Friends, family and 'middle-aged white dudes' blamed for spread of misinformation in NZ

Half of all Kiwis believe in at least one piece of widely debunked misinformation, a new survey has found.

And that might be because many of us are more likely to trust information we get from friends and family than the news media.

The Chief Censor's office surveyed more than 2300 Kiwis, and found one in five Kiwis believe in at least three high-profile examples of misinformation about topics including COVID-19, QAnon and even the Christchurch terror attack.

"We expect that people will have misinformation narratives that make sense to them; this is what these kinds of conspiracies or narratives are designed to do," said Kate Hannah, a research fellow at the University of Auckland who specialises in disinformation.

COVID-19 was the biggest topic, including its origins and whether it even exists. US politics came second, followed by vaccinations, New Zealand politics, conspiracy theories and climate/environment issues. Over half of Kiwis said they've come across misinformation in the last six months, and nearly a quarter finding it weekly. 

  • About a quarter of New Zealanders believe the virus behind COVID-19 was created in a lab, despite no evidence this is the case, and a similar number think its dangers have been exaggerated, despite millions of deaths. 
  • About 5 percent of Kiwis don't think vaccines work and/or are unsafe, despite hundreds of millions of doses of COVID-19 jabs being administered so far with few serious side effects reported.  Eight percent said they believe the pandemic is being used to "force" people to get vaccinated, despite it not being compulsory for anyone (unless they want to work on the border). 
  • One in seven Kiwis think 5G is harmful to human health, and another 32 percent are unsure, despite there being no evidence it is at the levels used in public networks. Three percent said they believe COVID-19 is caused by 5G, which has no basis in reality. 
  • Up to 8 percent of New Zealanders don't think we've been told the truth about what happened in Christchurch on March 15, 2019, when a white supremacist gunman killed more than 50 people at two of the city's mosques. Two percent don't think it even happened at all. 
  • Three-quarters of Kiwis believe climate change is either definitely or probably true, with 15 percent sceptical and the rest unsure. 
  • Three percent of Kiwis in the survey said they think 1080, a poison used to control invasive species, is part of a "global agenda to control the human population". According to Forest & Bird there are no confirmed cases of any people being killed by 1080, except for one unconfirmed case from the 1960s in which a hunter reportedly ate jam containing the poison.  
  • About one in six Kiwis think the US government either planned or allowed the September 11, 2001 attacks to take place. Three percent have a favourable view of the QAnon mega-conspiracy, which alleges cannibalistic paedophiles have been working against former US President Donald Trump. 

Its spread appears to be the result of Kiwis having more trust in information they receive from people they know personally - friends and family - than government agencies and the media, both here and overseas. 

Previous research has found people who rely on social media for news are less informed and more likely to believe conspiracy theories, and this latest survey found a "susceptibility to misinformation" was associated with trusting friends and family for news.

Only scientists were more trusted not to spread misinformation than friends and family - even then, 14 percent of Kiwis think they often spread it too. 

"While we are lucky to have many wonderful scientists in New Zealand, we have seen a few that consistently offer examples of bad communication or peddle pseudoscientific claims," said Giulio Valentino Dalla Riva, a data science lecturer at the University of Canterbury who once contributed to a paper critical of the 'Plan B' group of academics who claimed last year the COVID-19 threat was being exaggerated. 

"And there is a bunch of senior column writers, mostly middle-aged white dudes, that write very misinformed pieces. There are also many good examples! Yet, it takes way less to break a trust relationship than to build one.  It is up to us scientists to be worthy of the trust of the public."

Men are more likely to believe in misinformation, the survey found. But contrary to the popular idea that nonsense like QAnon has been lapped up by Boomers on Facebook, young people - aged 16-29 - are nearly twice as likely to believe in two or more mistruths than those aged over 50, likely because they're more likely to get news from social media and blogs, which are rife with misinformation. 

Another link to belief in multiple examples of misinformation was found in people with strong religious beliefs, as well as the poorly educated. 

Promisingly, the survey also found more than four in five Kiwis think misinformation is a threat to New Zealand, and more needs to be done to stop it. 

"The impact of false or misleading information is felt heavily on our social and political relations," said Jagadish Thaker, Massey University senior communications lecturer. "Misinformation plays mischief with our trust in social and political institutions, ruins personal relationships, casts barriers for social cohesion, and leads us to make poor choices."