New Zealand soaked up Covid-19 disinformation seeded by Russia in the months leading up to the protest at Parliament, a major new report from Microsoft has found.
Microsoft charted the increase through what it called the Russian Propaganda Index using tools that showed consumption of false news was 30 per cent above Australia and the United States.
It revealed that sophisticated artificial intelligence and other tools had tracked a surge in Russian propaganda consumption from December onwards. The growth continued through to the protest at Parliament in February.
The report said it was too early for a concrete conclusion but "this spike in Russian propaganda consumption in New Zealand preceded an increase in public protests in early 2022" in Wellington.
The other country highlighted for its growth in false news consumption was Canada which had its own protest opposing measures intended to guard against Covid-19. The New Zealand "convoy" to Wellington was inspired by the Canadian movement.
The global giant's president and vice-chairman Brad Smith revealed the focus on New Zealand in a report which studied the growth in Russian cyber operations.
The Microsoft report said the current Russian cyber operation "builds on recent sophisticated efforts to spread false Covid-19 narratives in multiple Western countries".
"These included state-sponsored cyber influence operations in 2021 that sought to discourage vaccine adoption through English-language internet reports while simultaneously encouraging vaccine usage through Russian-language sites.
"During the last six months, similar Russian cyber influence operations sought to help inflame public opposition to Covid-19 policies in New Zealand and Canada."
The Microsoft report found the false news "driving Russian propaganda consumption in New Zealand" late last year was focused on Covid-19 issues.
Those included false stories that "drove narratives that questioned the efficacy of vaccines and suggested that they had life-threatening side effects".
Microsoft was able to identify the five top false news stories it identified as Russian propaganda which all contained themes aimed at undermining confidence in New Zealand's Covid-19 response.
Three of the five false news articles were specifically targeting the Pfizer vaccine which New Zealand had relied on to vaccinate the entire population.
It included false claims that Pfizer used aborted foetuses in the vaccine and untrue claims about death and injuries from the vaccine. Other themes aimed to play down the value of Covid-19 vaccines.
The Microsoft report said democratic nations faced a struggle between freedom of expression and a response to foreign cyber influence operations.
"This freedom inherently impacts and even limits the role of democratic governments in addressing any issue associated with content on the internet."
"The freedom of expression is of distinct importance in developing a strategic response to foreign cyber influence operations. This freedom inherently impacts and even limits the role of democratic governments in addressing any issue associated with content on the internet."
The Microsoft report described a multi-layered approach to fighting cyber influence operations which was based on greater links between those affected and an openness about the risks posed.
It said there was cooperation needed to detect when foreign influence operations were under way and to track the impact it was having.
It also said there was a need to "reinvigorate traditional journalism" as a defence against cyber influence operations, along with strong civic education to "educate the public about how to be a sophisticated information consumer".
It could also be disrupted through transparency - alerting the public when new cyber influence operations began - and targeting the advertising revenue that earned money for sites known to carry false information. Strengthening international networks also provided protection.
The company set out its own expectations and standards, showing it would take an active role in attacking disinformation but also preparing defences for users.
"Of course, no single company or organization can hope to make progress in any of these areas by itself. New and broader collaboration across the tech sector will be important."
Research into the disinformation community in New Zealand found 12 sites produced almost three-quarters of the false information circulated.
Those sites pushed false Covid-19 narratives and three months ago began reflecting Russian government positions over the invasion of Ukraine.
NZ Herald monitoring of the sites has seen an acceptance of information presented as news which reflects Russian propaganda on Ukraine without question. Among those is at least one purported news site which takes its material straight from Russian government controlled websites.