The other pandemic — how can Aotearoa protect itself against misinformation?
Jodi Anderson — Policy Director and Jordan Carter — Chief Executive •
While Aotearoa and the world continue to battle COVID-19, there is another pandemic that has spread globally and has now taken root in New Zealand. Called the ‘infodemic’ by some, the spread of misinformation is potentially just as harmful as the spread of the coronavirus.
Misinformation is a broad term that is used to encompass all kinds of false, harmful, misleading and ‘bad’ information. It’s shared for a range of reasons by various people from the unwitting to the malicious, and is shared in many different ways but increasingly through social media. Overseas, we have seen it play a part in winning elections and referendums, in genocide and attempted coups. In the fight against COVID, it has caused people to reject masks and vaccines and to embrace dangerous and unproven remedies, leading to illness and death.
Early in December we attended an event hosted by our partner Tohatoha at which a panel of experts unpacked the issues around the important and urgent topic of misinformation and social media in the age of COVID. It was a fascinating event and we’ve been reflecting on this topic in the run-up to the summer break.
The panel were clear that Aotearoa is not immune from the harmful effects of misinformation. In New Zealand, the ecosystem that creates misinformation is supporting targeted abuse and online violence towards Māori, Pasifika, migrants and ethnic minorities, women, gender minorities, LGBTQIA+ people and others. It is facilitating racism against Māori at the same time as it appropriates Māori identity and culture to spread other harmful messages.
In the fight against COVID, New Zealand has had success by deploying a range of tools against the virus. But how can we protect Aotearoa from this second pandemic? How can we slow the spread of misinformation and mitigate its effects on people? There are no easy answers, and the panel had no easy solutions, but here are some of the things we’ve been reflecting on since the conversation.
It will be critical to understand the problem and put people at the centre of the solution. How does misinformation spread? What is the role of social media platforms and their recommendation algorithms? What are affected people experiencing? What approaches are working at a community level?
It’s clear that none of us can understand the problem, or find the right solutions, if the right people are not included in the relevant conversations and processes. We need deep dialogue with researchers, academics and tech people who are working on misinformation, and that dialogue also needs to include, directly, the people most affected. We need to understand how people and communities are being affected by misinformation and listen to what they need. We need a diversity of voices (including women, ethnic groups, rainbow communities and youth) inside the tent identifying the problems and co-designing the solutions.
To enable people and communities to understand the problems and find the solutions, it will be utterly critical to have greater transparency from companies like Facebook and YouTube that control the dissemination of information to mass audiences using the Internet. Insights into how content recommendation algorithms work, what content individuals are seeing and why, what data about individuals is being collected and how this is used to direct content and so on, tends to be closely held by online service providers.
Misinformation is a complex problem and will require a complex solution. Like the fight against COVID, weaving in layers of solutions is likely to be the best approach. This could include government regulation, steps within industry, social cohesion initiatives run by and for specific communities, humour, education for both adults and children, community controlled platforms, information literacy programmes, strong public interest journalism, prebunking and inoculation programmes, and government support and funding of these and other initiatives.
More challengingly, effective solutions may also require the companies to leave some of the money they could make on the table, compared to today’s approach. There is no doubt the attention economy these companies have built has become very profitable. But its reliance on people’s attention, and how it fosters and drives interaction, is arguably a significant underlying cause of the broader problem, by creating the bias towards highly provocative and re-sharable content that misinformation dissemination relies on.
It’s clear that it will be important to focus on systemic issues, not just on individual education and responsibility. To consider what can be done in Aotearoa, but also where we might need to work across borders. And to understand that everyone has a part to play and that government, industry, experts and the community must work together.
Everyone is responsible for ensuring they are not part of the problem. A particularly interesting point made by the panel was that “people believe that the people they trust will tell them the truth”. This suggests that traditionally ‘trustworthy’ sources of information must be especially careful if they want to be part of the solution, and should be held to account if they do not. ‘Traditional’ media, political leaders, doctors, lawyers and faith leaders, and (more recently) Internet influencers are in a position of great power because of the trust people have in them. These sources can both inadvertently spread misinformation (the hurried journalist that does not check their source) or deliberately (such as the dog whistling politician and the trusted local GP).
The real and enduring solutions will take time. The panel experts were strongly united on one point: that misinformation is the digital manifestation and amplification of existing social fractures, and that solving the problem for the long term will require a focus on social cohesion and not on technical solutions.
Misinformation is deeply rooted in concepts such as racism, xenophobia, misogyny and transphobia and is operationalised through pathways created by societal inequity, the effects of colonialism and deep seated mistrust of institutions. We need to have the difficult conversations as a nation that bring these issues into the light so they cannot be used to divide us in the shadows. Improving social cohesion in Aotearoa was a central recommendation of the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Terrorist Attack on Christchurch Mosques on 15 March 2019 and is the objective of a significant programme of work for this Government.
These are weighty issues. At InternetNZ we are extremely concerned about the potential impact of misinformation on individuals and on our society and democracy. Just as COVID continues to mutate, new threats will continue to develop in the misinformation space, and it’s clear that weaving a solution to protect New Zealanders from the infodemic will not be easy. It will require strong leadership so we know the shape and pattern of the mat we are creating. It will require a mechanism for coordination, communication and collaboration between individuals and organisations working towards solutions, so that we can weave strong sections and do not end up with holes. And it will require support (including funding) for communities and groups finding solutions that work at different levels, so that the mat has enough space for everyone to have a seat.