Weekend Herald

Battle against conspiraci­es changing

Govt’s ‘single source of truth’ no longer enough as Kiwi authoritie­s work to deliver vaccine rollout, writes David Fisher


When Peeni Henare headed into the Far North to reassure people over the Covid-19 vaccine, he brought with him something no other minister could.

Before Parliament, Henare lived in Moerewa with his family. It’s a poor town, a freezing-works town, a hearty town, sometimes a troubled town, and largely a Ma¯ori town.

It’s a place where — like many places in the North — there is a disconnect from central Government and faith in the state, which Henare acknowledg­es. It’s a part of the world poorer for centralise­d services, where often the only time the Government is seen is when it is taking away something, or someone.

And so, Henare’s trip to the Far North was really a trip home, and he brought from Wellington the authentici­ty of a home-town boy. As he travelled to Kaeo, Kaikohe and Kaita¯ia, he met people who knew him and whose lives he knew.

When they asked, “Is it true the Government will force everyone to be vaccinated?”, he was there, kanohi ki te kanohi, and able to reply, “No, that’s not true.”

There was more to Henare’s visit than simply the Associate Minister of Health pressing flesh in the provinces. It signalled a shift in the Government’s communicat­ions strategy as it prepares to head off the disinforma­tion and misinforma­tion being spread ahead of the vaccine rollout.

For so long, the message came from the 1pm press briefing, or the post-Cabinet press conference hosted by the Prime Minister at 4pm on Mondays. As Jacinda Ardern said in March last year when this first began: “We will continue to be your single source of truth.”

Just as the virus has mutated, so have the elements that make up the infodemic countering medicine and science-based public health advice.

The evolution of the infodemic was plotted out by researcher­s at Te Pu¯naha Matatini, one of New Zealand’s Centres of Research Excellence, from “unreliable informatio­n related mainly to the origins of the virus or potential cures to narratives which enter into conspiracy theory discourses about state control and individual rights”.

It was concerning, the researcher­s said, because “for Aotearoa New Zealand to successful­ly mitigate the effects of Covid-19, it is critical for the majority of the population to adhere to public health advice”.

That would take more than science and public health communicat­ion — the Government’s “single source of truth”. It would need a “wide-ranging response to the increasing discussion of unreliable sources, untrustwor­thy narrators, and conspiracy narratives in media, political, and civil society discourses”.

The advice of the researcher­s seems much like what we’re seeing now. First, they said, make good the failures of the past — recognise the failure to engage sufficient­ly with concerns of Ma¯ori, Pasifika and disability communitie­s, and then build bonds with those people.

Doing so helps those working in public health get an early understand­ing of the next conspiracy, or mistruth, and to counter it early. By building bonds at community levels, relationsh­ips are built and then “prioritise­d as tools for the spread of trustworth­y and reliable informatio­n”.

IN THE North, and particular­ly among Ma¯ori, Henare is able to operate at that community level. He’s known to people in these communitie­s. He is a fluent te reo speaker, which he says older Ma¯ori prefer.

As that local boy who now sits in the Beehive, he takes his platform with him where it travels, and for some he speaks to, it will raise him higher than anyone else with the same message. He gets cut-through where others wouldn’t.

And, he says, in hard-to-access communitie­s, “they may not trust government or politician­s, [but] they trust their local Ma¯ori health trust”.

It’s a bond of trust recognised by Geoff Milner, chief executive at Moerewa-based Nga¯ti Hine Health Trust. It’s one of several iwi-based health trusts across the country that — as Milner says — enjoy relationsh­ips with their communitie­s that other providers might not achieve.

In the North, two of six planned vaccinatio­n centres are operating, but one of the lessons of the pandemic thus far is that those furthest from government — in geography but also in trust — are less likely to engage with mainstream health providers.

“We’re adding another choice,” Milner says. They know some in their community didn’t come out of the valleys or leave their homes for Covid-19 testing. “We can take services into difficult places.”

It’s a powerful platform operating at grassroots. Says Milner: “It’s going to require all of us pulling our weight to get to the 85 per cent [vaccinatio­n level] we need.”

