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We’re on the Edge of the Infodemic

Posted on 02 July 2021 by David Shanks

The Covid-19 pandemic has put the problem of misinformation high on the international agenda. We are all living in the age of the infodemic, and New Zealand isn’t immune.

Many of us will have read articles online, seen posts, or had conversations that seem completely at odds with what we know about the virus. Claims that Covid-19 is no more dangerous than the common flu, or even that it is a hoax. Even more worrying, the spread of implausible theories linking Covid-19 with 5G telecommunications networks appear to have inspired a spate of destructive attacks on cell towers over the past year.

The linkage between conspiracy theories and real-world harm had been concerning us at the Classification Office for some time prior to the pandemic. The terrorist who carried out the horrific attacks on mosques in Christchurch in March 2019 seemed to go to great lengths to ensure that his white supremacist ideology would reach far and wide online. More recently, the influence of misinformation and conspiracy theories on the crowds that stormed the Capitol building in Washington on January 6th illustrated how quickly conspiracies can progress from being an online curiosity to becoming a threat to democracy.

In order to understand more about the challenges of misinformation in Aotearoa, we decided to undertake this research project.

We found that misinformation is common – and Kiwis are concerned about it. 

The rise of digital platforms appears to play an important role in this. The internet has become the most popular source of news and information for New Zealanders, even though generally we are much less likely to trust online-only sources of information.

We found that just about everyone is affected in some way, no-one is immune from misinformation. You can’t make assumptions about someone’s vulnerability to misinformation based on things such as their age, gender, ethnicity or other characteristics.

It is not surprising therefore that we found that a vast majority of New Zealanders think that something should be done about the problem of misinformation.

But what can be done? We at the Classification Office can play some role in assessing and restricting publications and posts at the far end of the misinformation spectrum, where some people may promote violence and criminal activity. But most misinformation does not include these extreme elements. We don’t want to start censoring publications simply for being false or misleading.

But there are many other practical steps that can be taken. Our levels of confidence in the accuracy of broadcast and print news media in this country are at least partly due to the requirement that such news be accurate, balanced and fair – could we adapt similar requirements for 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?

Weaving these and other measures into a net that can contain the rising tide of misinformation will not be easy – but it will be worth it. If our experience is any guide, the communities that have faced the challenges of misinformation the longest, together with rangatahi, will have the best insights into how we build a future where we can trust our news and information.

We don’t have to give in to misinformation. Let’s pay attention to this evidence, listen to what people have to say, and do what we need to do to turn the tide around.

Help information

This research deals with some difficult topics. If you’re feeling anxious, uncomfortable, or overwhelmed, try talking it through with trusted friends or whānau – or you can free call or text 1737 for more support.  

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