Week in Review

US ‘fake news’ hits NZ gun buyback efforts

Misleading stories about New Zealand’s gun buyback have gone viral across gun lobby groups and conservative media in North America. Marc Daalder reports on the spread of what one expert has categorised as "fake news".

The story first started on Guns America Digest, the news arm of firearms auction site gunsamerica.com. Published on July 2, its headline proclaimed: “New Zealand Compliance Rate for Gun Buyback Program Stands at Less than 1 Percent.”

There was a good reason for the low rate of compliance: the buyback had yet to start.

The article cited reports from Stuff, Radio New Zealand, and the Washington Post that raised legitimate issues with the buyback process. The lack of a gun registry means police will have a tough time accurately assessing what percentage of now-illegal firearms have been turned in.

However, the conclusion the article drew – that there was a high rate of non-compliance - in the area of 99.3 to 99.7 percent - is equally unverifiable, particularly since the actual buyback didn’t begin until July 13, nearly a fortnight after it was first published.

Since then, more than 3200 now-banned firearms have been handed over to police, alongside an extra 7800 prohibited parts and accessories. The buyback has already dished out more than $6 million to the 2100 people that have taken part in police-managed collection events.

'Sophisticated' fake news effort

Of course, none of this context has been added to the Guns America piece, which went viral among right-wing Twitter and Facebook pages.

Dr Catherine Strong, a senior journalism lecturer at Massey University who studies social media and fake news, told Newsroom the stories appeared to her to be fake news and were particularly advanced.

These ones on the gun control are quite insidious. They’re very sophisticated,” Strong said.

“They look like they’re a genuine news story and they even have links to a genuine source. But if you follow that link and read it, that’s not what that said at all.”

Misleading news about the New Zealand gun buyback picked up particular momentum when US conservative magazine Reason published an article online. Photo: Supplied.

On July 8, American Military News ran a piece in its 'Controversy' section entitled “Less than 1 percent participate in New Zealand gun buyback”. The article used the same flawed logic as Guns America and was shared more than 7000 times, including by a major Canadian gun lobby group.

(After being notified by Newsroom about omissions in its article, American Military News significantly updated the piece. In an email, editor Laura Widener insisted: “It was not our intent, nor is it ever our intent to intentionally mislead people.”
To explain the error, Widener said, “New Zealand’s data on guns is obscure and even difficult for experts to estimate, as I assume you’ve also noticed in your research. We believe all estimates and solid data on the issue should be discussed in the effort of full disclosure.”)

The Canadian Coalition for Firearm Rights shared the AMN article on both its Facebook and Twitter pages, leading to dozens of angry comments and more than 100 extra shares.

The greatest coup, however, came later on the same day when Reason, the US conservative magazine with a circulation of 50,000, ran an article stating: “Noncompliance Kneecaps New Zealand's Gun Control Scheme.” While Reason avoided citing the misleading 1 percent figure, it still failed to note that the buyback had yet to actually begin at the time of writing, which would contextualise any claim about non-compliance.

The Reason article went viral all over again, garnering hundreds of appreciative shares on Twitter and Facebook, including from high-profile US conservatives like Ryan Saavedra, a reporter at the right-wing Daily Wire who has more than half a million Twitter followers.

The entire saga has led to a complete misunderstanding of New Zealand’s gun culture and gun buyback among international firearm enthusiasts.

According to Strong, political groups like the United States’ National Rifle Association use New Zealand “as a patsy".

Gun rights activists enthusiastically congratulated Kiwi gun owners for their “strong resistance” and for “refusing to turn over their firearms to the government”. At the same time, others characterised the nascent buyback effort as a failure and used this characterisation to inform their own policy views.

Strong believed that was the goal of the articles - to portray New Zealand’s gun reform efforts as a fiasco. “They want it to look like it was a failure. This is going to really ramp up.”

She also thought gun lobby groups could well be behind the articles, saying they were known for spreading fake news.

According to Strong, political groups like the United States’ National Rifle Association use New Zealand “as a patsy".

"They can say a lot of things about New Zealand because there’s no way of really proving or disproving it.”

Buyback 'far from a failure' - observers

According to Gun Control NZ, the buyback has been far from a failure.

“The early signs are pretty positive,” said co-founder Nik Green. “The feedback we’ve had is that people feel pretty good about the prices” the Government is paying out for now-prohibited weapons.

Even David Tipple, the outspoken CEO of Gun City, believes the buyback - or, as he terms it, the “seizure” - is proceeding well.

Police expect that the rate of seizure will increase following positive reports of those who have surrendered their guns and received prompt payment,” he said, adding that once gun retailers were able to receive the guns in lieu of the police, it would be “more palatable” for owners.

The police agree. “Following the first successful collection events in Christchurch last weekend, Police is very pleased by the reaction from Canterbury firearms owners,” a NZ Police spokesperson said.

Police declined to comment on the articles being shared overseas.

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