Kiwis are facing a surge of falsehoods and fabrications as the world fights Covid-19 and New Zealand faces an election and two divisive referenda. What's driving the rumour mill and how can we stay informed? Cherie Howie finds out
He's the President of the United States. She's the Queen of Pop.
So when Donald Trump and Madonna open their mouths, old school jaw drop or new school finger to screen, they have immense power.
With a collective 100 million-plus followers on their favoured social media platforms, Twitter and Instagram, their words - and those of others they choose to endorse - travel far.
But do they know s***?
No, according to the platforms they posted to last month.
A Trump retweet and, hot on its heels, a Madonna post - both spreading a Covid-19 conspiracy theory claiming a cure for the virus has been found - were deleted by each platform.
Madonna, who rose to fame in the 80s with a string of hits including Vogue and Like a Prayer, wrote that a Houston doctor's video claiming to have treated 350 coronavirus patients with hydroxychloroquine showed a curehad been "proven and has been available for months".
"They would rather let fear control the people and let the rich get richer and the poor get poorer."
Scientists are trying to find answers to the virus which has this year infected more than 20 million and killed 745,000, but success remains elusive so far.
After initially blurring the video, captioning it "false information", linking users to factual information and limiting the video's spread, Instagram deleted the pop icon's post.
Did those actions undo the damage done? Maybe. But likely not totally.
Check your own social media feeds or listen to some real world chat after our new lockdown.
One untrue Facebook post about the family at the centre of the latest Covid-19 outbreak was shared so much, the Government was forced to debunk it and warn against using social media as a source of truth.
At the daily Covid press conference on Sunday, Health Minister Chris Hipkins said sharing the unverified information had created "extreme distress" for the family - one post in particular contained a "number of vile slurs and was totally and utterly wrong".
He made a plea to New Zealanders to not share "unverified nonsense", and said information sourced on social media could not be treated as official.
Other reckons landed as quickly as officials at a lectern after a new outbreak, among them those of Kiwi influencer Zoe Fuimaono who responded to Auckland's level 3 announcement by railing on Instagram against what she described as Government "lies".
Fuimaono also questioned the effectiveness of masks and told her 64,000 followers not to get tested if they didn't want to.
We were no better in the first lockdown, when cell towers were attacked after they landed in the sights of conspiracy theorists blaming the rollout of 5G wireless technology for Covid-19, along with bee deaths and cancer diagnoses.
In an interconnected world, we're all affected by a virus which has not only taken lives but has savaged economies and halted personal freedoms.
The words of Trump and Madonna aren't dangerous only in faraway places.
They add high-profile oomph to the misinformed musings of our own big mouths and pot-stirrers and, collectively, have the power to do much more than annoy.
They can change lives.
On October 17, we'll vote in the most important election of our times. Whoever moves into the 9th floor of the Beehive faces leading the country out of potentially its biggest economic challenge in almost a century - while also dealing with one of our biggest health crises.
As if that's not enough, we'll also be voting on two issues which could change all our lives in the most fundamental way - in one case, how our lives end.
There's so much noise already.
It's not going to get quieter as political parties jostle for power, Covid-19 rears its destructive head again and those on each side of the end of life choice, and cannabis legislation and control, referenda make their case.
Misinformation isn't a given. But the risk is there.
So, how do we know what's right and what's wrong, especially when some of those with the loudest voices can be the utterly random and unqualified. Who can we trust?
It can be fun to laugh at some of Trump's reckons, especially when they affect Americans and not us. You might even slap on some orange-hued foundation and roll out a TikTok recreating the most outlandish.
But being captured by misinformation isn't American. It's human.
'There's so much misinformation online': Expert
There's already a lot of New Zealand-specific misinformation happening on social media right now, especially around issues relating to life and death, says University of Auckland communications lecturer Ethan Plaut.
"I've seen some images intended to distort issues … [relating to] abortion and euthanasia. Underhanded, manipulative techniques tend to come up a lot around those kinds of deeply emotional issues."
National MP Harete Hipango came under fire in July when she wrote on Facebook that Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern supported full-term abortion, part of a post blasting the PM's comments on support for those going through infant mortality after she voted in favour of abortion.
Ardern, along with National leader Judith Collins and 66 other MPs conscience - voted successfully for legalising the practice in March.
In response Ardern said MPs were entitled to their views, but the legislative changes had been characterised in a way that didn't reflect the law change.
Plaut isn't surprised by the fervour of posts such as Hipango's.
"A lot of politics is emotional. It's not rational. We [also] see a lot of misinformation around things like immigration.
"There are all kinds of reliable numbers around that, how many people are coming in, how much they contribute to the economy, and yet at debates the messaging about that is oftentimes not on the substance of the issue."
