NZ Election 2020: Which parties' Facebook feeds are full of fake news and half-truths revealed in study

Kiwi political parties on the right are more likely to post "half-truths and fake news" on their social media accounts, new research has found

And separate research has found that sadly - depending on your point of view - candidates who lie are perhaps more likely to get elected. 

Political scientists from Victoria University of Wellington analysed posts on Facebook over two weeks in September made by the country's nine biggest political parties - National, Labour, NZ First, the Greens, ACT, New Conservatives, Advance NZ/Public Party, The Opportunities Party (TOP) and the Maori Party. 

The worst offender when it came to fake news and dubious claims was Advance NZ/NZPP, led by former National MP Jami-Lee Ross and blues singer/conspiracy theorist Billy Te Kahika - more than a third of their posts on Facebook were either wholly or partially false.

"Already before the start of the election campaign, the NZ Public Party was spreading conspiracy stories, including the claim the COVID-19 pandemic was planned by the United Nations," said Prof Jack Vowles.

"It is disturbing most of their misinformation is about COVID-19. If widely believed, it has the potential to become life-threatening."

Ross told Newshub he rejects the claim Advance NZ is spreading misinformation and Victoria University does not identify what it claims are "half truths".

"The trouble with the media and academics is they treat COVID-19 like some religion that can never be questioned," he said.

"Groups of scientists and doctors are coming forward more and more to say that the lockdowns and closed borders policies, that Governments like ours are following, are more detrimental long term than the virus itself."

Second was the New Conservatives with just under 20 percent, then ACT, with 9 percent (all half-truths, no 'fake news'). 

Most of the New Conservatives' misinformation surrounded abortion rights, Prof Vowles said, much of it coming from "religious right-wing groups in the US".

New Conservative leader Leighton Baker.
New Conservative leader Leighton Baker. Photo credit: Newshub.

Of parties in Parliament, only Labour and the Greens had a clean record over the two weeks examined (September 17-30). 

A spokesperson for the Greens said they were "proud to be running one of the most positive and truthful campaigns of this election". 

"Now, more than ever, we need honest politicians and parties. When New Zealanders cast their vote, we want to make sure that they have the facts they need to make decisions that lead them towards a better, fairer future rather than having to navigate dangerous lies and half-truths that will mislead them into the same broken systems that have let them down for years." 

Party co-leader Marama Davidson said she finds the research "really heartening".
"The Greens have a really positive vision for Aotearoa, and we're excited to keep up our fantastic progress in the next term of Government."

National has been let down by its leader Judith Collins, "who posted a selectively edited section from the first leaders' debate to make it appear Jacinda Ardern had made a negative comment about farmers that she did not say and denied saying". The researchers noted she has also made "a few other questionable" comments during the campaign that haven't been featured on the party's social media channels.

National's campaign manager Gerry Brownlee told Newshub it's the nature of a campaign that parties will have their own views on different issues. He added it was important to remain positive. 

"As a country, we're facing significant economic decline that will impact every New Zealander, so it's been important to present a positive campaign." 

Of the parties currently outside of Parliament, the Maori Party and TOP had a clean record.

Why all the lying? 

While voters say they don't like it when politicians lie, they do it for a reason - it can work. This week the results of an experiment conducted by British and German researchers were released, showing candidates who promise the world then renege once in office typically have more success in getting elected than those who make more realistic promises.

"There is a clear paradox here in terms of an electorate which says what's missing in politics is greater trust, yet results which indicate that candidates who lie more, somehow still have a higher chance of gaining office," said lead researcher Maik Schneider, an economist at the University of Bath.

"These results should serve as a reminder about the importance of challenging untruths among candidates and, more broadly, increasing and improving transparency in the system."

They suggest "much more robust fact-checking, transparency around campaign finances and public scrutiny of campaign promises would help", and perhaps laws that make campaign promises binding.

That study, 'Honesty and Self-Selection into Cheap Talk', was published in the Economic Journal.

Sowing fear

The Victoria University team also looked at the tone of each party's campaign on social media

Of the parties in Parliament, ACT are running the most negative - half their Facebook posts in the observed period were negative, compared with Labour's 6 percent. National were second, with 22 percent negative posts, followed by NZ First (15 percent) and the Greens (14 percent). 

National had the highest percentage of positive-themed posts - 74 percent. Labour were a close second, followed by the Greens and NZ First. 

Outside of Parliament, Advance NZ and the New Conservatives had the most negative posts; the New Conservatives also had the most positive posts, followed by the Maori Party. 

"Negative techniques are very important," said co-researcher Mona Krewel. "Negative posts psychologically stick with our brains. And once negative information is planted, it is hard to forget. It is more 'sticky' than positive information and we unfortunately remember it much better than positive information and give it more weight."

Dr Krewel said as a party that's in Parliament, ACT should "do better" when it comes to half-truths and negativity. 

"This kind of campaigning behaviour can lead to increased disaffection with democratic politics."

ACT's leader David Seymour says it's the role of the opposition to criticise the Government and "if Labour didn't have such a dire record of public policy failures, we wouldn't have to criticise them".

"Labour claims to have reduced child poverty by 18,400, but this number is not statistically significant and, according to two material hardship indicators, child poverty has actually increased," Seymour told Newshub. He called the study "simply not credible". 

Overall, the researchers said the New Zealand campaign is much more positive and truthful than that being run in the US.

"We can always do better," said Dr Krewel.

Newshub has contacted other parties that are yet to respond. This story will be updated if/when they do.