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Harmful Inaccurate Information in New Zealand

A HEIA Snapshot Report Nov / Dec 2023


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Introduction

The spread of false information can lead to extensive harm by eroding trust, cohesion, and the health, education and wellbeing of individuals and groups. This report is the third in a series of snapshot and thematic reports designed to understand themes and trends in false information in New Zealand.

As discussed in a recent report (hyperlink) we use the phrase harmful incorrect information (HII) to refer to the false ideas, beliefs and claims prevalent in New Zealand which are capable of causing a range of harms to individuals, communities and institutions. HII includes both misinformation and disinformation (false information which is spread unintentionally and deliberately respectively) and may also include hate speech or incitement to violence involving false information. 

Our first ‘snapshot’ report, published in October 2023, identified four main themes in disinformation in New Zealand: Health and Covid-19; Globalist Conspiracies; Politics (Distrust and Withdrawal); and Social Anxiety.

Since our first report was published, the Hamas attacks on 7 October 2023 and subsequent conflict in Gaza has escalated with large-scale loss of life. So too has the proliferation of contentious accounts of several particular events, some already proven false, with others still contested. These ideas have circulated in New Zealand and, along with wider anger over the conflict, led to tension, rising antisemitism and Islamophobia, vandalism and abuse.

We begin this report (after a brief methodological note) by examining several contentious claims related to the Israel Hamas conflict which have emerged in online spaces in New Zealand. We contend that the conflict demonstrates what we term the ‘fog of crisis’ characterised by heightened emotion and division combined with severely incomplete information and contested narratives, an extension of ‘fog of war’ theory. This volatile combination is fertile ground for the proliferation of HII.


Methodology

In our October 2023 report, we collected and analysed anonymous New Zealand-based posting data from publicly available platforms where disinformation is prevalent (4chan, 8kun, Gab, Telegram, Reddit). In this report we add anonymous posting data from Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube. This greatly increases the size of our database and demonstrates how HII is also widely shared on mainstream channels. Our 2023 dataset comprises 3.9 million New Zealand-based posts / online entries. Of this dataset we identified approximately 56,000 posts which are HII. This is 1.4% of our dataset of New Zealand-based posting. The methodology for identification of HII and our data collection in general remains as described in our October Snapshot report.

Our dataset of HII content is made up of the following number of posts for each theme: Health and COVID-19 (2185 posts), Globalist Conspiracies (9537 posts), Politics (5922 posts), Social Anxiety (4082 posts), and Gaza-Related Online Discussion (19087)

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.


Part 1: The Fog of War and Crisis: Tracking Israel Hamas conflict-related HII in New Zealand

The Israeli offensive in Gaza and the October 7 Hamas attack into southern Israel which triggered it have unsurprisingly generated extensive emotion as well as numerous claims and counterclaims about the atrocities of either side. In many cases, these claims have been based on inaccurate, unclear and sometimes deliberately false information. The emotional nature and group-based focus of many of these claims carry with them potential harms to individuals and communities in New Zealand.

We contend that the violent tragedy seen throughout the Israel Hamas conflict provides a case study in how HII thrives during the fog of war and in times of crisis. Violent conflict involves a high degree of emotional impact, very poor levels of information (often including grey areas in truthfulness), and high degrees of polarisation into opposed camps. This is particularly the case with the ongoing conflict in Gaza which continues to resonate with many people worldwide.

In such contexts, people seeking information regarding the conflict are more inclined to search for, find (often due to social media algorithms and echo chambers), believe and share information which confirms their perceptions and biases. For the duration of a conflict, and until more complete information is available (and even after then), views on particular events remain polarised. Claims and counter claims regarding particular events generate further anger and suspicion and feed back into that polarisation. In some cases, HII is intentionally spread by the protagonists to a conflict, or ideologues or activists on one side, as a form of propaganda and condemnation of their opponents. Complicating the fog of war and crisis and its links to HII, is that many narratives have portions of truth but that portion is used to obscure the real nature of an event.

While the Israel Hamas conflict provides extraordinary potential for the proliferation of HII, other forms of conflict and crisis – including the Covid 19 pandemic, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and hotly contested polarised elections for example – also provide this potential. Not only does HII spread more rapidly during these events, but it does so with more intensity and emotion. The emotion involved in these crises makes it more likely that this HII will lead to real world harm.

