The threat of disinformation is a real one. A week after elections, in which conspiracies played a bigger role than ever before, Bruce Munro talks to Chief Censor David Shanks, and others, about how best to tackle it without turning New Zealand into a police state.
Stephen Davis is concerned about 5G cellphone towers.
Not because he thinks they are part of an international conspiracy.
His concern is how many have been vandalised and what that shows about the toe-hold disinformation now has in New Zealand.
The award-winning investigative journalist, based in Dunedin, has been researching attacks on cellphone towers by people who believe baseless claims about risks they pose.
By his count, the tally is more than 20 towers set alight or otherwise vandalised, in New Zealand, this year.
"I got this information from various sources, public and private," says Davis, who has made disinformation and conspiracy theories his specialty.
"Attacks were mostly during the [pandemic] lockdown. There have been at least 20, many unreported."
What most concerns him about the figure is that it makes New Zealand one of the world leaders in conspiracy-related attacks on cellphone towers.
"We had more per head of population than other countries ... such as the United Kingdom, France and Australia.
"We may not have men with guns plotting to kidnap governors, but we have our own crazies prepared to take action when inspired by internet-driven falsehoods.
"Kiwis think we are somewhat immune, but we are not."
It is a concern that is shared in at least some official circles.
David Shanks is New Zealand's Chief Censor. He and his staff at the Classification Office set ratings and warnings on films, videos and publications. In rare cases — such as recordings of the March 15, 2019, live-streamed attack that killed 51 people at two Christchurch mosques — they ban material.
Shanks says that after the mosque attacks his office was contacted by people with views he found "personally, quite disturbing".
"Contacts from members of the public saying, 'Look, you've made a mistake classifying the Christchurch mosque attacks live-stream video as objectionable because actually the public needs to be able to see this video so they can see for themselves that it is fake'," Wellington-based Shanks says.
"Even though I was well-aware of false flag conspiracy theorists active in the United States, it never really occurred to me that a similar belief system could be sustained in the New Zealand context. But I was wrong."
The disinformation trend continued into this year's general election campaign season.
In August, when Auckland was headed back into lockdown, National MP Gerry Brownlee hinted at conspiracy when he listed three recent events — official advice about wearing masks, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern's visit to a mask factory and director-general of health Ashley Bloomfield's Covid-19 test — and then added, "It's interesting. An interesting series of facts".
Brownlee never outright claimed Government and health bosses were orchestrating community reinfection. But his statement was enough to cause others to consider the possibility; a notion that Minister of Finance Grant Robertson rejected as "ridiculous nonsense".
More attention was paid to the Covid-19 disinformation, or perhaps misinformation — the first is deliberate spreading of untruths while the second is ill-informed repetition of the first — delivered to large crowds by Advance New Zealand's co-leader Billy Te Kahika jr. The party's Facebook page was removed by the social media platform for "repeated" misinformation breaches.
Where is all this untruth coming from? Could it be orchestrated from afar?
Political commentator Prof Bryce Edwards downplays the risk of external bad actors — individuals, organisations or foreign states — trying to meddle in New Zealand affairs, especially elections.
He points to hot-air claims by Bad Boys of Brexit, Arron Banks and Andy Wigmore, that their assisting New Zealand First leader Winston Peters would bring "mischief, mayhem and guerrilla warfare" to the New Zealand elections. New Zealand First attracted little more than 2.5% of the vote and is now out of Parliament.
"I thought the issue of potential foreign interference was over-hyped," Prof Edwards says.
"I'm more concerned about the vested interests of mainstream politicians and their spin doctors."
Others, however, say it remains a real, if unrealised, threat.
It certainly happens elsewhere. This week United States Justice Department officials said New Zealand had given "substantial assistance" that led to charges against six Russian intelligence officers accused of cyber attacks against Ukraine, South Korea, France and Georgia.
Dr M. Dentith, a teaching fellow at the University of Waikato, says during the 1980s New Zealand was used by technology companies to test out new products and ways of doing things.
"We're just small enough as a Western democracy to be perfect to trial new stuff," Dentith, a conspiracy researcher, says.
"Indeed, there is a theory that certain foreign governments use both us and Australia as ways to test how Western-style democracies respond to certain policy initiatives and the like.
"This doesn't need to be read as conspiratorial; it's just that because we are relatively small and unimportant in the scheme of things, seeing what does and does not work here is useful when thinking about dealing with larger countries."
Last year, Rebecca Kitteridge, head of the New Zealand Security Intelligence Service, told Parliament foreign interference in our political affairs was "plausible and remains so".
The Weekend Mix understands our country's intelligence community continues to hold that view.
The most active disseminators of misinformation in New Zealand, however, are ordinary citizens who latch on to untruths and pass them on to others.
And it is getting worse, much worse, Shanks says.
At the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic he picked there would be an associated epidemic of disinformation and conspiracy theories.
"I had no idea, of course, that we would end up facing situations where conspiracy theories would be conjoining 5G cellular technology with Bill Gates and vaccinations that have nanobots in them that will be activated through these cellphone networks, all organised by an international cabal.
"I don't think anyone could have sensibly predicted that at the outset. But I knew generally that was the sort of territory we would likely be heading into."
The trend was apparent to Shanks because he had observed the way social media and artificial intelligence amplified misinformation.
"There has always been disinformation, there has always been propaganda, there has always been bad actors looking to game the system.
