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Disinformation Trends in New Zealand

A HEIA Snapshot Report Nov / Dec 2023

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False and misleading information is an increasing concern impacting societies around the globe. Accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic, this inaccurate information, referred to here as disinformation, has had a negative effect on democratic systems, social cohesion, the health and wellbeing of individuals and communities and jeopardised national security.

Many misleading narratives have gained traction in New Zealand, in some cases fomenting or exacerbating societal and political unrest. This was most graphically shown in February 2022, as protests against the government’s pandemic response, partly fuelled by disinformation, turned violent in Wellington.

This initial report, the first in a series over the next eight months, is intended as a baseline study to understand themes and trends in disinformation in New Zealand. We identify four key themes in disinformation in New Zealand (recognising overlap between them). These themes are:

  • Health and COVID-19;

  • Globalist Conspiracies;

  • Politics (centred on distrust and withdrawal);

  • Social Anxiety

We describe these themes of disinformation below in clear language to provide an accessible picture of the key ideas in New Zealand, their origins (often overseas) and effects, and the way they have blended with local dynamics here.

Defining Disinformation

The terms misinformation and disinformation refer to information that is false and / or misleading (Gibbons & Carson, 2022). Though both terms refer to similar phenomena, they differ in intention and harm (Gibbons & Carson, 2022; Wang et al., 2022). Misinformation is false content spread without any intention to mislead or cause harm. Disinformation is the dissemination of information with the knowledge that it is false and likely to cause harm.

Because it is often difficult to know the intent or understanding of those who spread ideas it is difficult to determine the gap between misinformation and disinformation. In this report therefore, we use the term disinformation to refer to the dissemination of false ideas and information regardless of intent to deceive or cause harm.

Studies show that those who believe one conspiracy theory are more likely to believe others, often adopting a ‘conspiratorial worldview’. As we will describe, there are common themes running through many conspiracy theories and disinformation themes in New Zealand (government overreach, social control, and anti-establishment sentiment) which provide easy conceptual bridges for movement between these ideas and allow people to hold many beliefs simultaneously.

"For this report we use the term disinformation to refer to the dissemination of false ideas and information regardless of intent to deceive or cause harm."

False claims are spread by people on all positions on the left right political spectrum, although often associated with those further to the ends of the spectrum. Disinformation often breaks down the traditional left right divide in politics, often bringing together natural political enemies united in their distrust of a third party (often political elites or the ‘establishment’), as was seen in the Wellington protests in February 2022.

Many of the ideas that we discuss in this report are troubling and to varying degrees cause harm to the wellbeing of individuals, groups, intergroup relations and social cohesion. We emphasise however, that New Zealand continues to be a stable and well-functioning liberal democracy where such ideas remain largely on the fringes. We contend that while it is necessary to be aware of and track these harmful ideas, and take action where there is a genuine threat, exaggerating their constituency or impact has a negative effect and fuels the very division and distrust it purports to be combatting.

The Global Picture

Disinformation is a complex and rapidly evolving global challenge, exacerbated by many factors, most notably the digital revolution. The increasing popularity of big tech and social media platforms has allowed disinformation to spread quickly across national borders. The use of algorithms and generative artificial intelligence (GAI) brings additional advantages to the disinformation actor, amplifying sensational or divisive content.

Some state actors have used disinformation in the form of coordinated influence campaigns to destabilise other countries and fracture social cohesion. Non-state actors, including extremist groups, use disinformation to amplify discord, sow doubts in institutions and even radicalise people to violence.

“The increasing popularity of big tech and social media platforms has allowed disinformation to spread quickly across national borders.”

Health-related disinformation surged during the COVID-19 pandemic leading to mistrust in institutions, public health risks and other harms. Disinformation was not limited to national borders but was often tailored to local contexts.

As public interest in COVID-19 began to wane many disinformation themes have transferred to other areas of public concern such as politics and elections, climate change, other health issues like Monkeypox, while harnessing similar language (ie climate change lockdown).

The information environment is a key part of the battlefield during war and conflict where people’s vulnerabilities and exposure to risk are already heightened. Recent examples include attempts to falsify Russian attacks in Ukraine and in the current Israel-Hamas conflict.