Such crises have international impact, particularly when they have diaspora or other constituencies emotionally engaged in the crisis, because of rapid forms of online media and large numbers of people sourcing their news from online (and sometimes unreliable) media. In some cases, too, crises elsewhere have local resonance or antagonise cleavages in a society on the other side of the world. These crises often trigger preexisting prejudices about one or both of the protagonists (antisemitism or Islamophobia for example), leading to hate speech often heavily laced with HII. In times of crisis the overlaps between HII and hate speech become even more pronounced.


1.1 Discussion of the Israel Hamas conflict in New Zealand online spaces

There is therefore difficulty in obtaining accurate information regarding the Gaza conflict and new evidence is constantly emerging regarding many contentious events. This leads to a confused and constantly evolving picture, something which in turn plays a role in generating further polarisation regarding discussion of the conflict.

To assess the nature of HII related to the Israel Hamas conflict in New Zealand, we have collected a dataset of 13,500 New Zealand-based posts. These posts involve general discussion of the conflict and so are not all HII. We used this dataset to ascertain if the common forms of HII and uncertain and contentious claims found elsewhere have penetrated New Zealand online discussion. Because during the fog of war and similar crises the accuracy of information is so difficult to ascertain, and many facts regarding the events of the conflict are still to be known, we treat many of these contentious claims to be potential (rather than definite) HII.

Figure 1 - Number of posts relating to Israel-Hamas including the pre conflict period (1 Sep - 20 Nov 23)
Figure 1 - Number of posts relating to Israel-Hamas including the pre conflict period (1 Sep - 20 Nov 23)

The Israel Hamas conflict has led to high volumes of misleading content in the form of memes, text posts, AI generated or falsified imagery.[1] This in turn has led to hate speech, vitriol, vandalism and hate crimes. The fog of crisis has led to confusion, increased anger, and created opportunities for those seeking to spread HII.

A number of contested and highly volatile claims regarding the conflict have circulated in international media and social media. Many of these have been seen as proof of the barbarism of the other side only to be seemingly proved untrue, with some proven and disproved several times. These claims include: a denial of the Hamas attack on 7 October; that the IDF knew about or was involved in the Hamas attack; that Hamas decapitated approximately 40 babies during its attack; that the Al-Ahli hospital explosion was caused variously by a Palestinian Islamic Jihad rocket or Israeli airstrike; that Israel used white phosphorus in its attacks on Gaza; that Hamas uses infrastructure underneath hospitals and other crowded civil society spaces for military purposes; and that both sides have genocidal intent. As discussed we do not yet classify any of these narratives as HII, rather as contentious claims which have circulated with little evidence and heightened the emotion related to the conflict.

We found evidence that all of these claims have entered the New Zealand online environment, although in low numbers. In all cases, both believers and deniers of each claim take highly polarised and emotional positions. We believe most posters approach these claims with a preconceived perspective. Supporting this assumption, we found that as new information emerged which cast doubt on particular claims, this did not lead to consensus but instead led those who had supported the account to become more emotional and vociferous in their support of their particular side. In some cases, posters refused to believe that the claim had been debunked, continuing to assert it. These debates likely played some role in the offline actions such as vandalism, protest and abuse we have seen on New Zealand streets, although these were most likely predominantly driven by heated discussion of the conflict in general. Thus, we do not believe that HII is motivating action in New Zealand, which is motivated primarily by anger and other emotions related to the conflict.

[1] We do not currently include images, videos, or memes in our quantitative data collection.


Part 2: Other Key Themes

From a previous qualitative and quantitative review of both mainstream and fringe online platforms we identified four main themes in disinformation in New Zealand.

  • 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.

Figure 2 - Number of Posts per fortnight by thematic group (1 Jan - 26 Nov 23)
Figure 2 - Number of Posts per fortnight by thematic group (1 Jan - 26 Nov 23)

Figure 2 illustrates all four themes across 2023. As can be seen, and will be discussed further below, there has been a substantial decline in the posting related to all four themes since the general election on October 14. In the following section we discuss each of these themes in turn and the volume of posting associated with each.


