Collins' fake news blunder a Bridges fail

8:41 pm on 7 August 2018

By Anna Connell*

Opinion - Social media snafus involving politicians always make for good headlines and give New Zealand's veracious Twitter community something to feast on for a day.

Judith Collins

Judith Collins Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

Some are unfortunate but very funny, like David Seymour's attempt to trip up the Greens by tweeting that there weren't any of them on his bus.

He was himself tripped up by the timestamp on that tweet, sending it well past the start of the working day.

Some comments from MPs online are just so tone deaf that it is difficult to believe they couldn't see they were sailing into a wave of criticism, like Nicky Wagner and her tweet about being busy with disability meetings in Auckland but wishing she was out on the harbour.

Some are foolish, like Chris Bishop's brief foray into Snapchat. Some are unpleasant to witness, like Metiria Turei and Tracey Martin's showdown about racism.

And some, according to opposition leader Simon Bridges today are just "mistakes".

I am of course talking about his response to Judith Collins' tweet of a fake news story about France abandoning age-based sex laws from a website that also claims US pop star Katy Perry thinks eating people is cool. Ms Collins tweeted the story on Monday and indicated she'd like to see a response from Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern on the issue.

While I am comfortable believing she didn't recognise the link she posted as being from a fake news site, she tagged in the Prime Minister. If Collins didn't already have a reputation for being aggressive on social media, maybe you could argue she genuinely wanted a response from her, but it appeared more like a bid to coax the PM into having to make a statement on a particularly difficult issue without having the facts at hand. It was incendiary behaviour and only made Collins' apparent concern about the issue seem disingenuous.

National Party leader Simon Bridges fields media questions before heading into the House.

National Party leader Simon Bridges Photo: VNP / Daniela Maoate-Cox

This is where politicians do need to be increasingly careful, not for the sake of their own reputations but the sake of holding on to that which fake news seeks to undermine. The spread of fake news and the demand for it feeds on the desire to score political points and undermine objective truth. If you don't like a fact, you can simply find another to suit your partisan point of view. The more Twitter becomes home to adversarial and combative behaviour from politicians abroad and in New Zealand, the more fake news will surface and spread.

Ms Collins has further defended her tweet, saying the story was also to be found on reputable news sites. But for me, that's not really the point. The point is that a major political party in New Zealand seems to be a bit ambivalent about whether fake news is something they should openly and firmly condemn when given a clear opportunity to do so.

Perhaps the biggest trick missed here was by Bridges who had an opportunity to be assertive and say something meaningful about combating the forces that seek to undermine democracy but instead chose to focus on the bit that was easiest to dismiss. He could have easily let Ms Collins off lightly while still sounding like he's not naïve to what's happening in the world around him.

Either we have a political environment where all actors accept the integrity of the media is vital and therefore support a response to the spread of fake news by one of their members that's more fierce than 'we all make mistakes' - or we have an emerging post-truth environment where politicians prefer to push their agenda, weaponise ignorance and score their points by any means and sources available.

While Ms Collins might be beyond wrangling and may have genuinely made a mistake, there were grander ideas at play here. Social media is not a toy. Fake news is not a trifling concern. They are multi-billion-dollar forces that have been used to influence elections. By failing to grasp this opportunity to say something decisive, Bridges not only looks naïve but conveniently ignorant.

*Anna Connell is a digital strategist, columnist and commentator who writes about social media, digital news, politics, diversity and gender equality.