The Local Picture

Many of the disinformation trends observed at a global level can also be found in New Zealand, often modified to fit the local context. These trends include a rise in health-related conspiracy narratives, in disinformation during election cycles, and of the ‘culture wars’ prevalent overseas. These and related narratives have implications for social cohesion and the rights of marginalised groups in this country. NZSIS states that the rise of conspiracy theory groups spreading disinformation in New Zealand has created openings for foreign adversaries to undermine our security and interests (NZSIS, 2022, p. 9).

In New Zealand the COVID-19pandemic ‘supercharged’ the spreadof fake news, misinformation, andconspiracy theories (Marques et al.,2022, p. 264). Local actors emerged inopposition to the government’sresponse using disinformation as akey part of their strategy. In the 2020general election, parties on the political fringe found a receptive audience for claims regarding COVID-19 vaccines which were not supported by scientific evidence, as well as other internationally-originating conspiracy theories about global institutions, links between fluoridation and mind-control, and the belief that 5G technology was spreading COVID-19. These beliefs have persisted. Before the 2023 election we observed fringe parties once again disseminating these and other ideas.

"The rise of conspiracy theory groups spreading disinformation in New Zealand has created openings for foreign adversaries to undermine our security and interests."

HEIA has noticed (and presents below) an increase in disinformation related to plans to steal the national election. These and other claims align with a broader perception that events in New Zealand are directly influenced by a small international ‘globalist’ elite.


For this report, we collect New Zealand-based posting data from publicly available platforms where disinformation is prevalent (4chan, 8kun, Gab, Telegram, Reddit). All data collected is anonymised and no personal information is intentionally collected or used in HEIA’s research. In cases where users have included personal information in the content of their posts, it may be collected unintentionally. Any personal information identified is deleted and we do not provide any such information or other data to third parties and do not use it in our analysis.

Through several rounds of qualitative review of the above and more mainstream online sites, along with keyword searches, we identify four main themes. These are Health and Covid-19; Globalist Conspiracies; Politics (centred on distrust and withdrawal); and Social Anxiety. We then searched for keyword terms associated with each theme. We have confined our search to terms which demonstrate a very strong indication that the post contains disinformation- related content. We regularly monitor this by manually reviewing a portion of the dataset.

This process of excluding non relevant content has left a complete dataset of 15,153 disinformation-related posts. This total is made up of the following number of posts for each theme: Health and COVID-19 (1949 posts), Globalist Conspiracies (6854 posts), Politics (3065 posts), and Social Anxiety (2971 posts).

This report is a baseline study to understand trends in disinformation in New Zealand. In subsequent reports a greater range of platforms will be included, and particular forms of disinformation will be examined in more depth.

In Part 1 we discuss each theme and subcategory within it, how those ideas have flourished overseas and taken on a local character after entering New Zealand. The section presents the relative volumes of these different themes of disinformation and their trends so far in 2023.

Part 1: Four Main Disinformation Themes

From a qualitative review of the majority of mainstream and fringe online platforms we identified four main themes in disinformation in New Zealand. These are Health and Covid-19; Globalist Conspiracies; Politics (centred on distrust and withdrawal); and Social Anxiety.

Theme 1, Health and COVID-19 is disinformation related to distrust in the official health narratives and initiatives of the New Zealand Government and international health organisations.

Theme 2, Globalist Conspiracies is disinformation infused with the belief that world events, including in New Zealand, are being controlled by an elite cabal of ‘globalists’ intent on creating a ‘New World Order’.

Theme 3, Politics (Distrust and Withdrawal) is disinformation which maintains the New Zealand Government is undemocratic or cannot lawfully control individuals. Elections are rigged, and the government is authoritarian and / or tyrannical.

Theme 4, Social Anxiety is disinformation associated with a belief that society is moving in the wrong direction. It often includes suspicion of any attempt to support marginalised communities.

In the following section we discuss each of these themes in turn and the volume of posting associated with each. Three of the four themes are in turn divided into several subcategories.

Figure 1 presents the volume of posting in each theme over 2023.

