months old.

"I had two kids sleeping on my bed vomiting up because they were coughing all night, and I was just a wreck," Fiona says.

"As you can imagine, that's quite scary."

Through eight gruelling weeks, the only source of real, practical help she remembers getting was from a group of people staunchly opposed to vaccination. Anti-vaxxers.

"The only real life people that helped and delivered food were part of that anti-vax group," she says.

"If I had any health questions, you could post them in the group, there was so much support, they had all the answers. And so you felt like someone had your back."

Fiona has turned away from anti-vaccination misinformation now. She says she started seeing things about the community she did not like. Misogyny was one.

"They just kind of layered everything up," she says.

The community was very focused on itself, rather than the greater good.

"It's really quite toxic ... they have to build up all these other stories around that. And that's ... pretty nasty, and pretty fear-filled."

Now, she says she feels like she's "come back to humanity".

"I feel like I've kind of got my humanity back for the bigger, greater wider community than what I had [in the anti-vax community], because I don't feel like I'm 'us against them' anymore."

Fiona shares her story in Undercurrent, an RNZ documentary series on misinformation. She is one of many New Zealanders who have been caught in the growing web of dis- and misinformation online and in real life.

Recent data suggests almost everyone is affected at some level.

The number of "likes" of New Zealand mis- and disinformation pages on Facebook is up to almost 1.3 million, according to the Disinformation Project. And in a recent Netsafe survey, half of the 2000 people asked said they saw or heard misinformation every day, and over 90 per cent saw it monthly.

There is an important distinction to understand about dis- and misinformation.

Disinformation is stuff that is wrong and that is been made with malicious intent. People who create disinformation know what they are doing.

Misinformation is stuff that is wrong but that was not made specifically to do harm. People who create misinformation may not know they have got it wrong.

Both are harmful. Both are a problem. And both are part of a network that is large, and complex.

What is happening to us?

Conspiracies absolutely do happen, says Matt Williams, a senior lecturer at Massey University.

Tobacco companies covered up evidence that their products caused harm, and fossil fuel producers have suppressed evidence of climate change.

"Our capacity to consider explanations for events that involve conspiracies is actually a good thing in many ways," Williams says.

"It can be useful for holding powerful groups to account when they do conspire to do harm. But at times, people seem to believe in conspiracy theories to the extent that outstrips or is disproportionate to the available evidence."

But what is it about this particular moment that seems to be stoking more of these "disproportionate" conspiracy theories than usual?

By now, you can safely guess the answer, because it seems to be at least of part of the explanation for every major societal question of our time. It is Covid.

The pandemic provided especially fertile conditions for the characteristics of conspiracy theories that make them so enticing.

For one, you will remember that Covid-19 was basically all anyone could talk or think about for a good couple of years. There was a lot of uncertainty about it and lots of people willing to fill the vacuum with their reckons. The more sensational the views, the more enticing they were to many, Williams explains.

"They often involve clear villains, conflict, mystery, they can be exciting," he says.

"Conspiracy theories often blame negative experiences on the actions of some kind of antagonistic or despised 'out' group. By believing in the theory, we can perhaps feel better about our own 'in' groups."

People who watch the internet closely witnessed the change online during the pandemic.

Netsafe's Sean Lyons says the fundamentals of social media have not changed much in the last few years, but what is on it and how it is used has. Covid-19 was the turning point, he says. Conversations since then have an "increased temperature" and often become unpleasant very quickly.

"The other thing I think that really surprised us is the kind of rhetoric that people were prepared to invoke around those conversations, the kind of linkages people were prepared to make between what was a virus and the global propagation of that virus ... to questions of ethnicity, gender, sexuality, religion, all of these things."


The links Lyons describes are no accident.

As the impact of the pandemic ebbed - vaccine mandates were cancelled, QR codes disappeared from shop windows and masks fell into disuse - the community of protest that grew from it needed a new cause. Or causes.

Ideas about wellness combined with paranoia to drive up a movement sociologists have called "conspirituality".

Further into the communities, climate change denialism, Islamophobia, xenophobia and racism appear. All rooted in the notion of a common enemy, and frequently now expressed in extreme language or imagery.

