COMMENT:

"Seen this?"

Those were probably two words that countless Kiwis read over the weekend, when a friend or family member forwarded them a bogus, hyper-viral and now notorious Facebook post.

It was a fiendishly crafted piece of misinformation.

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I won't go into too much detail about it here, for obvious reasons, but it carried all the right hooks to latch onto peoples' questions, fears and ugly prejudices.

There was a quarantined deportee and her travelling, Covid-19-infected South Auckland girlfriend, "splurging cash" at a tourism hotspot.

Moreover, it claimed a cover-up at the highest levels. The Government knew about it and were investigating, and we in the news media did too but had been told not to report it.

I received the same post from several different Facebook friends wanting to know whether I was indeed part of a Covid conspiracy.

One colleague received it nine times, another five. The Herald began fielding many tips about it - and even variations of it - on Friday, when the post appears to have surfaced.

It's still unclear where the post originated. Many of the shares I've observed can be linked back to one public Facebook page, where it's since been removed from, but which still carries other anti-government posts ironically claiming the Prime Minister is spreading misinformation about Covid-19.

Given that page has fewer than 3000 followers, it may be unlikely that's where the outbreak began.

While all of the links that I was forwarded over the weekend are also broken - the Herald has contacted Facebook to ask if it has been proactively taking the posts down - a search of the wording shows the post can still be viewed on many public pages.

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Our Covid-19 crisis has come hand-in-hand with what the World Health Organisation has dubbed an "infodemic" fuelled by conspiracy theories and social media.

But experts I spoke with today pointed out it was rare to see a single piece of information like this go so viral.

It was also rare to see the Government acknowledge a specific viral rumour and urge people not to share it, as Health Minister Chris Hipkins was forced to yesterday.

Not only had it caused further distress to family at the centre of the South Auckland cluster, Hipkins said, but it also smacked of orchestration.

Health Minister Chris Hipkins has urged people not to share rumours about the latest Covid-19 outbreak. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Health Minister Chris Hipkins has urged people not to share rumours about the latest Covid-19 outbreak. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Curtis Barnes, a law and emerging tech consultant, and co-founder of the institute Brainbox, said that remained "a distinct possibility" - but it depended on what form of orchestration.

"For instance, it seems likely that citizens who are political opponents of the Government had some degree of orchestration, if nothing more than 'if this is true then it reflects poorly on the Government administration'."

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Or it could have been orchestration at a "generative" level - the kind one sees on the shadowy 4chan and 8chan websites - but Barnes hadn't yet seen any evidence of that.

Dr Andrew Chen, a researcher at University of Auckland-based Koi Tū: The Centre for Informed Futures, agreed with Hipkins' suspicions.

"It feels like this was a little bit co-ordinated - it wasn't just one person making it up it spread from there, but there were multiple people trying to get this out there," Chen said.

"But that is really hard to detect in New Zealand. It could have also been done through automated means, but I don't think we have seen much evidence of that happening here."

Like Barnes, he figured the primary vector was just organic sharing between Kiwis across social media.

University of Auckland researcher Dr Andrew Chen. Photo / Supplied
University of Auckland researcher Dr Andrew Chen. Photo / Supplied

University of Auckland physicist Professor Shaun Hendy said there were even parallels between the rumour's circulation, and the spread of Covid-19 which he has been helping model.

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"They are both essentially network processes - and some people are vulnerable to some types of misinformation, and some are vulnerable to others."

Kate Hannah, an associate investigator at centre of research excellence Te Punaha Matatini, suspected the post wasn't a case of misinformation, which was misguided but often well-intended, nor of disinformation, which was carefully designed to discourage or influence people.

Rather, she thought it to be "malinformation", or striking a malicious tone.

"Whether it involves systemic construction by a group of actors trying to undermine New Zealand's united Covid-19 response, or whether it's just plain maliciousness from individuals towards that women, or a combination of both, is unclear. But it's really distressing."

Hannah also noted the measured tone in which the post was written, and its appeal to mainstream New Zealand.

Unlike viral misinformation that circulated on Facebook overseas - which in the US, could typically be "shouty" and ranting, as seen with Alex Jones' Infowars broadcasts - this post fell more in line with how Kiwis communicated with each other every day.

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"This is more your kind of hat-tip, touch-the-side-of-the-nose thing somebody would say at the water cooler - it feels kind of culturally authentic."

What was more insidious was its clear plays to racism and prejudices toward women and Pasifika people.

"All of that is bubbling away, inside what seems like a relatively down-home sort of post," she said.

"That's why it appeals to people so much."

At an even deeper level, that racism also fed into a feeling of "safe danger" - where people saw themselves and their families at less risk, or not needing to change their own behaviour, if they could point the finger at others.

Then, of course, was the fact that authorities still don't know how Covid-19 found its way back into the country.

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"We really want to know the answer to this question because it has implications for our own lives," said Victoria University psychologist Professor Marc Wilson.

"People are naturally interested in finding out what is going on, so they can protect themselves, or at least just to understand what is going on around them."

Victoria University psychologist Professor Marc Wilson. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Victoria University psychologist Professor Marc Wilson. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Wilson said this vacuum made for ripe conditions for conspiracy theories to take root.

"There's research that shows the bigger the gap between an event, and the official explanation for that event, the more likely people are, firstly, to go in search of a plausible conspiracy theory, and secondly, to believe them," he said.

"Since 9/11, we've seen an increase in the transportability of these types of theories. Today, people can make a post on Facebook and suddenly, it's absolutely everywhere."

He agreed the racial overtones of the post raised an uncomfortable question about prejudice in New Zealand - and added that it fed into distrust of the Government and media.

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"It's like, we've got no reason to trust them already, so why should we trust them in this particular case," he said.

"But that this is a very detailed account just adds more to its credibility. It's a very well-crafted piece of misinformation, and conspiracy theories are often constructed in these ways: "I'm here to tell you the truth that nobody else will'."

In other cases, the post could have struck a basic need for Kiwis to excitedly share information they felt was exclusive and truthful.

That's traditionally been the job of journalists. Only, we are compelled to verify before publishing, and newsrooms like the Herald regularly sift through dozens of tips that prove false.

No such requirements exist for Facebook users and the platform has been criticised around the world for its role in undermining public health efforts.

Barnes' fellow Brainbox co-founder Tom Barraclough said the post highlighted the need for a deeper look at what was a fast-emerging problem for New Zealand.

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"What we've been calling for is some way of measuring this - how do we know how far it's gone, how do we know who saw it and who talked about it offline instead of just online, and what were its methods of transmission?" he said.

"I would love it if New Zealand had a dedicated programme of work, or an agency responsible for studying these things, because we have to understand how this happens."

In the mean-time, the message for Kiwis fielding bad information should be to treat it like Covid-19 itself - don't spread it.