A government survey of New Zealanders has found that misinformation is widespread and most people see it as an urgent problem, Marc Daalder reports

A landmark study of New Zealanders has found most people are concerned about misinformation and want to see something done about it, but a sizeable minority hold multiple beliefs associated with misinformation.

The research was commissioned by the Office of Film and Literature Classification, the independent entity headed by the Chief Censor David Shanks. Polling firm Colmar Brunton surveyed a representative sample of 2300 New Zealanders for the study.

“We found that just about everyone is affected in some way, no one is immune from misinformation. You can’t make assumptions about someone’s vulnerability to misinformation based on things such as their age, gender, ethnicity or other characteristics,” Shanks wrote in the introduction to the report.

“It is not unusual for New Zealanders to believe in at least a few ideas that are linked to misinformation, and that’s okay. However, at some stage belief in misinformation becomes a problem. That stage is very hard to define, but often it connects with the point at which people start relying on false or misleading information to make important decisions that can affect our own health and safety or the safety of our communities.”

He cited the conspiracy theories held by the March 15 terrorist, those who targeted telecommunications infrastructure during lockdown and those who stormed the US Capitol on January 6 as examples of misinformation causing real world harm.

The report defined misinformation as “false information that people didn’t create with the intention to hurt other” and disinformation as “false information created with the intention of harming a person, group, or organisation, or even a country”, but in this article Newsroom has used the term misinformation to describe all false information.

Misinformation widely believed

About half of New Zealanders held at least one belief associated with misinformation, just under a third held two or more beliefs and just under a fifth held three or more. Among these beliefs were Covid-19- and vaccine-related conspiracy theories, beliefs that the 9/11 or March 15 terror attacks were hoaxes, and denial of the scientific consensus on climate change. They also dealt with New Zealand-specific issues like the use of the 1080 poison for pest control.

People who had higher levels of trust in news or information from people they knew personally and lower levels of trust in news media or experts were more likely to be susceptible to misinformation. Those who used social media and trusted it more as a source of information were also more likely to hold multiple of these beliefs.

One of the most commonly-held beliefs linked with misinformation was "the United States government or government officials allowed the September 11, 2001 attacks to take place". About 17 percent of those polled said this was either definitely or probably true. Some 12 percent of respondents went so far as to say that the United States government planned or sponsored the terror attacks.

Belief in March 15-related conspiracy theories was less prominent, with just 3 percent disagreeing with the statement "the official story of the March 15 Christchurch mosque attacks is accurate" and just 2 percent saying the attack never happened.

Kate Hannah, who researches misinformation and disinformation at Te Pūnaha Matatini, said these answers demonstrated the influence that overseas narratives had on discourse in New Zealand.

"It does go to show the nature of the places that New Zealanders are experiencing their exposure to disinformation, which is largely those social media platforms. The obsessions of a US culture wars kind of space are played out almost as entertainment, in a way for New Zealanders to engage with but not necessarily feel personally impacted by until they have started to permeate into things like New Zealand society or New Zealand social conversations," she said.

New Zealanders also reported they were more likely to see misinformation related to American politics than New Zealand politics. In fact, after Covid-19-related misinformation, American political misinformation was the second-most common form those surveyed said they had seen. Misinformation about New Zealand politics came fifth.

Along demographic lines, the report found that those in the 16 to 29 age group were most likely to believe two or more of the misinformation-linked statements, at 42 percent. That dropped to 33 percent for those aged 30 to 49 and 24 percent for those over the age of 50.

Covid-19 conspiracies have less cut-through

Hannah also said she was encouraged by the relatively low cut-through of some Covid-19-related misinformation. Just 5 percent of New Zealanders said Covid-19 doesn't exist while 4 percent disagreed it was a serious threat to public health worldwide.

"That was really heartening and it was really nice to see that up to 75 percent of New Zealanders recognised that disinformation around Covid-19 was potentially impacting New Zealand's response or global responses," she said.

"Often what we see in the disinformation landscape is a huge amount of volume with actually not a lot of depth and that can be quite distorting. And obviously, also, sometimes that volume is really important that we listen to it, but we also need to listen to the voices of these other New Zealanders who are saying how concerned they are."

Indeed, 57 percent of New Zealanders reported they had seen false or misleading news or information in the past six months with more than a fifth saying they had seen it at least a few times a week. The vast majority of those polled, 82 percent, said they were "somewhat" or "very" concerned about the spread of misinformation and a similar proportion said it was becoming more common over time.

An even greater slice of the population, 90 percent, said misinformation was influencing people's views about public health and three-quarters said misinformation about Covid-19 in particular was "an urgent and serious threat". More than four-fifths of respondents said someone should deal with the spread of misinformation and 55 percent identified the Government as the right actor. Just under two-fifths said the news media or scientists and experts were best placed to deal with it.

Other than the Government, no other actor was identified by a majority of those polled as being best placed to tackle misinformation.

"The problem of misinformation is a large and complex one. There does not appear to be any one agency or even sector that we can expect to fix this," Shanks wrote.

He said criminalising misinformation wasn't the solution, but other options were available. This included a code of conduct for content on social media platforms aligned with the existing requirements for accuracy, fairness and balance from news media, greater regulation and transparency of algorithms and empowering groups and leaders influential in communities that might not trust traditionally authoritative sources.

"Government, industry, communities and individuals could all play their part. Developing and coordinating such a broad strategy would not be easy - but it would be worth it," he suggested.

"We should be able to look forward to a future where we have greater confidence in the news and information we rely on, where we are clear about the part we can play to keep others safe and we are confident that others are doing their part in turn to keep us safe."

Marc Daalder is a senior political reporter based in Wellington who covers climate change, health, energy and violent extremism. Twitter/Bluesky: @marcdaalder

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