1: Health and COVID-19

Figure 3: Number of posts per fortnight - health and COVID-19 (1 Jan - 26 Nov 23)
Figure 3: Number of posts per fortnight - health and COVID-19 (1 Jan - 26 Nov 23)
Figure 4: Number of daily posts - health and COVID-19 (1 Oct - 25 Nov 23)
Figure 4: Number of daily posts - health and COVID-19 (1 Oct - 25 Nov 23)

Our data demonstrate that COVID-19 remained (in late 2023) a key theme underpinning HII in New Zealand. However, by early November we have seen a decline with less than 50 related posts per week. With little commentary around COVID-19 during the election period, this highly emotive topic has over the last month waned as a subject of interest (reflected in online HII). It is too early at this stage to confirm if this is a temporary or more enduring decline.

We continue to observe pandemic-related conspiracies online, albeit at a lower level than in previous months. In recent weeks we have qualitatively observed a surge in the use of the term “bioweapon” (referring to COVID-19 vaccines), but this is in the context of fewer overall posts relating to COVID-19.


2: Globalist Conspiracies

Figure 5: Number of posts per fortnight – Globalist Conspiracies (1 Jan - 26 Nov 23)
Figure 5: Number of posts per fortnight – Globalist Conspiracies (1 Jan - 26 Nov 23)
Figure 6: Number of daily posts – Globalist Conspiracies (1 Oct - 25 Nov 23)
Figure 6: Number of daily posts – Globalist Conspiracies (1 Oct - 25 Nov 23)
Figure 7: Number of daily posts – Globalist Conspiracies - Subthemes (1 Oct - 25 Nov 23)
Figure 7: Number of daily posts – Globalist Conspiracies - Subthemes (1 Oct - 25 Nov 23)

We observe a decline in Globalist Conspiracy-related HII, predominantly driven by a steep decline in discussion in the largest subcategory, Elite Control. This decline began around the time of the general election. It is possible that this drop represents a temporary lull in discussion of this nature, associated with the lengthy process of forming a coalition government. We noticed a temporary spike in discussion starting on November 23rd, the day the coalition announced their jointly agreed policies.

Before, during and after the election, we observe Globalist Conspiracy HII content targeted at the parties of the new government. Prior to the election, this type of content was targeted primarily at the Labour government, and as such we observe a transfer of the Globalist Conspiracy narrative, from implicating one government to the next. Broadly, these posters believe that all New Zealand governments, regardless of political orientation, are under external control. A post on Telegram (23 Sep 23) states:  “A change of governance to national is only handing the baton over. The Deep state and Globalists want [name of politician] in so it doesn't make any sense to hold off the elections in our country.”  Another post describes a future under a National government: “national will deliver ..15 minute cities , digital id, the mark of the beast, guillotines, permanent lock-downs, more crimes and piloce state, 75% tax, more treason, and follow along with wef un who blackrock agenda….”.


3: Politics (Distrust and Withdrawal)

Figure 8: Number of posts per fortnight – Politics (Distrust and Withdrawal) (1 Jan - 26 Nov 23)
Figure 9: Number of daily posts – Politics (Distrust and Withdrawal) (1 Oct - 25 Nov 23)
Figure 9: Number of daily posts – Politics (Distrust and Withdrawal) (1 Oct - 25 Nov 23)
Figure 10: Number of daily posts – Politics (Distrust and Withdraw) - Subthemes (1 Oct - 25 Nov 23)
Figure 10: Number of daily posts – Politics (Distrust and Withdraw) - Subthemes (1 Oct - 25 Nov 23)

HII posting in the Politics theme has declined precipitously since the election. It is tempting to consider this as unsurprising, yet we do not need to think too hard to imagine a scenario in which a closely fought election leads to an increase in HII. Seeing HII content fall in volume in New Zealand in the aftermath of its own tightly contested election is therefore reassuring.

Claims of a ‘rigged’ election still persist: “I find it hard to believe that with the rollout of agenda 20 30 etc and [name of politician] being mates with bill gates and all the other corruption that goes on , that the election wasn't rigged” reads one Facebook post in the days after the election. We observe claims that implicate the new government in a broader “rigged system” narrative where they are believed to be acting in globalist - rather than New Zealanders’ - interests. As previously discussed, in recent weeks the new government has seamlessly replaced the previous Labour government as the key protagonist of this narrative. The notion that this government, like its predecessor, has visions of tyranny can also be observed in some posting.

