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Will disinformation ‘cure’ help or hinder?

Marcus Roberts

Last week my four-year-old daughter started at a new kindy. She reported that one of the boys had said she was “not a good baker in the sandpit”.

Objectively he might have had a point, but I recited that old saw, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” As fatherly advice, this seemed to work. However, it is not at all clear that this adage still commands unanimous agreement.

For example, the Department of Internal Affairs is undertaking a Content Regulatory Review premised on the belief that digital media “has resulted in a significant increase of potential for New Zealanders to be exposed to harmful content”. Since “content” is defined as “any communicated material”, it seems that words may indeed hurt.

Then there is governmental concern about “disinformation”. According to the 2020 briefing to incoming Ministers on Covid-19, a key focus of the public health response has been “countering misinformation, rumour and disinformation”. Last year the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet advertised for a senior analyst to “actively monitor open source social media channels” to help curb disinformation.

One does not need to look hard for examples of objectionable online content. The 2019 attack on Christchurch’s Al Noor Mosque was livestreamed. A scroll through Twitter will make you question our collective sanity. Recently police partially blamed social media as an incentive for children to carry out ram raids.

But we can acknowledge all of this and still be wary of content regulation by government bodies.

The key questions are: Who decides what content is harmful, and how do they decide what is harmful?

The Content Regulatory Review’s definition of “harm” is exceptionally broad. It includes damage to an individual’s emotional and mental wellbeing. Another definition is that which causes individuals to lose trust in “key public institutions”.

The dangers of catching too much in this definitional dragnet are obvious. Does harm include being distressed or offended by what we read? What about when institutions deserve to lose our trust?

Curbing “disinformation” is also fraught. This label can easily cover opinions and facts which are politically inconvenient, unpopular, or unproven. An excellent blogpost by the IT and legal expert “The IT Countrey Justice,” summed it up well:

“. . . there seems to be an assumption that citizens are unable to make up their own minds about the validity of certain content and that essentially the whole of society is gullible and needs to be protected from itself. This is no more than a form of, at best, patronising paternalism . . . fostered by a strong belief that the few know what is best for the many.”

And this paternalism is unnecessary. According to the Acumen Edelman 2022 Trust Barometer, New Zealanders are already world leaders in our scepticism of the media, particularly social media.

We shouldn’t lie and should be polite in online discourse. But when the Government decides which content we can consume, then we are being treated like four-year-olds in the sandpit.

Marcus is a senior researcher for Maxim Institute

  1. Clive Bibby says:

    Well said Marcus.
    Your comments are particularly applicable to the main media outlets in this country who slavishly follow the Government line that we need protecting from ourselves.
    We are being treated as halfwits.
    Thank goodness that the day of reckoning is not too far away.

  2. Lara says:

    The writer believes that if we seek to curb the spread of disinformation then we run the risk of being treated like four year olds.
    I think we should put effort into stamping out misinformation and disinformation whenever it arises. We don’t have to look far to see the disastrous consequences of allowing lies and half-truths to go unchecked.
    1. The protesters who spent three weeks raving outside Parliament about all manner of things were there, in the main, because they had swallowed lies about vaccines and other varieties of misinformation hook, line and sinker.
    2. We have thousands of children absent from school or being homeschooled now because their parents believe the disinformation about vaccines. Some parents may also have fallen into other conspiracy-theory rabbit holes too. I heard a four year old yesterday refer to our prime minister as “Jabcinda”. Weird.
    3. Look what happened on January 6th, 2021 in America because disinformation was allowed to flourish. The fallout continues there.
    4. Look at what is going on between Russia and Ukraine right now. Russians are being fed lies and propaganda and many of them don’t even know it. They can’t critically analyse what they are being told.
    Letting people make up their own minds about the efficacy of what they read, hear or view relies on everyone being highly educated about history and able to recognise when they are being lied to or manipulated.
    Based on the placards, speeches and behaviour of the people driving the protest and narratives during the recent shambles of a “protest” here in Aotearoa NZ, I don’t think the protesters had that ability. They got played.
    If people don’t know history they are doomed to repeat it. And that is what I see happening right now.
    So I think we need to call out disinformation and misinformation. I don’t want to see another Donald Trump, Adolf Hitler, Pol Pot or Mao getting away with causing mayhem.
    Putin is bad enough.

