Covid-19

‘Infodemic’ evolves as Covid-19 returns to NZ

Analysis: The return of Covid-19 to New Zealand has been accompanied by conspiracy theories about the virus and the Government's response. How big a problem is this and what can - or should - we do about it? Marc Daalder reports

Last Tuesday night, as Jacinda Ardern revealed that four people in Auckland had tested positive for Covid-19 and the city would be going into Level 3 lockdown, social media appeared to erupt with conspiracy theories.

These ranged from false claims about the Government's response to outlandish theories about the origins or seriousness of the virus. They were spread on all levels, from concerned grandparents posting to their Facebook friends lists to Instagram influencers sharing to tens of thousands of followers.

Politicians got in on the game as well - independent MP Jami-Lee Ross and former guitarist Billy Te Kahika Jr. recorded a livestream heavy on conspiracy theory that garnered more than 100,000 views and critics accused National Party deputy leader Gerry Brownlee of dog-whistling to the same conspiracists during a press conference the next day. Brownlee later said he had got himself into a "bad spot" with his misjudged comments.

But a leading conspiracy theory researcher says the prevalence of misinformation about the pandemic online has not changed in the past week. The tone, however, may have. What threat might this misinformation pose? And what can - or should - New Zealand be doing about it?

Defining the problem

Kate Hannah, an executive manager and associate investigator at Te Pūnaha Matatini, has been following misinformation on social media in New Zealand about the pandemic since its onset in January.

She says that there has been no uptick in conspiracist posting since the Prime Minister announced the alert level changes on Tuesday last week.

"We've been monitoring what is often called in this field 'the infodemic'. That's the plethora of the information that is often available when there is a health emergency like this. The infodemic is never negative or positive, it's all of the information. But what characterises some of that information is it's harder to discern whether it's trustworthy or reliable - partly because of how much of it there is," she said.

"What that at the moment shows us is there hasn't actually been a significant spike in misinformation. It's pretty much bubbling along at the same kind of level across the platforms that we've been monitoring."

There has also been more media coverage of conspiracy theories in recent days, which risks making the issue into something bigger than it is, Hannah said. People often don't read the details of news articles, so saturation coverage of a given conspiracy theory - even if it is attempting to debunk the false information - could just spread the theory further.

"There's quite a significant spike in talking about misinformation in mainstream media. But we haven't seen a concurrent spike in things like bots promoting these things, or highly dubious links or highly dubious sources being tweeted or retweeted or shared."

Newsroom has chosen not to detail any specific conspiracy theories in this article.

Temporary flare-ups

Besides the data from Te Pūnaha Matatini, there is very little information indicating how widespread conspiracy theories might be, Jess Berentson-Shaw said.

"Is it actually any worse or are we just paying more attention to it? We don't really have a huge amount of data on how many people actually believe misinformation about Covid," she said.

Berentson-Shaw researches the science of communication and is the author of A Matter of Fact: Talking Truth in a Post-Truth World. In the absence of data around Covid-19 conspiracy theories, she turns to anti-vaccination sentiment, which is held by just three to five percent of the population, she said.

"We know there's a lot of misinformation out there about vaccinations, but only three to five percent will actually believe that misinformation and refuse a vaccination. Yes, misinformation is out there. Yes, conspiracy theories are out there. We know, if we take vaccination for example, there will be flare-ups of misinformation where you'll get a whole cluster," she said.

"One thing will spark it off - like, for example, a politician talking about it. That will then lead to a whole lot more attention being drawn to it by media. There'll be a flare-up and then it will die down again. And I suspect that this is the same pattern here. Suddenly we've got Covid-19 back in the community so there's a flare-up of the conspiracy theories and the misinformation about it, more attention gets drawn to it and we discuss it more."

In other words, any potential bump in conspiracy theory sentiment online in recent days is likely to be temporary.

A change in tone

Other experts were more willing to say that this round of conspiracism has been larger. M. Dentith, a teaching fellow at Waikato University who studies conspiracy theories, told Newsroom that the environment is more ripe for conspiracy belief now than in late March when New Zealand first went into lockdown.

"I suspect the reason why we're getting a bigger surge in conspiracy theories this time than we did last time is that the world has moved on quite substantially since the initial outbreak. We've seen what's happening in the US and the UK in particular. We've also seen what's happening in Australia," he said.

"When Covid-19 emerged as a pandemic, there was an eventual consensus that the best option was to engage in a lockdown. But what we've seen overseas is that consensus evaporated. The information landscape is so different now that the lack of consensus is grounds for conspiracy theories."

This is Hannah's theory as well: The amount of conspiracy theory posting may be unchanged, but the tone and content might have shifted considerably. Hannah was careful to note that this hypothesis was based on her own personal reading of the data, not computational analysis. Clearer results would become apparent in the coming days as the Te Pūnaha Matatini team continued to work through the previous 72 hours of information.

"My very-much-initial analysis is that, yes, there have been some discursive changes. There are some words or phrases that have been repeated that were not as prevalent six months ago," she said.

Inoculation

The new tone could be more likely to encourage people to breach public health restrictions. Berentson-Shaw has long argued that debunking misinformation doesn't work - instead people need to be "inoculated" against it by being presented with correct information first and then being told they may hear false information about the subject.

"There's no really effective treatment once people have been exposed to misinformation. That's what the research shows us - it's really hard to remove misinformation once people have been exposed to it a few times," she said.

