Experts have warned of the risks posed to New Zealand's Covid-19 response by online misinformation as a Kiwi influencer defends sharing conspiracy theories online.
Zoe Fuimaono, who once partnered with some of New Zealand's leading brands, is defending her right to share her beliefs online after posting misinformation criticising the Government's pandemic response.
Fuimaono, who has 64,000 followers and is known as Blessed In Doubles on Instagram, told her followers not to get tested if they don't want to and not to "buy into these draconian laws".
Fellow influencers were quick to criticise the comments in posts on social media, with one describing them as "utter crap" and a leading scientist telling the Herald that the comments risked our national fight against Covid-19.
In posts to Instagram after Auckland's move to alert level 3 was announced, Fuimaono said she had "called it", railed against what she described as Government "lies" and told her followers not to get tested if they didn't want to.
She also questioned the effectiveness of masks and said she would not be wearing one.
"Message your friends who are nurses and doctors and ask them what they think about the community wearing them," Fuimaono wrote.
"They will tell you they won't work because we won't use them properly because we aren't medical professionals!".
The Ministry of Health recommends the wearing of masks when in public under level 3 and the Government's official Covid-19 website offers instructions on the safe and effective wearing of masks.
The ministry also recommends that anyone who has cold and flu symptoms call a doctor and seek advice if they are outside Auckland and advises Aucklanders to get tested as soon as possible.
Microbiologist Dr Siouxsie Wiles, Associate Professor at the University of Auckland, told the Herald that misinformation could "undermine our collective response" to the virus.
"The virus is very real and what we've seen both here in New Zealand and overseas is that Covid-19 can have very serious consequences for many people, including those who are young and healthy," Wiles said.
"People should go to the official Covid-19 website for information," she added.
"It's really concerning that misinformation is being spread as it can dangerously undermine our collective response to the virus. We've shown that we can stop the virus if we work together.
"That means we need people to get tested if they have any symptoms. People in positions of leadership and influence should think long and hard about why they are trying to undermine our collective response to stamp out the virus. People's lives are at stake."
In today's media briefing, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern also addressed the dangers of online misinformation.
Ardern said the conspiracy theories were not new, particularly that Covid-19 was not real, but the global evidence was it was "very, very real" and cited cases overseas where virus doubters tragically caught the virus and died.
She urged anyone who didn't trust politicians to listen to independent doctors and scientists for advice.
Fellow influencer Makaia Carr, whose account boasts more 50,000 followers, called out Fuimaono's stance, quoting her directly but not naming her.
"No ****head, you did not 'call it', everyone expected this (like actual experts, world trends and doctors said it, not you)," Carr wrote.
"Stop spreading utter crap, stick to what's important and what is factual. You are being totally irresponsible".
Fuimaono regularly features her husband Junior Fuimaono, a serving police officer, in her online content.
A source told the Herald they were not impressed with the comments given Fuimaono's frontline role - and were disappointed to see a police partner making such posts.
But police management would not comment, with a spokesperson telling the Herald: "Police will not be commenting on the opinions of members of the public, who are entitled to their own views."
Fuimaono has worked with some well-known New Zealand brands in the past, including Countdown.
That relationship ended last month after Fuimaono expressed opinions online that didn't match the supermarket chain's brand values.
"We've previously worked with Blessed in Doubles to create food content. We reached out to her last month in relation to opinions expressed on her page that weren't in line with any of our Countdown values. We stopped working together very shortly after," Countdown's head of communications Kate Porter told the Herald.
Porter said that Countdown would not be making further comment because "we are focused on the much more important task of keeping Kiwis safe and calm in our stores right now".
In a post to Instagram, Fuimaono said that it was her decision to end the partnership, saying "it had become increasingly apparent to me some time before that that I did not have freedom of speech while I was under contract".
After the furore erupted yesterday, Fuimaono returned to Instagram to defend her comments.
"Sharing my concerns about the current lockdown are my opinions as this is my platform I choose to exercise my right to freedom of speech," Fuimaono wrote.
"I stand by my comments as I am gravely concerned that the rights and freedom of all people in this country are being misconstrued.
"I am not a medical professional and have never claimed to be one, nor have I given medical advice.
"I did not state that masks do not work, I stated that they will not work if they are used incorrectly. There are no laws stating that it is mandatory for me to wear a mask."
Researcher and public communicator Dr Jess Berentson-Shaw told the Herald the nature of social media led to the sharing of conspiracy theory and misinformation, with posts calling it out and criticising it inadvertently leading to it spreading.
"The number of people who believe these things is actually quite small, but it becomes bigger because of the shareability factor," Berentson-Shaw said.
She added that communities could "inoculate" themselves against misinformation by making sure that narratives spread online that contain accurate information.
She highlighted Opposition leader Judith Collins' mask-wearing as social proof that someone in the "questioning space" could still follow public health advice and wear a mask.
Berentson-Shaw warned that misinformation will spike again as New Zealand tackles a fresh outbreak of community transmission, but stressed that the number of people who subscribe to the conspiracy theories is small.