  3. Rae, Tamaki Makaurau says:

    All the public of Aotearoa want most is the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. We are not asking for much, just the truth! It is not just social media that is untrustworthy. It is the media beaming into our lounges from the TV or radio. Both have descended into mis- and disinformation. I no longer watch the news on TV or listen to radio, because they cannot be trusted with the truth any more – it is wrong beyond words. It is disgraceful and I would like to see a clean sweep of those reporters who report lies and those interviewers who think they are beyond reproach, to be replaced somehow by truthful people. Not liars.

  4. Alexis Copland says:

    The last few years have shown that ‘misinformation’ is often just fact that has not yet exposed itself. This has played out most obviously in the changing allowable content in social media, and demonstrated by details in the court ordered release of global vaccine safety data.
    Marcus Roberts’ key questions are on the mark.

    1. Lara says:

      You write that misinformation is ‘often just fact that has not yet exposed itself’. That’s a dangerous claim!
      Misinformation is so named because misinformation can be shown to be false. Understanding the difference between a fact and a lie requires sophisticated critical thinking ability.
      Repeating lies often enough so that gullible people end up believing them does not change a lie into a fact. Dictators and liars have been misleading people into believing misinformation for hundreds of years because most folk don’t know that we tend to end up believing lies we are told if the lie is big enough and repeated often enough. Liars are well aware of how to manipulate the unwary.
      You and others who think lies are true because you hear them often enough ought to read Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahnman.
      Your comment and Rae’s comment clearly evidence my concerns about people being unable to discern facts from lies.

      1. Rae says:

        Lara, please do not lump me in with someone who does not believe truth, but when they hear lies often enough they believe it to be truth!!

        For goodness sake, my post was I cannot believe a lot of the TV news or radio. I said that because I am home 99 percent of the time so I have social media, radio and TV to listen to or read. That is why I have come to the conclusion that they are untrustworthy because I have heard lies from them very often, half-truths or spin. I belong to a group of thousands of retirees on FB where we concur or post opinion. So I listen hard-out thank you Lara! Don’t whatever you do lump me in with someone who I have no time for. I am surprised you have not seen or read the bias on the AM show or Newshub etc etc.

        1. Alexis Copland says:

          Are you meaning to comment on person or the opinion? On the contrary, I dismiss more than I accept. I like numbers and like to know where they come from. My ideas are not set. I most trust the journals that publish contradictory research. I see merit and flaws in a wide variety of scientific arguments, and try not to justify flaws, I try to move on. I follow more pro-vaccinated medical professionals than not. I’m not anti-government and will probably continue to support the centre left, though my preference for not increasing centralisation is growing. You have no grounds for stating that I repeatedly expose myself to lies, then believe them. You don’t know me. But I support your having no time for my expressed opinions.

      2. Alexis Copland says:

        It is not dangerous to acknowledge that government officials or misinformation experts are only human and that we cannot not expect them to have complete understanding. Your definition of misinformation sounds about right, but it is not the definition we are currently applying. Showing an outrageous statement to be false can be impossible. Consider the following mistakes we have made because we have failed to show it to be false at the time.

        On the virus origin story, discussions on the lab leak theory were blocked based solely on a letter published in the Lancet. However, the main author has since been confirmed to be involved in funding work at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, and general discussion was permitted again (both theories have credibility). Early research showing the newly vaccinated were at increased risk of infection (first 7 days) was classed as misinformation for a good 6 months, but we now see the FDA and Pfizer both held papers confirming this phenomenon. (See the newly released post-marketing Pfizer documents from the FDA). British Medical Journal content was blocked for an extended period. Biden’s laptop was misinformation for a while, until proven. Research on masks published in the Annals of Internal Medicine was blocked.

        The hypothesis that vaccine induced immunity was superior to natural immunity was allowed to permeate until well after we had stable data. It turns out Pfizer had confidential data on this even before NZ got the vaccines. Facebook, unfortunately, blocked only the view that was to have the strongest scientific footing.

        This is just a few examples.

        Would you allow these discussions to take place? If it damages the simple messaging of vaccination, then I suspect the government would reserve the right to over-ride any new laws. I think we need some examples of the misinformation that a new law would cover. I suspect it will be very hard to find a quick way of proving falsehood. One media outlet tried this last year and it resulted in a truce in my view.

  5. Peter Jones says:

    The Government is about to hand the decision on which content we consume over to the WHO.
    In the future we will be locked in our houses and treated like four-year-olds in a sandpit.
    Like with Covid we will be locked down and passported, except this time we will have no choice.
    Tokelau styles.