Figure 1: Number of Posts per fortnight by thematic group (1 Jan - 7 Oct 23)
Figure 1: Number of Posts per fortnight by thematic group (1 Jan - 7 Oct 23)

Theme 1: Health and COVID-19

Figure 2: Number of posts per fortnight - health and COVID-19 (1 Jan - 7 Oct 23)
Figure 2: Number of posts per fortnight - health and COVID-19 (1 Jan - 7 Oct 23)

Disinformation about health started long before the internet and COVID-19 but has proliferated rapidly since the pandemic. Many of these narratives are of foreign origin but are now enmeshed with local issues. Examples include scepticism of vaccine and mask efficacy, claims about unproven alternative treatments, and that pandemic responses are part of a broader attempt to control society. In New Zealand, these claims have led to protests and fuelled polarisation within society and bred mistrust in the health system.

Our data demonstrate that COVID-19 remains (in late 2023) one of the predominant themes underpinning disinformation in New Zealand. The beliefs mentioned above have merged with other preexisting conspiracy theories further fuelling suspicions of government overreach and generating distrust in the establishment. While genuine debate and criticism of particular policies is expected in a democracy, many forms of disinformation go well beyond this and are based on unfounded claims.

As the effects of the pandemic dissipated, other health disinformation began to propagate, including claims around Monkeypox transmission and unproven cures. Health disinformation continues to be a risk in New Zealand as it can directly cause harm and reduce the positive impacts of accurate advice and public health measures. As one example, on 17 October 2023, Te Whatu Ora released a statement on Facebook to notify its followers that a fake account using Te Whatu Ora imagery had been publishing false information on social media.

Theme 2: Globalist Conspiracies

Figure 3: Number of posts per fortnight - globalist conspiracies (1 Jan - 7 Oct 23)
Figure 3: Number of posts per fortnight - globalist conspiracies (1 Jan - 7 Oct 23)


Elite Control narratives connect and explain various events, policies, technological advancements, environmental phenomena, and political action, as due to a ‘globalist’ agenda purportedly driven by a small international cabal of elites (ideas often steeped in antisemitism). In the international context, this includes: notions that the Russian-initiated war in Ukraine actually serves Western Zionist interests; that the Brazilian election was stolen to advance a globalist agenda; that climate change is a hoax; that the Maui wildfires are part of a social control agenda; and that transgender rights are a leftist agenda to undermine traditional Western values.

Some in New Zealand also see major developments here as driven by this elite conspiracy, including Labour winning the 2020 general election assisted by globalist forces to local weather events being engineered to control where the population lives.

Our data show that Elite Control is a major disinformation theme in NZ (unsurprisingly given it is at the heart of most conspiracy theories). A post in our data, dated 01.10.23, encapsulates this viewpoint: “climate propaganda scare tactics are being hyped by a globalist cult, their puppet politicians and special interests financial firms....that stand to reap billions trading new carbon credit financial futures.” We also observe a small number of QAnon-style ‘Deep State’ conspiracy narratives in our data.


Pandemic-related conspiracy theories have blended almost seamlessly with ‘tech scepticism’, the idea that technology is used as a means of control and causes negative health impacts. One of the most widely disseminated global theories links the spread of COVID-19 to 5G technology; that 5G radiation weakens people’s immune systems, making them more vulnerable to infection, or that 5G itself transmits the virus. 2020 UK polling data found that 21% of respondents agreed with these ideas (Freeman et al., 2022).

In New Zealand, the link between COVID-19 and 5G-relatedconspiracy theories was advanced by figures on the politicalfringe during the 2020 and 2023 election cycles. 5G is alsoframed in our data as an advanced ‘weapon’, capable ofcausing death and destruction: “5G is their ultimateweapon. We need to get rid of microwave radiation, go backto fiber optics and take down these towers. They blamed aheatwave for all the cows that just dropped dead from 5Gmicrowave radiation” (Anonymous, Telegram, 23.05.2023).These suspicions of technology combined with concernsover government overreach can lead to extreme behaviour. In December 2021, a man was jailed for sabotage forattacking the national power grid, causing $1.25 million in damage. Vodafone NZ (now One NZ) implemented a 5G education programme to engage with communities in areas of Auckland where arson attacks were taking place.

"Pandemic-related conspiracy theories have blended almost seamlessly with ‘tech scepticism'"

The ‘15-minute city’ (sometimes ‘20-minute’) urban planning concept, proposed to ensure that all infrastructure can be reached close to home, is similarly perceived as an authoritarian overstep. Sceptics contend the true goal of this concept is to confine citizens to limited areas, allowing easier control and manipulation. Again, the idea is seen as part of a global conspiracy, closely associated with the World Economic Forum and the ‘Great Reset’.

