COVID conspiracies: Question the narrative, but listen to experts - Paul Brislen

A technology expert says people are doing the right thing by questioning what they hear, but are turning to the wrong sources for the truth.

Conspiracy theories have long circulated on social media, but have become increasingly widespread in recent years, with the rise of the QAnon phenomenon, the rollout of 5G data networks and - of course - the COVID-19 pandemic. 

A "particularly virulent" rumour regarding the recent outbreak of the virus, to use Health Minister Chris Hipkins' own words, did the rounds late last week on Facebook and Instagram. It "made some allegations about one of the people who had tested positive, alleging they had broken into a managed isolation facility to see their alleged boyfriend", he told Magic Talk on Sunday.

Later that day at the regular 1pm daily briefing on the pandemic, Hipkins delivered a stunning rebuke of people who share such nonsense, saying it wasted officials' time.

"There will always be rumours, but this one smacked of orchestration, of being a deliberate act of misinformation spreading... At a time when we are fighting a pandemic, we need all hands on deck to beat it down. This sort of behaviour is deliberately designed to create panic, fear and confusion, and it is completely unacceptable."

Paul Brislen, tech PR consultant and former head of the Telecommunications Users Association of NZ, told The AM Show on Monday people need to think more critically about the stuff they see on social media.

"You've got to become journalists, you've got to become sceptical... You've got to ask yourself, why are they saying this? Is it likely that they would know? How am I going to investigate this further? 

"Why would somebody's aunty in Timaru know that the Government is planning to introduce martial law at the end of October? Does that make any sense at all? You've got to think sceptically, always challenge."

Conspiracy theorists would say they are thinking sceptically and challenging the narrative - but Brislen says they're seeking answers from the wrong places.

"People are doing the right thing - they're challenging what they're hearing, they're asking questions, they want more information. That's powerful, that's really good. But you've got to go out and find the people who know what they're talking about and listen to them." 

It's easy to fall into the trap of believing a conspiracy theory, sociologist Dr Tahu Kukutai told The Hui on Sunday, particularly if you're from a marginalised community with good reasons not to trust the establishment.

"[Conspiracy theorists] take advantage of people who have a natural distrust of authority and so it finds very fertile soil in the minds of communities that have been oppressed in the past."

Brislen said it's easy to be fooled, with those behind the fake news becoming ever more sophisticated.

"Some of it actually looks really, really professional. Some of the videos I've seen out of Russia for instance, the Russia Today programme puts some stuff out that is indistinguishable from a real news show, and that really can throw people. 

"You get people sharing it because they think they're doing the right thing. They think they've found something that people need to know about. They get stuck in, they do a little bit of desk research, and next minute you're sharing a conspiracy theory which has no validation, no truth whatsoever - and it's upsetting people's lives." 

Hipkins said when it comes to COVID-19 in New Zealand, the daily 1pm briefings are the "authoritative source of truth".

"Please be responsible and sensible about what you choose to share on Facebook. If it's not verified, please don't share it."