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Trends in Harmful Inaccurate Information in New Zealand No. 4

A HEIA Snapshot Report February 2024 – March 2024


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Introduction

This report is the fourth in a series of snapshot reports designed to understand themes and trends in Harmful Inaccurate Information in New Zealand. This instalment focuses on how these themes and trends developed between 11th February and 11th March 2024.

As discussed in a recent definitional report because it is often difficult to determine the intent of those spreading information, we use the phrase Harmful Inaccurate Information (HII), which refers to all misleading information which causes harm or which is likely to have a harmful impact, regardless of whether the spreader of that information is a) aware of its misleading nature or b) intending to cause harm. HII includes both misinformation and disinformation (false information, which is spread unintentionally and deliberately, respectively) and can also include other components such as hate speech or incitement of violence involving false information. The spread of HII can erode trust, cohesion, and the health, education and wellbeing of individuals and groups. We use this broad definition because we believe it is best suited to data collection and an analysis of the problem of HII in New Zealand. HII is a term specific to HEIA’s work and has no bearing on DPMC’s or any other work on disinformation.

Our second snapshot added discussion of the Israel Hamas conflict to our analysis. We reported that access to reliable information about the conflict was being impacted by the ‘fog of war’, where facts on the ground are unable to be easily verified and, in many cases, have been manipulated to appeal to audiences’ biases.

Our third snapshot report confirmed a continued low volume of HII-content as a proportion of New Zealand-based posting though there was a rise in Health and COVID-19 related activity. With a new government in New Zealand, there was confirmation of transfer of Globalist Conspiracy narratives to the new government though a decline in HII relating to Politics (Distrust & Withdrawal), and Social Anxiety.


Global Context

As we approach mid-2024, the threat of HII continues to impact societies around the world and, in particular, democratic processes such as elections and global approaches to climate change.[1] New technology and tactics in HII emerge around the world on a regular basis, with the targeting and spreading of falsehoods in the digital ecosystem cheaper and faster than ever before. However, this has also led to a rapid increase in global research on the threats posed by HII at institutional and government levels.

'HII continues to impact societies around the world and, in particular, democratic processes such as elections and global approaches to climate change'

Global conflict is a hotbed for HII.

As armed conflicts continue around the world, HII is often used as a way of generating tension and targeting civilians elsewhere. HII related to the Russia-Ukraine and Israel-Hamas conflicts (as seen in an earlier HEIA report) in particular, and elsewhere such as Myanmar and Ethiopia, have generated such tensions.[2]

A year of elections around the world.

As identified in Snapshot report three, 2024 is the biggest election year in history, with over two billion people eligible to cast votes around the world, including in the USA and India. HII, including that promoted using artificial intelligence (AI), poses a threat to free and fair elections with interference and influence in the democratic process. This includes the threat of foreign information manipulation. Such concerns have been identified in the run up to the European elections, as revealed on 12th February 2024 by the French Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs. Investigations have discovered the creation and administration of the ‘Portal Kombat’ network which may indicate the threat of disinformation disseminated by Russian actors ahead of the elections.[3]

Unprecedented proliferation of disinformation fuelled by Artificial Intelligence

Increased use of Artificial Intelligence and other new technologies continues, often used in foreign influence campaigns to generate tensions and division. Democratic institutions are struggling to keep pace with these changing threats.[4]

The application of the European Union Digital Services Act

As of 17 February 2024, the European Union Digital Services Act that was passed in 2022 has entered into force which provides a set of rules and obligations for digital organisations operating in the EU. The Act includes a co-regulatory framework across the EUs member states to standardise content moderation practice, algorithm transparency and targeted advertising (such as to children) to improve accountability and transparency. This includes the Strengthened Code of Practice on Disinformation which includes significant opportunities for AI and automation tools to implement the DSA.[5]

This global context provides information related to HII in the international environment. It is intended to highlight some of the challenges faced overseas and some responses taken by governments and other agencies. While much of this information is not related to Aotearoa, and we do not yet face challenges on a similar scale, HII is a global phenomenon and developments in one location can quickly affect countries elsewhere.