Our posting data show that in New Zealand, this narrative merges with anxieties over housing prices and is seen as intended to exclude the marginalised further from amenities enjoyed by the wealthy. In June 2023, activists opposed to the 15 minute city concept overran a council meeting in Hamilton (Franke-Bowell, 2023). Conspiracy theorists also ‘hijacked’ two Otago Peninsula community board meetings on urban development (McNeilly, 2023).

Our data show that tech and surveillance disinformation occurs at a lower level than other trends but often overlaps with broader globalist conspiracy theories and health and environmental disinformation.


Disinformation swirls around the international banking system and the financial sector. Research published in May 2023 found that 39% of New Zealanders do not trust banks and that figure was growing (Consumer, 2023). Those engaging in disinformation in our dataset believe that a network of banks, global institutions like the United Nations, and a Zionist-led financial cabal are attempting to create a New World Order to control society. Believers claim that as part of this strategy, the New Zealand Government is pushing for a ‘cashless society’ to allow authorities to have more financial control and surveillance of peoples’ spending and movement. Scams and other forms of financial disinformation are also rising in New Zealand.

As financial disinformation increases in New Zealand it might erode trust in local financial institutions, or spike unexpectedly with dire consequences. The spectacular collapse of Silicon Valley Bank in March 2023, driven in part by misinformation on social media regarding the bank’s health (Marcelo, 2023), illustrates the rapid and devastating consequences of financial disinformation.


Disinformation often downplays or denies the evidence regarding weather events and climate change. In the aftermath of Cyclone Gabrielle, New Zealand experienced disinformation targeting information provided by the government, NGOs such as New Zealand Red Cross and mainstream media. One narrative maintained that the government was covering up hundreds or even thousands of cyclone-related deaths (Mitchell, 2023).

Beyond major events such as Gabrielle, our data include claims that unusual weather patterns are due to the state manipulating the weather, or that cloud seeding is intended to control rainfall, where crops can grow and thereby where people can live. A further belief is that the discussion of climate change is conditioning populations to accept ‘climate lockdowns’ — again, as a means to control society. A post in our data, dated 16.04.2023, captures this sentiment: “New World Order weather control to starve the world into submission for their New World Order - Agenda 2030. This has been in the works for a long time. We are watching it play out now”.

Theme 3:Politics (Distrust and Withdrawal)

Figure 4: Posts per fortnight - distrust and withdrawal (1 Jan - 7 Oct 23)
Figure 4: Posts per fortnight - distrust and withdrawal (1 Jan - 7 Oct 23)


Claims by Donald Trump and his supporters that his election defeat was fraudulent (leading to the January 6 riot) have triggered similar conspiracy theories in New Zealand. Even before the October 2023 election we observed a rise in online speculation that the results would be manipulated. A post in our data, dated 01.09.2023 states: “We are all being lured into a rigged election. Do u get it yet? The NZ electoral commision are the puppets of the cult criminals. You cant vote your way out of tyrrany against a treasonous parliament who are war criminals”.

Disinformation-related posting on the election is adamant that the system favours ‘globalist’ candidates. Politicians from both National and Labour and most mainstream parties are complicit in this deceit. This is reflected in an increase in posts in our dataset discussing a stolen election. Some fringe party politicians have driven much of this rhetoric. At one campaign event discussed in our posting data, leaders encouraged supporters to photograph their ballots to prevent a ‘rigged’ result.

Claims of a preordained election result in New Zealand are not accompanied by evidence. And, compared to the United States, the number of people making these claims is small (although artificially amplified online). Despite this, disinformation relating to a potential stolen election is surprisingly prevalent in our dataset and represents a new development in New Zealand. It is the one theme which has increased in volume over 2023.

A recent study of political parties using disinformation during the 2023 election campaign found that ‘fake news’ was not an increasing trend on Facebook in the weeks prior to the election (NZSMS, 2023). In contrast to that study, this report analyses public posting data on a range of social media platforms rather than information disseminated by political parties.


