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Trends in Harmful Inaccurate Information in New Zealand - Overview

A HEIA Overview January 2023 - April 2024


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Introduction

This report is an overview of HEIA’s research into themes and trends in Harmful Inaccurate Information in New Zealand over the period January 2023 until April 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.


Global Context

HII 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 HII to spread quickly across national borders.

Health-related HII surged during the COVID-19 pandemic leading to mistrust in institutions, public health risks and other harms. As public interest in COVID-19 began to wane, many HII themes changed to other areas of public concern such as politics and elections, climate change and other health issues.

HII related to various conflicts around the world was a key feature of the reporting period. HII continues to be used as a key weapon in the Russia-Ukraine conflict, and its use in the Israel-Hamas conflict has continued to bring increasing awareness of the threat posed by the manipulation of the information environment.[1] HII can exacerbate existing tensions and undermine efforts to resolve conflicts.

'HII can exacerbate existing tensions and undermine efforts to resolve conflicts'

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), has and can pose a threat to free and fair elections with interference and influence in the democratic process. Targeted HII campaigns were prolific throughout the 2024 India elections which stoked fear and animosity toward India’s minority Muslim community.[2]          

Recent research published by the Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH) shows how climate change denialism is changing from the outright rejection of climate change as an existing phenomenon to promoting campaigns that undermine potential solutions and delay political actions.[3] For researchers and those advocating action, this indicates a needed change and shift of focus away from countering climate change denialism to increased transparency on the need for suitable solutions.

'HII, including that promoted using artificial intelligence (AI), has and can pose a threat to free and fair elections'

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.


[2] NEWS WIRES. (2024). India awaits results of general election marred by ‘unprecented’ disinformation. Retrieved from https://www.france24.com/en/asia-pacific/20240603-india-awaits-the-result-of-a-general-election-marred-by-disinformation

[3] Centre for Countering Digital Hate. (2024). The New Climate Denial. Retrieved from https://counterhate.com/research/new-climate-denial/



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 was to provide a measured indication of trends in conversation, why they might occur, and where.

For the reporting period 1 January 2023 - 11 April 2024 our dataset comprises 5,502,495 New Zealand-based posts / online entries. Of this dataset we identified approximately 61,405 posts which are confirmed HII. This is 1.1% 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 (4,683 posts), Globalist Conspiracies (12,543 posts), Politics/Distrust and Withdrawal (6,487 posts), Social Anxiety (4,866 posts).

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.

Overview

Patterns and Numbers

Overall, Globalist Conspiracies is the largest theme in HEIA’s dataset with 12,543 posts as of April 11 2024. Politics (Distrust and Withdrawal) is the second largest with 6,487 posts, followed by Social Anxiety with 4,866 posts and Health & COVID-19 with 4,683 posts. However, these overall figures do not necessarily reflect their trajectory as for some, like Politics (Distrust and Withdrawal), the bulk of their posts were made in 2023. 

Health & COVID-19 spiked noticeably at the end of November 2023 (driven by the Te Whatu Ora leak and forthcoming inquiry) and briefly overtook Globalist Conspiracies. This spike dropped in the new year, but the Health & COVID-19 trendline is now the highest due to a spike in late March 2024.[1] HEIA’s data confirms a transfer of Globalist Conspiracy narratives to the new government.

'The Health & COVID-19 trendline is now the highest'

There are also notable differences in posting behaviour under Politics (Distrust and Withdrawal) and Health & COVID-19 pre- and post-general election. Up until 19/11/2023, Politics (Distrust and Withdrawal) was the second largest category in HEIA’s data and its levels remained relatively consistent in the first 10 months of 2023. After peaking at its second highest in mid-October (around the time of the General Election), posting under this category rapidly declined and by late December it had become the category with the least posts.

Analysis

All themes saw decreased activity around late December/early January likely due to the holiday period. Aside from this drop, there was a notable decrease in posting under Politics (Distrust and Withdrawal) and an increase in Health & COVID-19 after  New Zealand’s general election.

There were two overarching themes underlying HII in all subcategories across the entire period: anti-establishment sentiment and concern over increasing social control and government overreach. These sentiments are associated with broader global developments, including the advance of populism and the decline of democracy.  This may partly account for the drop in Politics (Distrust and Withdrawal) posting in late 2023 and the reinvigoration of Globalist Conspiracies in 2024.