"Inoculation is a much better approach. In Finland, they've started to do specific inoculation in schools. That's where you're actually telling children they are likely to be exposed to misinformation. You're exposing them to the fallacy of it, the motivations behind misinformation, the intent behind it, the strategies and tactics which they will be exposed to.

"There's a couple of really good, high-quality studies which have shown that's really effective, especially around health."

Hannah said that while New Zealanders were inoculated to misinformation about public health measures like social distancing, hand washing, testing and contact tracing, the relatively late addition of masks to the country's health response arsenal meant that some conspiracy theories may have filtered in from overseas.

"That is definitely a possibility. My perception again is that we may have missed the boat on being able to inoculate against the anti-mask conversation, because it's been so prevalent in the reporting of what's happened in the United States, and also in Australia to a certain extent," she said. The Government will have to rethink its messaging around masks, she suggested.

"There is an opportunity to have a conversation about how masks are quite unpleasant to wear, just acknowledging all of those things in a really practical way. It seems like we might have to start from a different basis [than pure public health reasoning] to get the mask conversation on track."

Conspiracy laundering

Both Hannah and Berentson-Shaw also raised concerns about the laundering of conspiracy theories into the mainstream. This occurs when a conspiracy theory that originated on in a small community or a non-reputable site makes its way - possibly in moderated form - into the public eye via news sources and more mainstream politicians.

"When mainstream actors like Gerry Brownlee, that people respect, say, 'Hey, I'm just asking questions' or 'I'm just pointing out some facts', those who are susceptible to being worried and fearful could follow that down to the much more extreme position," Hannah said.

She added that explicit conspiracy-mongering and laundering like Brownlee's "are definitely linked and one becomes an entry level for the other".

Berentson-Shaw agrees. "It seems quite watered down, right? It doesn't look like a full-on conspiracy theory but the whakapapa of it, or the foundations of it, are really based in this conspiracy theory," she said.

"It's similar to dog-whistling. And what happens when politicians do that is it then has more veracity in the mainstream. It really undermines and is particularly bad for those vulnerable communities who already don't trust Government. The onus, in a pandemic especially, is on public figures being incredibly careful with their behaviour and the way in which they are whistling to this type of misinformation."

Michael Baker, a member of the Government's technical advisory group for Covid-19 and a professor at Otago University's Department of Public Health, was critical of Brownlee's comments in particular.

"That strikes me as utterly absurd, to imply that. I almost thought I wasn't even hearing that right," he said of Brownlee's suggestions.

Impacts on compliance

Experts spoken to by Newsroom said they were concerned that the change in tone in conspiracy theories would have an impact on compliance with restrictions.

"What I would just say is that I am concerned that the more people who believe the theories, the more that will undermine our collective response. So hopefully it's just a small number of people and we can cope with that little bit of wiggle, but obviously the bigger it gets and the louder those voices are, then the more dangerous it becomes," Siouxsie Wiles, a microbiologist and expert on infectious diseases at the University of Auckland, told Newsroom.

Tom Barraclough, an expert on misinformation and the co-founder of the Brainbox Institute, said he was concerned that non-compliance could seriously threaten the country's health response.

"There's been a consistent emphasis from the Government that if we had to rely on hard enforcement of lockdown conditions, then we couldn't do it. There's a real emphasis on good will and cooperation and people doing the right thing," Barraclough said.

Berentson-Shaw was also concerned that, even if her anti-vaccination sentiment allegory was correct, the situations don't perfectly align.

"One of the potential problems in that, of course, is that the seriousness of people behaving in a way outside of good public health advice because of a flare-up is actually more critical during a pandemic than, say, other vaccination events. If people don't follow lockdown rules if we go into another lockdown or if they don't follow good public health advice, the impact of that is potentially more serious than during non-pandemic phases," she said.

"We don't know for sure, but there is reason to say it's really important that we understand this and try to get on top of it, because the implications are more serious if people decide that they don't want to follow good public health advice."

Possible responses

What can be done to stop this? To some extent, it may be a bit late.

Berentson-Shaw said that, in the information age, inoculating against misinformation should form a basic part of any country's pandemic response plan. If governments aren't proactive, then it becomes difficult to debunk entrenched ideas. That falls in line with Hannah's concerns that conspiracy theories about masks have already taken hold in New Zealand.

Anti-lockdown protesters at Parliament in June, which was before any recommendation to wear masks in New Zealand. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

However, Berentson-Shaw also added that some groups are more vulnerable to misinformation than others. Māori, Pasifika and other marginalised groups with a bad history of interaction with government and pakeha experts could tune out daily press conferences by Jacinda Ardern and Ashley Bloomfield. More work needs to be done to empower Māori voices, like Te Rōpū Whakakaupapa Urutā, a group of tangata whenua public health experts created to respond to the pandemic.

Barraclough said that the Government probably shouldn't be in the business of debunking or fact-checking misinformation. However, some sort of centralised effort to monitor and publicise data about the spread of misinformation in New Zealand would be desirable.

"To the best of my knowledge, it's nobody's job to monitor that. It's the responsibility of a range of agencies, and I think that's fine to a certain level, but it makes it very hard to coordinate efforts," he said.

"I just think we need a clear plan for early warning signs, for example. If we seem to see a lot of behaviour going on that seems to fray at the fabric of social cohesion with the intent of undermining New Zealand's response, who's going to know? What's our canary in the coal mine?"

Individuals also have a role to play, Hannah said.

"For those people on your Facebook page, don't engage online, engage with them in person when we can or privately," she recommended.

"Don't come at them from a 'you're wrong' point of view, but try and find out where their fear is coming from and talk to them through that lens of how we have collective and shared values."

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