Alongside recent claims that the election of the government would be illegitimate, unfounded claims are often made that the government has become increasingly undemocratic, even tyrannical. Opposition to Covid-19-related mandates and restrictions has converged with a ‘Cultural Marxism’ perspective, in which the government was deemed to be advancing a communist agenda at the behest of a global elite. Disinformation in this realm is often abusive, rails against what it sees as a morally corrupt authoritarian agenda seeking to repress human rights and freedoms. Posting suggests that the incoming National-led Government is similarly undemocratic and controlled by globalist forces.


The Sovereign Citizen movement believes that members are not subject to government statutes unless they consent to them. With its roots in 1950s America, the movement built its legal theories around a selective reading and reinterpretation of the Constitution of the United States.

The movement in Aotearoa has unique local characteristics; namely, overlap between the movement’s broader messaging of ‘sovereignty’ and principles of tino rangatiratanga. The co-optation of indigenous culture by activists has been a continuous feature at pandemic-related protest events (Reeve, 2021). This is reflected in posts within our dataset. Our data also indicate overlap between Sovereign Citizens and QAnon conspiracy beliefs.

Theme 4: Social Anxiety

Figure 5: Posts per fortnight - social anxiety (1 Jan - 7 Oct 23)
Figure 5: Posts per fortnight - social anxiety (1 Jan - 7 Oct 23)


A culture war between left and right is a key manifestation of polarisation in many societies, in which exaggerated claims about the identities, values and behaviours of those in the outgroup are made. Those on the left often view conservatives as uniformly racist and intolerant, whereas the right rails against the so-called ‘woke agenda’ of the left or a bias in educational and other institutions.

In New Zealand, disinformation often implicates left-leaning parties in a socialist conspiracy determined to engineer society in their own image. Our data indicate that such versions of a culture war are closely connected to attempts to demonise the Rainbow Community (discussed below). The furore around British activist Kellie-Jay Keen-Minshull’s promotional tour to NZ was accompanied by a surge in conspiratorial thinking about leftist ‘wokeism’.

Those expressing such ideas online see the incoming National government as likely to push a similar agenda: “The Luxon-led Nats are a far-left (or at their very best a soft-left) party infested with the disease of Cultural Marxism. They’re sold out on the woke agenda, sold out on the climate change agenda and have expressed no opposition to the encroachment of apartheid on our society.” (Anonymous, Telegram, 01.10.2023).


A growing movement challenges progress in rights enjoyed by the LGBTQI+ communities. Disinformation often frames progress in these rights as a conspiracy, a plot to undermine family structures, engineer society, brainwash children and, in more extreme iterations, bring about the end of days.

A prominent theme in our New Zealand posting dataset concerns the rights of the transgender community. A great deal of posting demonstrates a belief that progress on trans rights, rather than an attempt to protect a vulnerable community, is instead part of a globalist conspiracy to engineer and weaken society.

We also see disinformation in the context of gender politics. Vitriolic gendered disinformation (ie abuse based on inaccurate information rather than simply political opinion) targets prominent women in public life particularly politicians and journalists. This will be explored in more detail in future reports.


While legitimate debate about the nature and implementation of co-governance in New Zealand is to be expected in a democracy, more extreme claims suggest that it is a step towards apartheid. Other forms of disinformation claim that the accepted English translation of Te Tiriti is fraudulent (FACT Aotearoa, 2023; Hamilton, 2017). This disinformation seeks to delegitimise co-governance.

This disinformation often implicates co-governance within the broader ‘globalist control’ conspiracy or notions of government overreach and manipulation. An example is encapsulated by this post, dated 10.09.2023: “The Swamp wants us divided at all costs. Divided by race, religion, gender, vax status, co-governance, political leanings, and so on. Because divided we are weak, we fight each other and we pose no threat to their system of control.”

Our data show that anti co-governance disinformation remains at low volumes (in our initial limited dataset) but continues to increase.

Conclusion: Overarching Themes in Disinformation in New Zealand

Disinformation undermines trust in the institutions of liberal democracy (including political and judicial systems and media), damages ethnic relations and social cohesion and trust in our public figures, poisons our perceptions of those on the other side of the political divide, and undermines quality advice and services in the health and education sectors. It is therefore imperative that we understand the nature of disinformation in New Zealand and which ideas are gaining traction.

