Auckland's Delta outbreak has coincided with a "drastic" surge in Covid-19 disinformation that's outstripped even that observed online over all of last year.
Now, researchers are concerned that our parallel "infodemic" is steering the vaccine hesitant toward extreme, far-right ideologies that target minorities.
Since February last year, a small team have been analysing open-source data related to Covid-19 disinformation and misinformation on social media, news websites and elsewhere.
Last August, this effort – dubbed The Disinformation Project, and run as part of the University of Auckland-based Te Pūnaha Matatini - widened its focus to look at dangerous speech and hateful expression.
A new report - released on a day that thousands of people are out protesting against official measures to combat Covid-19 - has pointed to a clear escalation in this type of material in the 12 weeks since Auckland moved into lockdown.
"Both posts and engagement have drastically increased since 17 August 2021 and show a trajectory of growth and spread that is increasing, widening, and deepening every week," the researchers said.
There appeared to be a high degree of co-ordination and collaboration between online platforms in spreading disinformation, or deliberately-created false information.
"This means that content shared into one platform is quickly shared amongst other accounts within the same platform or app, and also transmits across different social media platforms."
Since mid-August, they found instant messaging app Telegram had emerged as the platform of spread for mis- and disinformation in New Zealand, with no policies or features in place to moderate it.
Across all platforms, their analysis found that the volume of false content circulating over the latest lockdown had reached a level where it could be measured in hundreds of millions of data points.
The sheer volume of it – as well as the range of platforms it was being shared on, and the speed at which it was being created – was "unprecedented".
"We note that it is by order of magnitude more than the content, speed and spread over 2020, and even in the first half of 2021."
They further found the material followed a "circadian rhythm" - with production of the content having observable peaks in mornings, afternoons and evening.
"These peaks drive engagement throughout the day, and for a longer period each day."
The researchers also pin-pointed a handful of social media accounts that were driving much of it.
"These accounts are increasingly coordinated in the production of content, and the selection of frames, subjects, issues, topics and offline events."
Around the Covid-19 vaccine, particularly, they flagged some troubling trends – with groups pushing disinformation around pregnancy and menstruation to fuel fear and distrust.
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Among groups the team tracked on Telegram, there had been a "critical shift" from hesitancy to resistance.
"Telegram channels and groups proliferate content which is violent, far-right, and related to the conspiracy theory QAnon, signalling a near-frictionless shifting of New Zealanders from vaccine hesitancy, to vaccine resistance, and then to content reflective of wider conspiratorial ideologies."
As well, the researchers noted violent jokes, racist slurs and crude language have become part of a new normal among users.
That vitriol was being targeted at Māori, Pasifika, migrants, women, the LGBTQIA+ community, people with disabilities, health workers, government employees.
"In addition, leading public figures and officials – including members of Parliament, journalists, health officials, academics, and community leaders – receive specific targeting and abuse," they said.
"For example, mainstream media's reporting on the uptake of vaccination by Māori has increased a perception of Māori as vaccine hesitant and anti-vaccination, which has been picked up within circles of disinformation in way that capitalises on racism and further targets disinformation towards those groups."
The experts concluded that vaccine misinformation appeared to be used as a "kind of Trojan Horse for norm-setting" of far-right beliefs.
"Such ideologies include, but are not limited to, ideas about gun control, anti-Māori sentiment, anti-LGBTQIA+, conservative ideals around family and family structure, misogyny, anti-immigration."
• For trusted information about Covid-19 and Covid-19 vaccines, visit the Unite Against Covid-19 website.