31 Oct 2019

Plans to combat misinformation in election-year referendum debates

6:29 am on 31 October 2019

The Minister of Justice has plans in place to combat misinformation and manipulation in any campaigns leading up to, potentially, two divisive referendums at next year's election.

Andrew Little

Justice Minister Andrew Little Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

That includes a special team within the Ministry of Justice to direct people to information aimed to be as accurate and neutral as possible, and to be on the look-out for any attempts to deliberately mislead the public.

It's the first time core public servants have taken on this role, and they'll have to walk a tightrope between providing credible public information and getting drawn into any partisan debates.

Voters will not only have to choose the government come 2020, but will also have their say on legalising recreational cannabis, and potentially, voluntary euthanasia.

The latter still has to pass its final reading on 13 November. If it does the referendum will be held.

Minister of Justice Andrew Little said the Electoral Commission would look after the nuts and bolts of running the referendums, whereas the justice team would manage the public information, websites, and respond to public queries.

The team would also have a monitoring role, he said.

"That if someone claims to have a highly authoritative piece of research - it is that, not some sort of highly partisan, highly sceptical or dubious piece of information," Mr Little said.

The Electoral Commission would also keep watch so people did not go "so far wide of the mark" that it crossed over into "misinformation".

The debate was prone to "fairly emotional and irrational responses" but should focus on "real facts, real issues" and in the end the electorate would make its choice, Mr Little said.

Officials operate under strict public sector rules that require them to be politically neutral and non-partisan.

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Nick Smith. Photo: RNZ / Alexander Robertson

National MP Nick Smith questioned the ability of justice officials to be able to stay within those rules, saying for the most part the government wanted voluntary euthanasia to become law.

"It's really inappropriate for the justice ministry to have this role ... when the Cabinet manual and the State Services Commission is very clear they are there to follow the instructions of the minister and deliver government policy."

Mr Little acknowledged it would be "a very difficult balancing act" for public servants to avoid being seen as pushing one side or the other or being drawn into the debate.

"I think they are very alert to that, I think we have a very good culture in our state sector ... those in this unit in justice providing this oversight are totally aware of how they may be drawn in to answering questions and queries - I'm totally confident they will discharge their public service responsibilities with great care," he said.

The End of Life Choice Bill

The sponsor of the End of Life Choice Bill, ACT leader David Seymour, put his trust in the "wisdom of crowds" to identify misinformation or manipulation when they saw it.

"A massive information campaign, or should I say misinformation campaign, has failed to shift public opinion."

Part of that was many people based their views on personal experience, said Mr Seymour.

"They've seen bad death, and they've said 'when my time comes that's not for me, I want choice' ... it's very difficult to overturn people's heartfelt feelings with Facebook advertising."

Vocal opponent and National MP Maggie Barry said she was still hopeful the Bill would fail its third reading, as many MPs still held concerns about the lack of safeguards.

If the referendum did go ahead, she and others with similar views would continue to point out what they saw as the "dangers of the Bill and its flaws" so people could make an informed decision.

She hoped any election year debate would be conducted in a "civilised way".

An MP's job was to stand up for what they believed, but also to act with sensitivity, Ms Barry said.

"And I don't think either side has exactly covered itself with glory, upon occasion, but that said it's important everyone realises how important this issue is and we get a formula whereby the public can have as thorough as view of this legislation as possible."

But Dr Smith said the name of the legislation was in itself a form of misinformation.

"The 'End of Life' phrase makes it more acceptable to pass ... 'choice' has got a nice, fuzzy feel about it but if you talk about, actually, providing injections of poisons to kill people, you get a very different response."

Mr Little said government websites would feature what he described as "independently prepared information relevant to the issues".

Part of the advertising and marketing campaign would be directing people to those sites.

The government would be "looking out carefully" for signs social media or other platforms were being used to mislead people as had happened in political campaigns overseas, Mr Little said.

"There will be some things claimed in each case that will be highly questionable and and it's a question that in the course of the debate that stuff gets called out, and we do our best to keep the debate clean."

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