From a mixed method scoping study of disinformation in New Zealand we identified four main themes. We found that:

First, COVID-19-derived disinformation, particularly scepticism of the government’s response, remains a cornerstone of conspiratorial thinking. Disinformation related to the pandemic still drives a great deal of anti- government sentiment in New Zealand.

Second, disinformation related to globalist conspiracies makes up the largest category in our dataset showing that local events are seen through an anti-elite / globalist control worldview. This sense of outside forces controlling outcomes within New Zealand will likely drive feelings of hopelessness and disaffection with (and withdrawal from) democracy by a small minority.

Third, illustrating how overseas narratives have entered New Zealand, there is in our dataset growing claims of a stolen election, government overreach and tyranny. This narrative gained traction before the election, with posters targeting suspicions at all mainstream parties and figures.

Fourth, the subcategories of social anxiety (particularly anti-LGBTQI+ sentiment, ‘culture wars’ and anti-co governance) followed similar trend lines over the year, highlighting the degree to which they are closely related. Spikes in these trends are observed at key moments, particularly during the visit of a ‘women’s rights’ activist Kellie-Jay Keen-Minshull in March 2023.


Two overarching themes underlie the disinformation in all of the above subcategories: anti-establishment sentiment and a concern over increasing social control and overreach by the government. Most posters disseminating disinformation in our dataset show a consistent anti-establishment attitude. Most distrust ‘establishment’ politicians and parties regardless of their position on the left right spectrum. And most accuse these politicians, in collusion with globalist elites elsewhere, of seeking to encroach on citizens’ rights.

We conclude that these broad sentiments are associated with broader global developments; the advance of populism and the decline of democracy (known as democratic backsliding). Populism is a political style which portrays society divided into two opposed sides, the virtuous people and a corrupt and exploitative elite. Democratic backsliding involves decline in support for and quality of democracy. Over the past fifteen years, the quality of democracy – including levels of accountability, transparency and the protection of rights – has declined in many countries.

In turn, these broad trends have been driven by a range of phenomena, including increased inequality, the onset of financial and other crises, rapidly changing information and technological environments, rapid demographic and social change generating sociocultural anxiety among some communities, spurred on by the rhetoric and success of charismatic leaders with little commitment to democratic norms and institutions.

We contend that rather than considering belief in conspiracy theories and the rise in populism and decline in democracy around the world as separate phenomena, we should instead see them as closely related. Understanding disinformation must also recognise these phenomena which drive anti- establishment sentiment and perceptions of social control.

It is important to emphasise that the platforms (and the anonymous posting) analysed in this report represent a small fraction of New Zealand’s population. However, our additional qualitative research of other platforms (and an increasing number of protests and other events) indicates that many of these ideas have a wider constituency in the country. We believe that these ideas are causing individuals and communities to disengage from politics, and to distrust politicians and political parties and most forms of traditional media, and in some cases to threaten individuals associated with those institutions.

HEIA emphasises however that while disinformation poses an insidious risk on the margins of New Zealand society, this risk should not be exaggerated. In large part, New Zealand institutions, democratic processes and society continue to function normally and civilly. This normality can be witnessed in the recent national election on 14 October which, while affected by threats to politicians across the political spectrum, largely passed without major incident and with a high level of integrity and widespread acceptance of the results. The same can be said for most recent political events, including local elections and the census.

This report therefore identifies ideas on the fringes with the potential to spread further and generate more extensive harms in society. It is crucial that we are aware of these trends and ready for any impact they might have. While often not visible to most of us, these ideas are detrimental, and may become more so, to the functioning of a healthy liberal democracy with participation by all.

Future analysis will continue to expand on the themes covered in this report as well as consider further areas in more depth such as the threats of technology enhanced disinformation (GAI) and whether disinformation in current global war zones is gaining traction in New Zealand, connections between misogyny and disinformation, and threats to public figures driven by disinformation.

"While often not visible to most of us, these ideas are detrimental, and may become more so, to the functioning of a healthy liberal democracy with participation by all."


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This report was commissioned by the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet (DPMC) and prepared independently by HEIA. The report does not represent the views of DPMC or the New Zealand Government.

At DPMC’s request, information that could identify any individual person is redacted to protect privacy.

For enquires regarding this report please contact Dr. Chris Wilson at

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