Meanwhile billboards relating to the marijuana debate don't misinform "in the sense of full on, manipulative propaganda full of lies", but voters still need to keep their critical thinking hat on.
"With any paid-for political message people need to be a little dubious about whether it's informing them or trying to sway them.
"[Informing] is fundamentally not the goal of even the mainstream political communication that we see on billboards and TV … even that stuff is really trying to manipulate you, rather than inform you."
At least you knew where the information was coming from though. In the online world, that's not always the case, Plaut says.
"You don't know where it's coming from, who wrote it, whose money is behind it. You don't really know what its goal is. It can become very hard to know how to make sense of it."
Maybe we shouldn't, Plaut says.
Social media, while great for idly passing time and staying in touch with others, isn't built to be a medium for democratic communication and debate.
"[Social media's] engineered, designed and optimised to make money in very particular ways, which is basically selling advertising and collecting information about you. Those motivations don't make them good for politics."
Well-intended media literacy movements try to equip the public to make sense of what they're seeing online, but the task is so big.
"There's so much misinformation online, and it's so opaque and nonsensical, and the average person is so busy that expecting them to go swimming through all this online nonsense and make sense of it isn't the best strategy."
Instead people should inform themselves from more trustworthy sources, including institutional media.
"For their flaws - nobody in this world is perfect, journalists included - there's a level of professionalism and dedication to helping the public have a shared basis in the facts, to be able to make their own judgments."
Talking to well-informed, thoughtful people we trust also helps.
We know who they are, Plaut says.
"If you're torn on the euthanasia decision, maybe talk to a medical person. If you have a priest, or someone in your iwi who has expertise in tikanga, maybe talk to them … talk to the people in your life who could help you work through it."
Some reading, some talking - that was enough.
"More information is not better. On the contrary, to some extent cutting off the noisier channels in our lives to carve out some quiet in which to reflect is important."
The real aim of attack messaging
After our outbreak interregnum, Lockdown 2.0 started with an onslaught of conspiracy theories about who knew what and when, and how the virus re-emerged.
The sheer volume prompted a series of mocking faux responses on Twitter.
"I think it's interesting that it all restarted in the month named after the first Roman Emperor who completely changed how the Roman Empire ran by use of propaganda and myth - and instituted a tax system, is this a coincidence?," @korahahome tweeted.
"I am just asking questions."
But while tweeters make merry, conspiracy theories are gaining ground and being spread for electoral ambitions, Plaut says.
National Party deputy leader Gerry Brownlee last week came under fire for questioning whether Ardern and director general of health Ashley Bloomfield might have known about community transmission of Covid-19 before last Tuesday's announcement that it had returned.
The same spread is happening on the streets, Plaut says, noting a march in Whāngārei the day after level 2 restrictions were reinstated outside Auckland.
Protesters waved signs saying "End the lockdown" and "We don't consent" before Te Tai Tokerau candidate Billy Te Kahika jnr, who has linked with Jami-Lee Ross' Advance Party, spoke, telling those gathered the Government knew about community transmission for weeks and he'd predicted six weeks ago "this corrupt Government would lock us down as part of a plandemic [sic]lockdown".
You can't think of social media in isolation when it comes to the spread of misinformation, the digital media expert says.
"It is part of the media ecosystem, along with TV and megaphones too."
Social science studies support confirmation bias, that people are drawn to information which confirms what they already believe - and when it contradicts those beliefs they tend to reject it or twist it, but misinformation often isn't trying to change minds anyway, Plaut says.
"It's trying to confuse the issue so people don't know what's going on ... like attack messaging, on social media and in political messaging, all the research shows it doesn't change people's minds. It just suppresses voting.
"It's just to convince people the situation's so dire they shouldn't vote at all, because there are some part of the country where if people don't vote it advantages one party."
But political commentator Bryce Edwards, while he thinks we need to pay attention to misinformation, also sounds another warning.
"We do have a misinformation problem, we always have. But I think we also have to be careful not to get in a panic about it. And not to presume the baddies are those on social media or nefarious foreign governments or even just crackpots."
A lot of misinformation comes from elites, governments and mainstream political
parties - insiders, not outsiders, Edwards says.
"I think we sometimes see this as a problem of coming from outsiders that are having too much influence, whereas I see misinformation as also applying to a lot of insiders.
"We're living in an age where PR politics is very central to the provision of information, and the decline in the number of journalists compared to the rise of PR practitioners is a disturbing imbalance.
"Lately there's been a tendency to present misinformation as coming from rogue sources like the New Zealand Public Party and conspiracy theorists, and that is a concern, but what spin doctors - when they're working for political parties, the PM, the leaders of Opposition - do is try to present truth in a way that advantages their own politicians, and often it does involve significant distortions.
