Rise in disinformation, conspiracy theories prompts calls for urgent election protection

An expert warns unprecedented levels of disinformation will only get worse this election.
An expert warns unprecedented levels of disinformation will only get worse this election. Photo credit: RNZ

By Russell Palmer for RNZ

Unprecedented levels of disinformation will only get worse this election, but systems set up to deal with it during the pandemic have all been shut down, Disinformation Project researcher Sanjana Hattotuwa has warned.

He says the levels of vitriol and conspiratorial discourse this past week or two are worse than anything he's seen during the past two years of the pandemic - including during the Parliament protest - but he's not aware of any public work to counteract it.

"There is no policy, there's no framework, there's no real regulatory mechanism, there's no best practice, and there's no legal oversight," Dr Hattotuwa told RNZ.

He says urgent action should be taken, and could include legislation, community-based initiatives, or a stronger focus on the recommendations of the March 15 mosque attacks inquiry.

Highest levels of disinformation, conspiratorialism seen yet

Dr Hattotuwa said details of the project's analysis of violence and content from the past week - centred on the Posie Parker visit - were so confronting he could not share it.

"I don't want to alarm listeners, but I think that the Disinformation Project - with evidence and in a sober reflection and analysis of what we are looking at - the honest assessment is not something that I can quite share, because the BSA (Broadcasting Standards Authority) guidelines won't allow it.

"The fear is very much ... particularly speaking as a Sri Lankan who has come from and studied for doctoral research offline consequences of online harm, that I'm seeing now in Aotearoa New Zealand what I studied and I thought I had left behind back in Sri Lanka."

The new levels of vitriol were unlike anything seen since the project's daily study began in 2021, and included a rise in targeting of politicians specifically by far-right and neo-Nazi groups, he said. But - as the SIS noted in its latest report this week - the lines were becoming increasingly blurred between those more ideologically motivated groups, and the newer ones using disinformation and targeting authorities and government.

"You know, distinction without a difference," he said. "The Disinformation Project is not in the business of looking at the far right and neo-Nazis - that's a specialised domain that we don't consider ourselves to be experts in - what we do is to look at disinformation.

"Now to find that you have neo-Nazis, the far-right, anti-semitic signatures - content, presentations and engagement - that colours that discourse is profoundly worrying because you would want to have a really clear distinction.

"There is no guardrail on Telegram against any of this, it's one click away. And so there's a whole range of worries and concerns we have ... because we can't easily delineate anymore between what would have earlier been very easy categorisation."

Green Party co-leader Marama Davidson said she had been subjected to increasing levels of abuse in recent weeks with a particular far-right flavour.

"The online stuff is particularly worrying but no matter who it's directed towards we've got to remember that can also branch out into actual violence if we don't keep a handle on it," she said.

"Strong community connection in real life is what holds off the far-right extremism that we've seen around the world ... we also want the election to be run where every politician takes responsibility for a humane election dialogue that focuses on the issues, that doesn't drum up extra hate towards any other politician or any other candidate."

Limited protection as election nears

Dr Hattotuwa said it was particularly worrying considering the lack of tools in New Zealand to deal with disinformation and conspiratorialism.

"Every institutional mechanism and framework that was established during the pandemic to deal with disinformation has now been dissolved. There is nothing that I know in the public domain of what the government is doing with regards to disinformation," Dr Hattotuwa said.

"The government is on the backfoot in an election year - I can understand in terms of realpolitik, but there is no investment."

He believed the problem would only get worse as the election neared.

"The anger, the antagonism is driven by a distrust in government that is going to be instrumentalised to ever greater degrees in the future, around public consultative processing, referenda and electoral moments.

"The worry and the fear is, as has been noted by the Green Party, that the election campaigning is not going to be like anything that the country has ever experienced ... that there will be offline consequences because of the online instigation and incitement.

"It's really going to give pause to, I hope, the way that parties consider their campaign. Because the worry is - in a high trust society in New Zealand - you kind of have the expectation that you can go out and meet the constituency ... I know that many others are thinking that this is now not something that you can take for granted."

Dr Hattotuwa said countermeasures could include legislation, security-sector reform, community-based action, or a stronger focus on implementing the recommendations of the Royal Commission of Inquiry (RCOI) into the terrorist attack on Christchurch mosques.

"There are a lot of recommendations in the RCOI that, you know, are being just cosmetically dealt with. And there are a lot of things that are not even on the government's radar. So there's a whole spectrum of issues there that I think really call for meaningful conversations and investment where it's needed."

National's campaign chair Chris Bishop said the party did not have any specific campaign preparations under way in relation to disinformation, but would be willing to work with the government on measures to counteract it.

"If the goverment thinks we should be taking them then we'd be happy to sit down and have a conversation about it," he said.

"Obviously we condemn violent rhetoric and very sadly MPs and candidates in the past few years have been subject to more of that including threats made to their physical wellbeing and we condemn that and we want to try to avoid that as much as possible."

Labour's campaign chair Megan Woods did not respond to requests for comment.

Ardern's rhetoric not translating to policy

Former Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern spoke during her valedictory farewell speech in Parliament on Wednesday about the loss of the ability to "engage in good robust debates and land on our respective positions relatively respectfully".

"While there were a myriad of reasons, one was because so much of the information swirling around was false. I could physically see how entrenched it was for some people."

Ardern is set to take up an unpaid role at the Christchurch Call, which was set up after the terror attacks and has a focus on targeting online proliferation of dis- and mis-information and the spread of hateful rhetoric.

Dr Hattotuwa said Ardern had led the world in her own rhetoric around the problem, but real action now needed to be taken.

"Let me be very clear, PM Ardern was a global leader in articulating the harm that disinformation has on democracy - at NATO, at Harvard, and then at the UN last year. There has been no translation into policy around that which she articulated publicly, so I think that needs to occur.

"I mean, when people say that they're going to go and vent their frustration it might mean with a placard, it might mean with a gun."