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