"We are seeing more and more New Zealanders prepared to use language that they wouldn't have used about people five years ago," says Kate Hannah of the Disinformation Project.

You do not need to believe there is a sophisticated masterplan to all of this.

Hannah points out that people who propagate the sorts of misinformation created by Russian troll-farms do not actually need to be people working in a Russian troll farm. They just need to recognise the kinds of content that get followers to notice and spread their work.

At a human level, the evolution of the anti-vaxx communities into new territory is also understandable.

Donna Carson, who researches political dissent and extremism, says many of those who got involved in protests over vaccine mandates cannot simply move on after experiencing profound "moral injury". The affront of rules imposed during the Covid response caused "quite a lot of psychological harm" to some people, Carson says.

"I'm wondering if that's an element of what we're seeing playing out. Because when somebody feels morally rooted in the thought, it gives an extra emphasis for them, and maybe an extra motivation to act."

What comes next

But what about the mis- and disinformation that came before the pandemic? Donald Trump was elected president of the United States in 2016, "fake news" was burned into the public consciousness soon after, and measures of trust in mainstream news media around the world were already well in decline.

On 14 March 2019, Green Party co-leader and Climate Change Minister James Shaw was attacked while walking to work at Parliament. Paul Raymond Harris, who would later say he was angry and upset over the recent loss of his unborn child to a miscarriage, grabbed Shaw and punched him in the face multiple times.

"I remember thinking two things when he punched me, one of which was, man, I'm going to be really late for work. And but the other thing was, what did he mean about the United Nations?" Shaw says.

Harris told a court he was angry about Shaw's views on abortion but Shaw says he only heard him talking only about the United Nations and beneficiaries. In 2022, Harris was part of the occupation at Parliament, protesting vaccine mandates. He was arrested in the aftermath.

The assault on Shaw was serious. He suffered a fractured eye socket, and it sent a chill through the offices of Parliament.

"I've had ministerial colleagues tell me that they just can't go out anymore in public. At all," Shaw says.

The day after the attack, a white supremacist killed 51 innocent people at two Christchurch mosques.

Part of the response to the mosque terror atrocity was a report into the online extremist ecosystem in New Zealand, commissioned by the Department of Internal Affairs. The report found there are over 750 followers of far-right Facebook pages per 100,000 internet users in Aotearoa. In Australia, there are around 400 and there are under 250 in the US and the UK.

In New Zealand, we watched in astonishment at the insurrection on Capitol Hill in US, which was led by a number of avowed white supremacists. The conditions and individuals are not unique to that country.

In the US, as in New Zealand, there are significant numbers of people who feel disoriented by the shape of modern society.

Sociologist Paul Spoonley says that loss of a sense of identity can create what experts call "ontological insecurity".

"They are feeling very, very unrecognised, they are feeling that the world is moving on," Spoonley says.

"And this is where people are saying: 'this country is white, this country is British ... why are we giving so much attention to and resource to Māori? Why do we have to recognise Muslims in this country? Why are we adopting all of these policies to recognise the rainbow community, the trans community, gender rights, or ethnic and indigenous rights and New Zealand?'"

Trump, he says, made prejudice, stereotyping and attacking people OK.

"And I think you can see that in New Zealand, and you can see it at Parliament. But you can also see it in terms of the Three Waters debate or co-governance debates as well."

The 'Jo Cox moment'

Less than 100 days out from the election, there are real fears that the normalisation of hateful rhetoric will spill into a moment of serious violence.

In June 2016, British MP Jo Cox was shot and stabbed to death, murdered in broad daylight by a far right activist, a white supremacist.

Her sister, Kim Leadbeater, succeeded Cox as the MP for Batley and Spen. She says civility in public life and toxicity in politics is no better than when her sister was slain.

"And as we know - as a family to our cost - it only takes one individual, to not be able to see the difference between getting frustrated on social media and shouting and screaming and being angry and using violent language to that actually becoming an act of violence."

Kate Hannah of the Disinformation Project agrees the threat in New Zealand is real but at the same time almost impossible to predict.

"People have been whipped into a frenzy, and there is rhetoric of acceleration. And all of those are designed to find a home and the brain of somebody who will then operate it," she says.

"It's not the people that the police know about, the people I worry about, it's the people that the police don't know about."

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