Our data shows a steep decline in sovereign citizen-related posts over the past month. However, qualitatively we have also noticed a rise in posts that belittle the concept of sovereign citizenship and related ideas. This may signal a broader public awareness of the movement and its concepts.

Overall, we notice a decline (to relatively small numbers) of Politics-related HII posting over the past month. As discussed however, this may be temporary.


4: Social Anxiety

Figure 11: Number of posts per fortnight – Social Anxiety (1 Jan - 26 Nov 23)
Figure 11: Number of posts per fortnight – Social Anxiety (1 Jan - 26 Nov 23)
Figure 12: Number of daily posts – Social Anxiety (1 Oct - 25 Nov 23)
Figure 12: Number of daily posts – Social Anxiety (1 Oct - 25 Nov 23)
Figure 13: Number of daily posts – Social Anxiety – Subthemes (1 Oct - 25 Nov 23)
Figure 13: Number of daily posts – Social Anxiety – Subthemes (1 Oct - 25 Nov 23)

Our fortnightly data shows that discussion related to Social Anxiety increased in the lead up to the General Election, before dropping significantly afterward. However, our daily graphs demonstrate that there has been an increase in discussion since November 20th and the formation of the new coalition government. This recent increase in the Culture Wars subcategory appears to be related to satisfaction with the election result and ongoing criticism of the previous government rather and (it is important to note) is not exclusively HII.

When looking at national politics through our ‘Politics: Distrust and Withdrawal’ and ‘Global Conspiracy’ filters we saw the new government perceived in the same way as its predecessor - as puppets of a globalist cabal. However, when we view politics through our ‘culture wars’ filter we see more general approval for the new government and its stated policies, often with a strong anti-left sentiment. One poster believed that the “new govt will listen to the people,not like the commies we have evicted from power” (21 Nov 23).


Conclusions

Large volume of posting regarding the Israel Hamas conflict in Gaza: Unsurprisingly, we found a large volume of New Zealand-based posting discussing the Israel Hamas conflict. This posting is highly emotional and polarised. Within this dataset we found discussion of the key highly contentious events from the conflict including speculation on IDF complicity in the Hamas attack, the decapitation of babies, and the cause of the explosion at the Al-Ahli hospital. We do not see sufficient evidence to conclude that HII is driving the division and tension over the conflict recently witnessed in New Zealand though it likely plays some role.

Low volume of HII-content as a proportion of New Zealand-based posting: An important conclusion from the current snapshot, as with previous snapshot reports, is the small number of HII content as a proportion of our overall dataset of New Zealand-based posting. Our dataset of New Zealand-based posting in 2023 comprises 3.9 million New Zealand-based posts / online entries. From this dataset we identified approximately 56,000 posts which are HII. This is 1.4% of our dataset of New Zealand-based posting. This small proportion is doubly surprising given our research is partly focused on online spaces where we would expect to find HII content.

We continue to emphasise however, that a small proportion of New Zealand’s population believing and spreading strong ideas about a globalist conspiracy or government overreach for example, is only part of the picture. It seems likely that similar, but more moderate ideas are held by a much broader constituency. Having an accurate picture of the more extreme end of HII therefore allows us to know how a larger proportion of the population may be thinking about politics, public policy and society in general.

Decrease in all HII themes since the election: We note a steep decline in all HII themes since the general election. This decline was most notable in the Politics theme, yet we note that all other themes are closely connected to political contestation. We consider that this decline may be due to the political lull while the (now) new coalition government was formed, and so therefore may be temporary. As stated above, we consider this decline reassuring as other tightly contested elections overseas have seen an increase in Politics-related HII and extensive ‘real world’ harms. We will continue to monitor these and other themes in HII in coming reports in the new year to assess if these narratives reemerge - or new themes in HII emerge.

HII is targeted at all main parties: We have also observed, as we did in our October report, that all major parties, including those in the new coalition government, are the subject of scorn and criticism in online HII. We therefore continue to believe that HII is not a left-right issue, but relates more to suspicion of elites, authority and the ‘establishment’.


Disclaimer

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 chris@heiaglobal.com







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