[1] The Global Disinformation Index (2024, 6 March). GDIs top trends of 2024. Retrieved from https://www.disinformationindex.org/blog/2024-03-06-gdis-top-trends-of-2024/

[2] Brew, C., Spink L. (2024). Disinformation Harms Civilians in Conflict in More Ways Than You Thought. Center for Civilians in Conflict. Retrieved from https://civiliansinconflict.org/blog/disinformation-harms-civilians-in-conflict-in-more-ways-than-you-thought/

[3] Viginum. (2024). Portal Kombat. A structured and coordinated pro-Russian propaganda network 20240214_NP_SGDSN_VIGINUM_PORTAL-KOMBAT-NETWORK_PART2_ENG_VF.pdf

[4] The Global Disinformation Index ‘GDIs top trends of 2024’ published 6 March 2024 The Global Disinformation Index


Methodology

This report collects and analyses anonymous New Zealand-based posting data from publicly available platforms where Harmful Inaccurate Information (HII) is prevalent. Platforms include Facebook, Instagram, Telegram, Reddit. We do not capture data from all online platforms, and we therefore do not claim to provide a complete picture of HII in New Zealand. The purpose of HEIA’s snapshot reports is to provide a measured indication of trends in conversation, why they might occur, and where.

For the reporting period 11 February 2024 - 11 March 2024 our dataset comprises 352,598 New Zealand-based posts / online entries. Of this dataset we identified approximately 1,583 posts which are confirmed HII. This is 0.4% of our dataset of New Zealand-based posting for this period. This total is made up of the following number of posts for each theme: Health and COVID-19 (710 posts), Globalist Conspiracies (864 posts), Politics/Distrust and Withdrawal (214 posts), Social Anxiety (177 posts). A further 51 posts confirmed as HII did not align with the above categories and were marked as miscellaneous.

In line with previous snapshot reports, we have continued to use a proprietary Large Language Model (LLM) to detect HII from a very large dataset of online posting. This method allows for more accuracy of capture when paired with manual verification.

Subsequent manual verification of data first identified as HII by the LLM by a team of researchers removed posting which did not meet our threshold of inaccuracy and harm. Once posting data had been confirmed as HII, the posts were then categorised by key theme and subtheme. Often posts were attributed to multiple categories, given the nature of certain conspiracy narratives. The few posts that did not align with a key theme were attributed to a miscellaneous category.

Because our method of filtering data has changed to capture only HII (and not HII-related content), our results are more conservative (i.e. identifying a lower volume of HII) compared to previous reporting. This enhanced method using an LLM designed to detect and analyse HII / disinformation has greater utility to identify emerging themes in the future. However, as discussed above, because this tool is in the early stages of development, substantial manual checking of the data is still required and was conducted for this report.

All data is anonymised on collection 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.

HEIA only collects publicly available data from public online spaces and does so without infringing on user privacy. This means that HEIA does not collect data from private online spaces and does not claim to have a comprehensive dataset of all HII posted online from within Aotearoa. And because we apply a rigorous methodology and strict benchmarks to differentiate between HII and opinion (however contentious or distasteful), the numbers in our dataset are lower than might appear in methodologies with less conservative definitions. The purpose of this is threefold. First, the data includes only posts which are clear examples of HII. Second, these numbers are manageable, allowing us to conduct a more targeted analysis of the state of HII in Aotearoa. Third, our aim is to identify observable patterns and trends related to HII observable in various online spaces in Aotearoa, rather than provide a comprehensive picture of HII (which often occurs in more private spaces and in face to face interactions).


Key Themes

From our initial qualitative and quantitative review of the majority of mainstream and fringe online platforms we identified four main themes in Harmful Inaccurate Information (HII) in New Zealand.

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

  • Theme 2, Globalist Conspiracies is HII 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 HII 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 HII 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.


Theme 1: Health and COVID-19

HII relating to health and COVID-19 has continued to increase in the last two reporting periods after declining in late 2023. However, this increase still does not represent significant volume at this stage. The previous report identified a Te Whatu Ora data breach and related media attention and the commentary around the Royal Commission of Inquiry of Aotearoa New Zealand’s Response to COVID-19.

