Talking to Parliament about disinformation

Published 9 November 2018 by Ben Creet

Yesterday morning Andrew Cushen and I presented to the Justice Committee on its Inquiry into the 2017 General Election and the 2016 Local Elections. This is a routine examination of the previous elections that the Justice Committee conducts after each electoral cycle to consider what might need changing to make sure our democracy stays healthy.

We briefly spoke about local government's desire to trial online voting, but primarily we appeared to make one major point - the Committee, Parliament and our government agencies need to be thinking about influence campaigns and "fake news", or more importantly - disinformation. This is a topic that Nicola in our team has been digging into for the last few months and this was our first opportunity to present some of our thinking and research on this important topic.

What are we talking about when we talk about disinformation?

We have identified a schema to understand harmful or false information online. There are three types of 'bad' information, misinformation, disinformation and mal-information. Each requires different interventions.

Misinformation is false, but not spread maliciously. On the Internet this is clickbait, or errors in journalism for breaking news. It is the misinterpretation or parody or satire as fact.

Malinformation is the malicious spread of factual information. This may be related to email leaks or data breaches, and the sharing of private photos or revenge porn.

Disinformation is a part of strategic sustained influence campaigns to mislead the public to achieve a specific political outcome. This is bots spreading false information online, or political leaders disregarding factual reporting as "fake news".

Mal and misinformation can contribute to influence campaigns, but it is the strategic deliberate work of bad actors that we need to be actively thinking about.

This way of thinking about "fake news", helps break the problem down into what the type of information is, and what the goals of the people who are spreading it are. From there, New Zealand can start to think about what regulatory and non-regulatory changes we might want to make to help make it harder for disinformation to take hold in New Zealand.

Cool story Ben, needs more dragons!

I know, I know. You might be thinking so what, what's the big deal. We're not the US. Is little old NZ even susceptible? Well, the Oxford Internet Institute has recorded 48 influence campaigns across the world since 2010 and here in NZ Professor Ann-Marie Brady's Magic Weapons report highlights just one example of how New Zealand's resources and politics can be of interest to another nation-state and worthy of influence.

In August a team of French officials released a paper that suggests how nation states can be vulnerable to successful disinformation campaigns. As we explained to the Justice Committee they point to the following six factors.

  1. Diverse populations
  2. The presence of minorities
  3. Internal divisions
  4. External divisions
  5. A vulnerable media ecosystem
  6. Contested institutions.

Our institutions are strong (arguably), but as a multicultural nation, with a history of division along racial, and rural/urban divides and now a digital divide as well, we could be susceptible to a successful influence campaign.

It's time for NZ to have this conversation

We presented these two frameworks, and suggested that what we really needed in NZ was careful consideration and some good data collection. We did get asked if NZ is adequately protected against influence. What I wish I had said is that we have some solid institutions - the Electoral Commission, CERT NZ, and NCSC to name a few. The answer to that question is that the Committee should be asking those institutions - do you have all you need? How many people do you have looking at, or thinking about misinformation and influence campaigns?

Anyway, what is vitally important is that the Justice Committee's inquiry is the beginning of New Zealand talking seriously and with nuance about disinformation and influence campaigns. We need to work together to understand how we can protect, our democracy so our politics don't turn into a toxic, massively partisan, cesspool of incivility.

There's dragons aplenty in the world of influence campaigns. So armour up, grab your sword and shield and join us. Because we're not finished on this topic, hell we're just getting started!