With that, Milner captured the essence of the current struggle. As the jabs become available, they truly become effective the closer the uptake nears 100 per cent. Every conspiracy theory or lie that gains traction serves to defeat that effectiven­ess.

This was the underlying point of Te Pu¯naha Matatini’s research — that using a platform in a less-thanconstr­uctive way undermines the medical and scientific approaches that give us all the best way of getting through the pandemic unscathed.

Facebook, possibly the biggest platform of all, claims to remove “false claims about the safety, efficacy, ingredient­s or side effects of the vaccine, including conspiracy theories”. Our Government — and others — have put pressure on Facebook and other social media providers to join the fight against false or misleading informatio­n.

A Facebook spokesman told the

Herald it had removed 12 million pieces of “harmful misinforma­tion” since March last year. And yet, it proliferat­es in social media, with disinforma­tion and misinforma­tion finding root in places predicted in the report by Te Pu¯naha Matatini — highprofil­e platforms, largely from “conservati­ve” political positions.

ONE OF those involved in producing the report, University of Auckland cultural historian Kate Hannah, watched exactly that unfold in February when a Facebook post by National Party MP Simon O’Connor was swamped by anti-vaxxers and conspiracy theorists.

On February 8, O’Connor put up a link to a Herald article in which microbiolo­gist Dr Siouxsie Wiles criticised Air New Zealand for serving drink and food on flights because it encouraged the removal of masks.

Wiles had also objected to Air NZ’s connection to research urging looser border controls, in part carried out by “Plan B” epidemiolo­gist Dr Simon Thornley, a critic of the Covid-19 eliminatio­n approach.

“It was one academic’s attack on another”, wrote O’Connor, and Wiles was “behaving more like an activist than an academic”.

O’Connor’s Facebook post blew out beyond the usual handful of comments accrued by the Tamaki MP. Abuse and conspiracy were heaped on Wiles as commenters falsely accused her of unethical behaviour and attacked her academic credential­s.

A video of Wiles’ home appeared on the internet, as did her address and home phone number.

As the number of comments grew and posters piled into Wiles, Hannah wrote to O’Connor, explaining as a constituen­t and an expert on the Te Pu¯naha Matatini disinforma­tion project that she was concerned about the post, the response it generated and the apparent lack of moderation.

She told the MP: “This harassment is highly gendered, and unfortunat­ely with your comments you have provided an opportunit­y for people with more extreme views on Covid-19, the role of women in public, and NZ’s response to the pandemic to feel that an MP sympathise­s with their views.”

O’Connor replied, telling Hannah he was “saddened” at the release of Wiles’ personal details. The issue of managing debate, though, was difficult, he told her.

The concept that “the reactions of those on the fringe should ultimately shape how we act in the main” was troubling, he wrote. “Put another way, if scientists, politician­s, researcher­s etc can’t speak because idiots will say something in reply, then we are in a problemati­c space.”

TO WHICH Hannah told O’Connor he had missed the point — it’s not about moderating speech. Rather, she wrote, “those with platforms should consider the ways in which they evaluate what they choose to share or say within that context”.

O’Connor told the Herald he wasn’t happy about his post being “hijacked”. Without staff support, he said he struggled to moderate his Facebook page.

It’s not the first time this pandemic that Wiles has been a target. She has felt compelled to let police know of some of the abuse. “My motives are for us to get through this with as few people dying as possible.”

With the vaccine rollout, Te Pu¯naha Matatini predicts “it is inevitable that this will be a major focus for ongoing disinforma­tion and conspiracy narratives”.

No longer is a “single source of truth” enough. In the battle for hearts, minds and vaccinatio­n, it is time for many sources of truth.

They may not trust government or politician­s, [but] they trust their local M¯aori health trust.

Peeni Henare, Associate Health Minister

 ?? Photo / Mark Mitchell ?? Associate Health Minister Peeni Henare receives his Covid-19 vaccinatio­n from nurse Alison Mitchell.
Photo / Mark Mitchell Associate Health Minister Peeni Henare receives his Covid-19 vaccinatio­n from nurse Alison Mitchell.
 ?? Photo / Sarah Ivey ?? Scientist Siouxsie Wiles.
Photo / Sarah Ivey Scientist Siouxsie Wiles.

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