COVID-19 remains a primary theme of discussion in HEIA’s data. Much of this discussion continues to insist on the harmful effects of the COVID-19 vaccines, including unproven claims that the vaccines cause cancer and ‘over 10 million people worldwide have been killed by these vaccines’ (11/03/2024). COVID-19 as a focus is likely to be amplified in the next reports as a result of global activity relating to the recently announced AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine withdrawal and the conflation between HII and credible information.

'COVID-19 remains a primary theme of discussion in HEIA’s data'

Claims about the Inquiry into the COVID-19 response remain much the same, with users purporting that the inquiry will be a whitewash. Some online posters have called for an independent inquiry, claiming that a ‘New Zealand Citizens' Covid-19 Inquiry’ (01/03/2024) is touring the country beginning in March. Discussion about the Te Whatu Ora data breach appears to have significantly reduced in the current reporting period.

Foreign narratives continue to circulate within Aotearoa’s online community. Posts of this nature often allege that Aotearoa’s government, along with foreign governments, are part of a concerted effort to censor and hide evidence of COVID-19 vaccine-related injuries. One post is indicative: ‘🇬🇧 The UK's Office for National Statistics (ONS) is changing its methodology to bury excess deaths by making it appear that fewer people are dying than expected when the exact opposite is true. (3 min, 24 sec)’ (28/02/24).

Posting often exhibits ongoing vitriol against the previous government, and individual politicians within it, over their involvement in the pandemic response. ‘Oh ive been angry since [politicians associated with the previous government] ignored the courts to provide more info to allow the gene therapy rollout and instead changed the kaw overnight to not have to disclose . ^%# you you filthy animals .Genocide is a seroious charge you ^%# [Expletives removed by HEIA]’ (28/02/24).



Theme 2: Globalist Conspiracies

Globalist Conspiracies-related HII has increased in this reporting period and remains driven by the Elite Control subtheme. Until early February, other than short spikes lasting no more than a few days, there were less than ten confirmed posts per day, in the reporting month this figure fluctuates between 20 and 30 posts most days.

As with HEIA’s previous snapshot reports, the predominant theme of Globalist Conspiracy discussion is centred around the idea that Aotearoa and its government is controlled by a global cabal. The question of who comprises that cabal depends on the narrative, but persistent among these is the anti-semitic narrative that ‘elite jews’ control Western society.

'The predominant theme of Globalist Conspiracy discussion is centred around the idea that Aotearoa and its government is controlled by a global cabal'

Other users continue to claim that entities such as Pfizer, the World Health Forum, and/or the United Nations orchestrated the COVID-19 pandemic, forcibly injecting New Zealanders with a ‘a foreign bioweapon, killing and maiming thousands’ (29/02/2024).

HII related to the Russia/Ukraine conflict is present in the data we have collected. This includes pro-Russian propaganda trying to justify the invasion. Claims include allegations that the US is developing bio-weapons in Ukraine and that ‘people, including babies were illegally experimented on by pharmaceutical companies in Ukraine’ (15/02/2024). These narratives are largely focussed on foreign affairs and appear to have less linkages to events in New Zealand, meaning they are less adapted for uptake among local audiences. There is also a thread of anti-semitism through many such posts, indicating a convergence of narratives bringing together the Ukraine conflict and ongoing anti-semitic commentary. For example: ‘American Jews are robbing Global Citizens for Ukrainian Jews... Hey *^%# - it's the Jews [Expletives removed by HEIA]’ (28/02/2024).

Claims that climate change is not human-made persist in the data - ‘🔴According to  journalist, Alex Newman, the ‘man-made climate change" narrative is finally crumbling. ♦️"Three new peer-reviewed papers, published in major prestigious scientific journals... completely undermine the alleged scientific consensus on man-made global warming"’ (28/02/24). Some users in our data claim that this ‘#ClimateHoax’ or ‘green agenda’ (04/03/2024) is falling apart and partly attribute farmer protests across Europe against EU farming policies to its downfall.[1]

Posting data also indicates some belief that the media are used as a tool by the government and its ‘puppet masters’ to brainwash the population is also present: ‘People are now realizing how managed and manipulated they have been listening to the so call news. It's all global properganda designed to dump b down the populace’ (29/02/2024).

