Fake news appears in New Zealand

Posted this week on New Zealand Facebook groups, the headlines tell stories of violence and terror.

They're compelling, confronting - and totally false.

Fake news has arrived in New Zealand, and it could already be in your Facebook feed.

Shared by users from Eastern Europe, they appear in unlikely Facebook pages - a buy, sell and exchange group for West Auckland residents, and another for cars under $2000.

They purport to tell stories of terror attacks in big cities like Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch, with headlines crafted to provoke a response and website addresses designed to deceive - using domain names like www.aucklandnews.tk and www.christchurchnews.tk.

While the stories they're peddling are obviously false, there's little authorities here can do.

".tk" is a free web address, registered in the Pacific Island nation of Tokelau.

Those behind the sites are anonymous and difficult to track - and they may not even be breaking the law.

New Zealand news outlets are subject to the rules of the Press Council and Broadcasting Standards Authority, but overseas websites have no such restrictions.

And while Tokelau is a New Zealand territory, our online authorities have no power there.

Internet New Zealand says the best defence is to be more careful about what we believe.

"I think we all have an obligation to be a bit discerning about who we trust for our information," says deputy CEO Andrew Cushen.

"This is a moment when I think we have to trust our established news sources for authoritative information."

Digital consultant Cate Owen says the motives for fake news content can vary. Some seek lucrative advertising dollars, while others are simply seeking attention.

Ms Owen says most are carefully crafted to appeal humanity's baser instincts.

"They play up to our existing biases. So you see something, you agree with it or it grabs you, and you want to share that with your friends as quickly as possible," says Ms Owen.

"So oftentimes it plays up to a real primal instinct in our brains."

Some sites focus on conspiracy theories - like a story shared widely online in November, speculating falsely that the Kaikoura earthquake was caused by a ship surveying for oil.

Those claims were quickly rubbished by GNS scientists and the oil industry.  But the story itself got big attention - it now has 130,000 views.

Fake news can have real consequences. Last month a gunman with a high powered rifle fired shots in a restaurant in Washington DC.

He was there to investigate a fake news story that he believed about Hillary Clinton and a child abuse ring that was supposedly working out of the restaurant.

And the explosion of such stories online may been a factor in the US election.

Recently Facebook announced new measures to report and flag false news reports.

But for now, fake news is flourishing online - and its seeds are spreading to New Zealand shores.