"Those things are supercharged in the digital environment."
In the global digital ecosystem, personal data harvested from "likes", "dislikes", purchases, web searches, photos, friends ... is aggregated and sold to merchants who profile and micro-target people with products and services.
"But what is emerging is that bad actors in the system are figuring out how to weaponise that," Shanks says.
"[It] can just as easily be turned around to micro-target individuals to change their sentiment about all kinds of things."
Shanks says he does not know if, or how much, that is happening in New Zealand.
Davis says conspiracy groups, particularly QAnon, are making big inroads in this country.
"My research has shown that the sinister QAnon conspiracy group has a large and growing following here," Davis says.
According to a New York Times investigation, QAnon emerged in late-2017 alleging a cabal of Satan-worshipping paedophiles is running a global child sex-trafficking ring and plotting against United States President Donald Trump, who is battling the cabal.
White supremacist and anti-vaccine propaganda is also increasingly popular in New Zealand, Davis says.
"I have tried arguing with these people but it is hopeless.
"For instance, Hillary Clinton was not arrested as Q predicted. But Q followers simply say she was and is being held in secret and a fake Hillary has taken her place."
As laughable as these claims sound, disinformation can do real harm in the real world.
"We're tracking the trends and research in this area and tracing the linkages that might go down through the rabbit hole of increasing disassociation from the real world and increasing vulnerability to exhortations to violent or criminal acts."
New Zealand has seen misinformation cause protective medicine to be withheld from children, disease to spread in the community, cellphone towers to be set alight and 51 people to be killed in a terrorist attack.
And it does not matter whether it is disinformation or misinformation, social media researcher Dr Sarah Bickerton warns.
Whether it is a deliberate or unintentional spreading of falsehoods, once it is communicated and shared, "the impact ... is essentially the same," the University of Auckland academic says.
How, then, can New Zealand combat a disinformation pandemic, an infectious info-demic?
And how can that be done without finding ourselves in a worse place than where we started?
There are cautionary tales at both ends of the spectrum, police state and open slather.
China is rolling out a big data "social credit" system in which online and real-life words and behaviour that do not conform to what Communist Party rulers deem acceptable result in "demerit points" that affect work, housing, health and travel prospects.
Shanks calls the Chinese model "horrific" and says there is no way we should use "these very powerful tools ... to protect those in power and to protect the State rather than to protect people".
The United States is struggling with the opposite problem. There, where the belief has been that government should regulate free speech as little as possible, the country is drowning in a mass distortion of truth that is polarising and fracturing the nation. Some in the US have begun tentative conversations about the need for a new approach to their Constitution's First Amendment guarantee of free speech.
Where to draw the line on freedom of speech is "the big question," Shanks says.
He and his staff spend a lot of their time thinking about that.
Causing offence is not the right yardstick, he says.
"You might take offence at something I think is entirely reasonable.
"There is no simple answer.
"Fundamentally, you go back to the fact that freedom of speech is a vital value that needs to be protected. But at the point where freedom of speech ... is starting to potentially cause harm ... then you have a serious balancing proposition that you need to engage with."
Much of New Zealand's potentially applicable legislation was drafted before the advent of the internet and struggles to grapple with the challenge of disinformation in the age of social media. Shanks thinks it should be updated. But he also believes legislation "is not the be-all and end-all" of dealing with the problem and protecting against the harm it can cause.
He has three key suggestions. First, require social media platforms to be more transparent about their rules governing online behaviour and how they enforce those rules. Second, educate people to be savvy social media consumers who are not sucked in by misinformation. And, foster civil society and community organisations to understand and expose disinformation and hate speech on the internet.
He cites the Centre for Countering Digital Hate, in the United Kingdom.
"They seem to do an extraordinary job of identifying super propagators of hate speech and dangerous disinformation. They identify who are the main spreaders, who is behind it, what's their ideology — and often we are talking about extremists, or white nationalists or neo-Nazis.
"And they'll make it so transparent and undeniable that the big platforms, such as YouTube and Facebook, de-platform these people."
Davis is one of those leading the education charge in New Zealand.
He teaches a popular University of Otago summer school course on disinformation and fake news; runs the Truthteller podcast series on local community access radio, is helping Dunedin City Libraries develop an educational feature combating misinformation; has launched a university research project and is planning short-course community education in partnership with the university.
"They key is education," Davis says.
"It's been said, history is a race between education and catastrophe. Unless we act, we will lose this race and be overwhelmed by misinformation and disinformation.
"We are making good progress with the pro-truth campaign in Dunedin. But what is desperately needed is Government involvement and a national strategy."
In response to questions by The Weekend Mix, a spokesperson from the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet said disinformation and misinformation was not an issue the Government could solve on its own.
"How to address the threat ... is actively under discussion between agencies and we will engage on the subject with the new government.
"Efforts to build resilience need to be done in partnership with others, including communities."
Shanks is hopeful New Zealand can beat disinformation.
"This country has demonstrated a very effective and joined up response to the [Covid-19] pandemic.
"Culturally, we seem to have made some quite good moves by being fairly rational, quite evidence-led ... and having a shared community of purpose.
"I would like to think we could also be uniquely positioned to do very well in the face of an info-demic, leveraging some of those similar strengths.
"We could potentially do something that would be very useful for us and a good model for the rest of the world."