[1] Hassenstab, N. (2024, 5 March). Farmer Protests Take Root in Europe and Beyond. Retrieved from https://www.american.edu/sis/news/20240305-farmer-protets-take-root-in-europe-and-beyond.cfm


Theme 3: Politics (Distrust and Withdrawal)

Our reporting up to February 2024 noted that, following the general election, the Politics (Distrust and Withdrawal) theme declined precipitously across all subcategories (Stolen Election, Tyranny, Sovereign Citizen). However, there is an indication that this theme is on a gradual upward trend peaking with a spike on 7th March though reporting remains in very low numbers. 

The posting data provides evidence of distrust toward the current government within HII communities, demonstrating that HII tends to be apolitical and targets the elite regardless of political position. Some believe that job cuts across government sectors are being carried out because ‘Nact’s narrative that NZ has no money is a lie. They are cutting because they want to weaken the state’ (07/03/2024). Referring to the closure of Newshub, proponents of this idea also believe that the government is intentionally disestablishing news outlets ‘that would report on their crimes. Just like in Hungary and Russia. Same methods, same advisors, same  *^%# that will lead to the same results: end of our democracy as the mafia captures the state [Expletives removed by HEIA]’ (07/03/2024). Such cases appear to indicate that the referenced cuts and closures are being responded to among HII networks with increased distrust in the government. This notion that the government is undermining media so that it does not criticise it, along with the other claims discussed above that the government uses media to control the population, show the confused and often contradictory nature of a great deal of HII.

'HII tends to be apolitical and targets the elite regardless of political position'

There is also crossover with the Globalist Conspiracies theme, with posts under Politics (Distrust and Withdrawal) alleging that Aotearoa’s government is controlled by a globalist cabal and that the country’s educational system is being used as a tool to brainwash the populace. For example: ‘to be raised and in the government system education means to be raised and brainwashed into their system’ (07/03/2024). Many posts call for collective action to REVERSE BRAINWASHING,COMUNICATE AND TALK TO PEOPLE… THIS IS A PSYCHOLOGICAL WAR BASED ON EMOTIONS, ALLEGIANCES, ACTION & INFORMATION’ (22/02/2024).


Theme 4: Social Anxiety

HII relating to Social Anxiety has continued to wane with all subcategories showing a handful of daily HII related posts and very little broader traction of the topic. These very small numbers are due in large part to HEIA’s strict threshold for what is Harmful Inaccurate Information. As per HEIA’s last snapshot report, this decline is as expected, with the category following a general trend since November 2023 where we see periods with little to no posts that are occasionally interrupted by small spikes in activity. Also as anticipated in our previous report, the Anti Co-Governance subcategory has continued to decline, other than a small spike in mid-February and seems to no longer be a focus of HII in Aotearoa.

There continues to be fluctuations of gender, misogyny and anti-LGBTQIA+ with examples like the one below linking into other themes (such as the ongoing Freemason narrative).

👹😱 [famous American female singer] is a satanic pedophile freemason [transphobic slur] who is the son of Zeena Schrexk. Zeena was the former priestess of the church of satan and the daughter of Anton LaVey who is the founder of the church of satan (18/02/2024).

Overall, posting under the gender, misogyny, and anti-LGBTQIA+ theme continues to follow a consistently transphobic line of thinking. As is popular, many such posts claim that gender diverse individuals are mentally ill among other forms of HII. 

The content of discussion under the Culture Wars sub-theme remains largely the same, with propagators spreading claims that the West (and by extension Aotearoa) is under threat by a covert communist invasion. Claims include that ‘Israel, Russia and China’ are part of a ‘Bolshevik Zionist communist coalition to destroy American and Western freedom’ (28/02/2024).

'Overall, posting under the gender, misogyny, and anti-LGBTQIA+ theme continues to follow a consistently transphobic line of thinking'

While the anti-co-governance sub-category has decreased, the few remaining posts on the topic claim that there exists a class of ‘elite Māori’ who manipulate public opinion and government policy to line their pockets with an end goal of creating racial apartheid in Aotearoa. This claim was central to HII related to co-governance in 2023 and evidently remains persistent, albeit to a small degree.