"It's the misinformation coming from these sources that are the greater threat to a solid and meaningful democracy."
Social media is problematic in terms of misinformation, but Kiwis are also generally sceptical about conspiracy theories, Edwards says.
"I don't think they're quite the sheep people are presenting them as."
There's nothing new under the misinformation sun, with rampant rumours about MPs' sex lives and sexuality in years gone by.
What has changed though is the number of people actively involved in political
parties - membership has dropped from one in four in the 50s, 60s and 70s to about one in 40 now, Edwards says.
That meant parties in the past played an important role in getting information to their membership and encouraging public debate.
"So in some ways we're just less political and less healthily engaged in politics, and so we're more reliant on the media or social media for our information, for better or worse really."
'This is a factory production - some people are spreading this deliberately'
Judith Tizard might say worse.
She's been hearing recent political rumours that many other Kiwis have, with various falsehoods making their way from parties to Facebook to Twitter and even video sharing app TikTok.
It's happened before - in 2018 Clarke Gayford was the subject, for several months and via social media and word of mouth, of untrue allegations and accusations.
Police Commissioner Mike Bush eventually took the extraordinary step of confirming the Prime Minister's partner wasn't the subject of, and hadn't been the subject of, any police inquiry, nor been charged in relation to any matter.
The latest rumours prompted Tizard, a six-term former Labour MP, to take aim in a blunt Facebook post at those spreading "ugly political dirty tricks".
She wrote the post after deciding to take action once she'd been told "the gossip" 25 times.
"Ugly political dirty tricks are spread by vicious, unprincipled people who don't care about other people, or their families, and don't care about anything except gaining, holding and profiting from power."
She describes the post as a sarcastic response "to a bunch of silliness".
But it's personal too.
Tizard is the daughter of former Auckland mayor and Governor-General Dame Catherine Tizard and former Labour Cabinet minister and Deputy Prime Minister Bob Tizard.
She knows what it's like to grow up in a prominent political family.
"All my life people have said to me things about my family, and the people my parents worked with, which were not true. I've been subject to some extraordinary rumours myself, which I chose to ignore. I don't want to see other politicians' families hurt."
No 25 came within two weeks of her decision, via an email from a New York-based Kiwi - "the gossip" isn't true, but it got plenty of geographical firepower.
"I heard from a friend whose sister lives in Tekapo, a friend whose mother lives in Whāngārei, a friend whose mother and sister live in Whanganui, and umpteen from Auckland ... [then] a friend emailed me from New York", Tizard says.
"At that point I thought, 'This is a factory production - some people are spreading this deliberately'."
Are we all just a bit more easily led by misinformation now? Countries overseas are becoming more polarised, with diehard ideologues happy to peddle misinformation as long as it suits their beliefs.
Yes and no, and that's cause to be on alert, says communications expert Plaut.
"People have always been susceptible to misinformation, but we're in a moment now when there's so much of it that we're more vulnerable, in part just because we swim in it ... we're at a moment of great risk to democracy because of that."
Kiwis look with concern to events abroad, such as in the US, Britain and parts of Asia, and feel lucky not to be caught up in the problems those countries face, he says.
That might not always be the case.
"We're seeing some of those things happening right now, [New Zealand] parties way out on the fringe using some of these same strategies that we've seen used by the radical fringe parties in the US, and other places that have swung elections and reshaped what the political centre looks like ... the problems we're seeing in other countries, a lot of those things are coming to New Zealand.
"People need to be cognisant that democracy is fragile."
How do you know what's real and what's not?
- Is anyone else is publishing it? If institutional or public media aren't it's likely that's because it isn't true. Overseas, The Media Bias/Fact Check website is one place to look to find out whether a particular news source has a partisan bias. Others are Snopes and FactCheck.
- Did a post make you feel angry, disgusted or afraid? Intense feelings can be a red flag. Don't share it before verifying its accuracy, it may have been intended to short-circuit your critical thinking by playing on your emotions.
- Is it hard to believe? "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence", astronomer and author Carl Sagan once said. Quite right.
- Did it confirm what you already thought? Acknowledge your biases and be extra critical of posts or stories you agree with. And be aware algorithms may be set up to show you things they think you'll like - seek other perspectives.
- Bad spelling and grammar are red flags. If the author couldn't be bothered to spell-check, they likely didn't fact-check either. Or they may be using those errors to get your attention.
- Watch out for memes, they've been identified as one of the emerging mediums for propaganda, by inciting divisiveness.
- Keep your critical thinking hat on. Public figures don't always tell the truth. Friends and family don't always tell the truth. Sometimes people claim truthful stories are "fake news" because they don't believe them.
Source: The Conversation