'There were two overarching themes underlying HII in all subcategories across the entire period: anti-establishment sentiment and concern over increasing social control and government overreach'

For Politics (Distrust and Withdrawal), HII about the former Labour government, was a key topic driving discussion. In the lead up to the general election, the category was full of suspicion and claims regarding electoral integrity, as many believed that the former government or some foreign power would rig the election results. Once the new government was elected,  many of these concerns seem to have been assuaged, although the new government has been the target of different forms of HII. However, Globalist Conspiracies have moved in the opposite direction, with discussion under this category increasing. Analysis of the posting data indicates that  HII under this category has simply switched from targeting the former government to targeting the new one.

'HII [under Globalist Conspiracies] has simply switched from targeting the former government to targeting the new one'

[1] Further analysis of this spike can be found in the Health and COVID-19 section of the report.



Theme 1: Health and COVID-19

Until late 2023, Health and COVID-19 was the least prevalent theme in our dataset. This shifted in early December 2023, with a spike in response to a Te Whatu Ora data breach when one of its employees leaked the private vaccination data of thousands of New Zealanders. After this spike, the trendline of this HII theme remained higher than previously, and it continued to climb from February 2024 onwards. In the most recent snapshot, Health and Covid-19 was the second most prevalent type of HII, following Globalist Conspiracy very closely.

Throughout our collection period, Health and Covid-19 HII posts tend to centre on one (or multiple) of the following beliefs: 1) the Covid-19 pandemic was fake, employed for governments and/or the ‘deep state’ to gain control over populations. Related posts often refer to it as the ‘scamdemic’ or ‘plandemic’, 2) the Covid-19 vaccine is harmful, and vastly inflate the injuries and death associated, or the belief that the vaccine contains ‘nanochips’ to control recipients' minds through 5G towers, and 3) the government is involved in a widespread cover-up of vaccine-related injuries, deaths, and/or the ‘truth’ that the pandemic is fake.

Health and Covid-19 HII often intersect with Globalist Conspiracies and Politics (Distrust and withdrawal), but rarely with Social Anxiety. This is perhaps unsurprising given the role of the government in responding to the pandemic, and the global nature of most pharmaceutical companies. Unlike other themes, online COVID-19 HII has built a strong offline community. Consequently, this category has observed local-level initiatives for advancing their cause, as described in snapshot 4, which reported on calls for citizens to share their stories of vaccine harm, called the ‘New Zealand Citizens' Covid-19 Inquiry’ (Unrecorded Platform, 01/03/2024). Correspondingly, snapshot 5 detailed how a number of posts contained personal anecdotes: ‘I know of 5 people who have died or suffered adverse events from the vaccine, all of which have been attributed to other things’ (Reddit, 03/04/2024). 

'Health and Covid-19 HII often intersect with Globalist Conspiracies and Politics (Distrust and withdrawal)'

A notable spike occurred in April 2024, in response to media reports surrounding the death of a 13-year-old boy in 2021, which articles framed as potentially connected to a Covid-19 vaccine. The vaccine skeptic community took this as evidence of the harms caused by the vaccine, and the fact it was revealed three years later as proof that the government is involved in a coverup. This shows how HII spikes significantly when offline events appear to confirm pre-existing conspiracies, demonstrating how confirmation bias can generate a shift in levels of HII


Theme 2: Globalist Conspiracies

Globalist Conspiracy HII is the proportionally highest category throughout the reporting period. With the exception of a large spike in Health and Covid-19 HII which occurred in December 2023, Globalist Conspiracies were consistently the most prevalent form of HII, driven predominantly by theories of elite control. A steep decline in this subcategory occurred through October-November 2023, which snapshots 2 and 3 attributed to the change of government. However, after the formation of the new coalition government, Globalist Conspiracies began to rise again, and HII narratives transferred from the previous Labour government to the current one.

'Globalist Conspiracies were consistently the most prevalent form of HII'

Elite Control narratives purport that a shadowy international cabal of elites (aka a ‘deep state’, freemasons, Jews) is advancing a ‘globalist’ agenda. This subcategory of HII is applied to various policies, technological advancements, environmental phenomena, and political action. International events are explained through this lens, fuelling spikes in Globalist Conspiracy HII. In our data we observed this in 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; there is an Jewish-controlled trans-agenda to corrupt Western values; elite control is being established by generating a cashless society, and the alleged Jewish-run CIA staged the Moscow terrorist attack. Many of these narratives implicate Jewish people as ‘puppet masters’, and therefore this category of HII is rife with antisemitism.

