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Misinformation is hurting Aotearoa – it’s time for action

Posted on 09 July 2021 by Oli

"People are scared and don't know what to believe. Everyone is lying."                 –survey respondent

 Misinformation has crept into our lives, language and our local communities over the past few years. We’ve seen how misinformation has caused real world harm in major events such as US elections and Covid-19, but we also see how it chips away at our relationships and communities here.

The quote above struck me uncomfortably as we prepared to launch our report The Edge of the Infodemic: Challenging Misinformation in Aotearoa. It’s uncomfortable because it could be seen as dramatic, fear-mongering even, but it actually reflects what many of us feel. Our research revealed widespread concern about misinformation – with the majority believing that false information about things like Covid-19, climate change and the March 15 attacks is an urgent and serious threat.

I often find myself having these long internal debates about the idea of freedom of speech and misinformation. We all value living in a society where we can exchange views freely, share our opinions, and engage in healthy debate. However, when that freedom is used without care and consideration, it can impede the safety – and therefore freedoms – of others.

It's something we should all care about, and this moment requires us all to work together because, as you'll read below, the alternative is bleak.

Our report surveyed over 2,300 people who shared how misinformation was affecting their lives; It's handy to read through these responses to get a snapshot of our current situation. 

  • "I have lost friendships over false information."
  • “It has affected relationships within my close family. It has caused arguments,  caused a person to be isolated and for friends to start disengaging. It's caused many heated debates and has even led some family members to avoid discussing some of the topics at all."
  • "It takes a mental toll, never knowing what is true and real anymore."
  • "False information warps people's views into unintelligible garbage. It's as dangerous as the virus itself."
  • "Most extremist activity is the result of false or misleading news. For example, the Christchurch attacks deeply affected my community and is the direct result of false or misleading information. Also, issues around vaccine safety and efficacy cause affect my family and me."
  • "There are kids at my school that think 5G causes Covid."
  • "My grandma has shown hatred for people who have done nothing wrong and communities I am part of (like mentally ill and lgbt communities, it's highly upsetting and hurtful to know your family hates you for things u can't control due to people who don't do their research)."

 Understanding the impacts on real Kiwis means we can take appropriate actions to protect whānau and communities. Chief Censor David Shanks has said censorship isn’t the answer for misleading or false material. Though, he does call for better requirements such as accuracy, balance and fairness when it comes to social media platforms: "We could require better transparency from digital platforms about how their algorithms treat misinformation while we are at it. And how about investing in digital literacy to help resist propaganda?"

Of course, this alone won't stop it; we need everyone. Government, communities, Big Tech, whānau and individuals, because we can't sit back and let more of our friends and whānau fall down the rabbit hole.

 If you're worried about someone who’s on the edge of the rabbit hole, this article by David Farrier and psychotherapist Paul Wilson provides some helpful ways to engage.


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