Conclusions

There is an ongoing low volume of HII-content as a proportion of New Zealand-based posting. However, HII is of course present in Aotearoa beyond the data collected for this report.

Continued rise in Health & COVID-19 HII. With Health and COVID-19 HII reducing through the latter part of 2023, this year has seen a small but significant increase in activity. It is anticipated that the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine withdrawal announcement will lead to a resurgence of activity. This will be examined in our next report. Overall, claims about COVID-19 and vaccine harm remain a dominant topic in this theme, while discussion about the Royal Commission of Inquiry into New Zealand’s Response to COVID-19 has continued in a similar volume and focus to the last reporting period. Discussion regarding the Te Whatu Ora data breach appears to have reduced significantly.

Continued transfer of Globalist Conspiracy narratives to the new government: We continue to see examples of globalist conspiracy narratives moving from implicating the previous government to targeting the new one.

Narratives generated by foreign events: A convergence of pro-Russian HII regarding the invasion of Ukraine and anti-semitic commentary are visible within Aotearoa’s HII networks. Climate change denial narratives also remain persistent, though neither this nor the Ukraine-related commentary have yet altered to take on a New Zealand character.

'A convergence of pro-Russian HII regarding the invasion of Ukraine and anti-semitic commentary are visible within Aotearoa’s HII networks'

Decline in HII relating to Politics (Distrust & Withdrawal), and Social Anxiety: Our reporting up to February 2024 noted that, following the general election, the Politics (Distrust and Withdrawal) theme declined precipitously across all subcategories (Stolen Election, Tyranny, Sovereign Citizen). However, there is an indication that this theme is on a gradual upward trend peaking with a spike on 7thMarch following job cuts across government and the closure of Newshub. However, these data are present in very low numbers. HII relating to Social Anxiety has continued to wane with all subcategories showing a handful of daily HII related posts and very little broader traction of the topic. Posting under this category continues to be highly transphobic and concerned with a Marxist cultural invasion.


References

Brew, C., Spink L. (2024).  Disinformation Harms Civilians in Conflict in More Ways Than You Thought Center for Civilians in Conflict (accessed 7 May 2024)

Broda, E. and Strömbäck, J. (2024). ‘Misinformation, disinformation, and fake news: lessons from an interdisciplinary, systematic literature review’, Annals of the International Communication Association, pp. 1–28. doi: 10.1080/23808985.2024.2323736.

Hassenstab, N. (2024). Farmer Protests Take Root in Europe and Beyond. https://www.american.edu/sis/news/20240305-farmer-protests-take-root-in-europe-and-beyond.cfm (accessed 15 May 2024)

Microsoft Threat Intelligence Centre Report. (2024). Same targets, new playbooks: East Asia threat actors employ unique methods. https://aka.ms/EastAsiaReport-Apr2024 (accessed 3 May 2024)

Belogolova,O., Foster, L. Rid, T., and Wilde, G. (2024) Don’t Hype the Disinformation Threat. Downplaying the Risk Helps Foreign Propagandists—but So Does Exaggerating It. Retrieved from  Foreign Affairs.com (accessed 6 May 2024)

Siren Associates (2024). Tackling disinformation: the EU Digital Services Act explained Retrieved 4 May 2024.

The Global Disinformation IndexGDIs top trends of 2024’ published 6 March 2024 The Global Disinformation Index

The United Nations Meetings Coverage. (2024). Amid Rise in False Narratives, Global Communications Department Ensuring Information Integrity of UN’s Work  Retrieved from https://press.un.org/en/2024/pi2317.doc.htm (accessed 1 May 2024)

Viginum. (2024). Portal Kombat. A structured and coordinated pro-Russian propaganda network 20240214_NP_SGDSN_VIGINUM_PORTAL-KOMBAT-NETWORK_PART2_ENG_VF.pdf (accessed 8 May 2024)


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







Download this report in PDF format:

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