'This category of HII is rife with antisemitism'

Throughout 2023 and 2024 thus far, Globalist Conspiracies in our data implicate transnational organisations like the World Economic Forum (WEF), United Nations (UN), and World Health Organisation (WHO), as established to advance the interest of the ‘elites’. Distrust in the WEF generates HII related to finance, such as the belief that digital currencies are a means to control populations: ‘It does not make sense people say only pay for goods with cash. Then the retailer banks the cash that ends up in the hands of the bank who will make sure it will disappear not end up in your pockets...Reserve bank phrase 3 of CBDC towards implementing CBDC’ (Facebook, 11/04/2024). Similarly, distrust in the UN fuels HII related to climate change and sustainable development, with locally relevant manifestations like the notion that farmers are being targeted by the ‘climate agenda’: ‘THE RED MEAT INDUSTRY IS SCHEDULED TO BE SHUT DOWN’ (Telegram, 20/03/2024). The WHO being implicated in these narratives contributes to the significant overlap between Globalist Conspiracies and Health and Covid-19 HII, as demonstrated by both themes spiking in response to the Te Whatu Ora data breach.


Theme 3: Politics (Distrust and Withdrawal)

The trendline for Politics (Distrust and Withdrawal) has had the most significant change since the beginning of our snapshot series. Prior to the 2023 election, the volume of related HII was consistently the second most prevalent category, whereas after, levels declined significantly. In the most recent snapshot, this form of HII was the least pervasive compared to the other forms observed, and posts relating to the subcategories of Sovereign Citizen and Stolen Election in particular have almost dissipated. Despite this, HII with accusations that the government is tyrannical rose again through February-April 2024. An analysis of posts within this timeframe reveals that they were often related to Health and Covid-19, and hence follow a similar trajectory: ‘Remember what they did to hide this from your eyes. Move now before their next tyrannical bioweapon attack’ (Telegram, 02/04/2024).

Leading up to the October 2023 election, fears surrounding a ‘stolen election’ were relatively common, triggered by claims from Donald Trump and his supporters that his election defeat was fraudulent (leading to the January 6 riot): ‘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 can't vote your way out of tyranny against a treasonous parliament who are war criminals’ (Unrecorded Platform, 01/09/2023). Because HII placed the Labour Party at the centre of ‘stolen election’ and ‘sovereign citizen’ type conspiracy theories, these claims have declined since the election which saw a change in government.

Despite this, 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. For example, the closure of Newshub prompted HII accusations that the government was 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]’ (Reddit, 07/03/2024). The often apolitical and elite focused nature of HII was only identifiable by this longitudinal study spanning a change in government.

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

Because HII related to Politics (Distrust and Withdrawal) was observed in relatively low numbers during the reporting periods for snapshot 4 and 5, we were able to identify similar spikes occurring at the beginning of March and April 2024. We attribute this to a monthly scheduled effort by an individual or group to disseminate a particular series of posts which include the following post structure:‘FACTS ARE THREATENING TO THOSE INVESTED IN FRAUD AND TYRANNY. NEVER FORGET. YOU ARE MANY, THEY ARE FEW. PRINT & SHARE THIS FAR AND WIDE. JOIN US’ (Telegram, 06/04/2024).


Theme 4: Social Anxiety

Similar to the other themes analysed in our dataset, Social anxiety HII decreased after the October 2023 election and began to rise again from the beginning of 2024. The bulk of Social Anxiety HII throughout 2023 and 2024 thus far relates to Culture Wars or Gender, Misogyny, and Anti-LGBT+ narratives.

Culture Wars HII centres on polarisation between the political left and right. 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: ‘it’s these high profile universities and businesses that are fuelling this kind of discrimination. Probably PC, do gooding white folk with the help of a few elitist maori, to push their agenda’ (Reddit, 25/03/2024).

The bulk of Gender, Misogyny, and Anti-LGBT+ HII throughout the reporting period relates to a proposed ‘gender ideology’ - a globalised narrative that suggests an alleged ‘trans agenda’ is corrupting and indoctrinating youth: ‘The Transgender Agenda Is Built on Sand: The narrative that children can change their sex with the aid of social transitioning, puberty blockers, cross-sex hormones, chest binders and tucking is exploding before our eyes’ (Facebook, 19/03/2024). We observe that Cultural Warfare and Gender, Misogyny, and Anti-LGBT+ HII appear to increasingly converge after the October 2023 election: ‘It's a term for the extreme leftists who want the whole world to adopt their extreme world view. They believe things like 40 year old transwomen should be able to hang their d**** out in bathrooms with 5 year old girls’ (Reddit, 20/03/2024).

Anti-transgender activist Posie Parker visited Auckland in March 2023, fuelling a sharp spike in Gender, Misogyny, and Anti-LGBT+ HII. In snapshot 5, we detailed a spike in this form of HII which occurred between March 23-30th 2024 - the one-year anniversary of Parker’s visit. This shows how one event can influence the dissemination of (and topics within) HII in Aotearoa well after it occurs.


Conclusions

1. Low volume of HII

As concluded in our previous snapshots, HII content is a proportion of our overall dataset of New Zealand-based posting. Our dataset of New Zealand-based posting from 1 January 2023 to 11 April 2024 comprises 5,502,495 New Zealand-based posts / online entries. From this dataset, we identified approximately 61,405 posts which are HII, representing 1.1% of our dataset of New Zealand-based posting.

We continue to emphasise that our rigorous methodology and high benchmark for harm means that similar, but more moderate HII ideas are held by a much broader constituency. Having an accurate picture of the more extreme end of HII therefore allows us to understand its impact and how a larger proportion of the population may be reacting to issues in politics, public policy, and society in general.

2. Overarching themes

Two overarching themes underpin HII in all categories throughout 2023 and 2023 thus far: 1) anti-establishment sentiment, and 2) concern over increasing social control and government overreach. We contend that these sentiments are associated with broader global developments, such as the advance of populism and the decline of democracy.

3. Decrease in all HII themes since the election: Politics (Distrust and Withdrawal) remaining low

Following the general election, HII declined across all categories, although this represents an unsurprising decline from a temporary high related to the poll. Globalist Conspiracies and Social Anxiety HII now appear to be returning to a similar baseline that was established before the October election. From late February, however, Health and Covid-19 HII exceeded its pre-election baseline, whereas Politics (Distrust and Withdrawal) HII decreased significantly after the election.

'Globalist Conspiracies and Social Anxiety HII now appear to be returning to a similar baseline that was established before the October election'

4. Globalist conspiracies as a major theme

Globalist conspiracies are consistently the most prevalent form of HII within our dataset, and local events are frequently understood through an anti-elite/globalist control worldview. The implication of local events, alongside distrust of transnational organisations that impact Aotearoa's public policy, means that globalist conspiracies are often seen in conjunction with our other themes. This is particularly true for Health and Covid-19 as well as Politics (Distrust and Withdrawal).

5. Transfer of HII to new government

HII is not a left-right issue, but relates to suspicion of elites, authority, and the ‘establishment’. Consequently, we observed that all of Aotearoa's major political parties, including those in the new coalition government, are the subject of scorn and criticism in online HII. Globalist Conspiracy HII in particular has been transferred seamlessly from implicating the previous government to targeting the new one.

6. Covid-19 HII persists

Despite all vaccine mandates ending in September 2022, Covid-19 HII remains a cornerstone of conspiratorial thinking in Aotearoa. In fact, this type of HII is more prevalent towards the end of our reporting period than at the beginning, persisting despite the passage of time and resisting topical fatigue. Covid-19 HII is often highly personal, demonstrating the emotion that, for many, still accompanies memories of pandemic experiences.

'Covid-19 HII remains a cornerstone of conspiratorial thinking in Aotearoa'

References

Centre for Countering Digital Hate. (2024). The New Climate Denial. Retrieved from https://counterhate.com/research/new-climate-denial/

Institute for Strategic Dialogue. (2023). Capitalising on crisis: Russia, China and Iran use X to exploit Israel-Hamas information chaos. Retrieved from https://www.isdglobal.org/digital_dispatches/capitalising-on-crisis-russia-china-and-iran-use-x-to-exploit-israel-hamas-information-chaos/

NEWS WIRES. (2024). India awaits results of general election marred by ‘unprecented’ disinformation. Retrieved from https://www.france24.com/en/asia-pacific/20240603-india-awaits-the-result-of-a-general-election-marred-by-disinformation

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


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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