‘The squirt gun of truth is no match for the firehose of false information being unleashed upon us to create and maintain division.’ Jess Berentson-Shaw explains how people in politics undermining science hurts everyone – including their own voters.

Whether we have been here in Aotearoa for five years, 50 years, or 500 years, most of us would describe our quintessential spirit as having a fairly hefty dose of pragmatism and collective problem solving.

I think it is partly why we have embraced what turns out to be an internationally innovative response to keeping out the worst of Covid-19.

We will give things a go if someone gives us a good reason and says: “I think this will work, I’m not 100 percent sure, but all the signs suggest if we all get stuck in we’ve got a good chance”. It’s this kind of collective pragmatism combined with care for each other that makes this one of the better places to live in this pandemic.

So last week when I observed a couple of people in politics engage in some fairly recognisable strategies of false information to attempt to undermine aspects of pragmatic and effective Covid-19 response, it got me thinking about false information and the tolerance or otherwise we have for it in Aotearoa. 

The case of a science communicator’s paddling buddy

First up, there was Judith Collins dealing specifically in malinformation.

Malinformation is a type of false information where people take information that is factually accurate but use it to try and undermine a person’s credibility, and more widely the credibility of the information or position they represent. In this case, science communicator Dr Siouxsie Wiles was filmed during Level 4 lockdown hanging out on a beach with a friend, taking off her mask, while the said friend went for a paddle in the water. First, pause for a minute and reflect on the sheer grossness of some person lurking and videoing women public figures (constantly subjected to online and real life harassment) in public spaces.  

Okay, so those were the facts ma’am: a bike ride, a socially distanced chin wag, a paddle that was against the rules and a creepy person videoing it. As Wiles herself said, her friend shouldn’t have gone for the paddle. But that doesn’t make anything Siouxsie Wiles says about Covid-19 or the science of it untrue. But these types of false information strategies are used to make people think exactly that. So this information was then spun by Cameron Slater (feel free to peruse on Google at leisure Cameron Slater’s previous actions to undermine good public health advocacy) and picked up by the Leader of the Opposition, Judith Collins. Collins explicitly called Wiles “a hypocrite” to undermine her credibility – and here’s the kicker of this type of strategy – and by extension undermine the science she communicates about Covid-19.

That may perhaps not have been Judith Collins’ intention, I don’t know. I do know that, intentional or not, the impact of false information strategies like this are to undermine people’s belief in the truth of the specific information, but also more widely to politicise good science to the point that people feel that to believe in or advocate for the evidence is a partisan action.

This does two things. First, it polarises people, making it hard for us to meet in agreement on scientific issues across the different social groups we identify ourselves as being part of. Second, for those who the entire circus is just too depressing or alienating to watch, they step out of the tent altogether, preferring not to engage with the science that affects them deeply because there is only anger and argument and identity associated with it. And without caring about people engaged in science, the big boys get to keep making all the rules, laws and policies to suit themselves best. This is exactly what has happened with climate change.

This undermining of good science may not have been Judith Collins’ intention, but it doesn’t matter, because in an environment in which good science for our collective wellbeing has been undermined and politicised by people like Donald Trump and Rupert Murdoch and their associates (do these people have friends?) for some decades now, that is what it does. 

This undermining good science with false information hurts everyone

Despite what those using false information think, the impact of undermining good science can’t be carefully aimed so it only affects people from a particular background, or with a specific set of beliefs. When good evidence for our collective wellbeing is undermined and disbelieved to the point that it is rejected or not acted upon by people in policy it harms all of us (in different ways and on a different time frame but it’s still a collective problem). The current global pandemic is the natural experiment that proves it. And while, for example, we may think people who are rejecting the Covid-19 science or vaccination are idiots for ignoring their own or their children’s best interests, many are being spectacularly manipulated for someone else’s agenda.

I note no one else in the National Party is undermining the science of our Covid-19 response. Because these are people who care about a pragmatic and effective response here in Aotearoa, watching their leader engage in such a specular own goal must be a little frustrating. And they should be wary of how other types of false information can undermine their desire to do good science-backed work for the benefit of New Zealand as a whole. Which brings me to the other ‘own goal’ of the week.

David Seymour claiming effective public health actions are “unfair” is false information that hurts his own voters too

Last week David Seymour released a priority vaccination code intended for Māori claiming it was “unfair” and not based on need. What David Seymour probably did achieve by giving out the vaccination prioritisation code to non Māori was to hurt Māori (again) and ensure fewer vaccinations overall. Which, given how vaccinations work makes me wonder if he actually likes his own voters. 

Getting vaccinated does confer individual protection from Covid-19 (you are less likely to get the virus and if you do get it, more likely to stay well). However, the real benefits of vaccination against most infectious diseases come from gaining collective level immunity.

If we all get vaccinated sooner, then the virus has fewer and fewer human hosts to infect, it can’t evolve, and eventually it withers away to become a low-grade seasonal virus kept at bay by our ongoing collective immunity. So, there is no benefit to one group of people getting the vaccination first, if everyone else isn’t also getting vaccinated at the same rate. In fact, it slows the entire process of collective immunity down if one group continues to have fewer vaccinations. Vaccinations for younger Māori are currently behind where we need them to be. So Seymour acting to slow down vaccination for a group who need it more in order to speed it up in another already doing just fine, is a total own goal.

And it is another example of a recognisable false information strategy that hurts one group most and then ends up hurting almost everyone else to some degree – in this case, the minimisation and undermining of effective public health evidence and action. We know from a large body of research that interventions to improve access to vaccination for those who experience the poorest health are one of the most effective ways to increase vaccination rates across the entire community.

In fact, it was exactly what we did here to increase childhood vaccination rates. So using coded racist language like “we should have a needs-based not a race-based system” to spook people into thinking actions to deliver good Māori health will disadvantage everyone else, and so reject the policy, is dealing in false information. Because when we all get our health needs met, we all get our health needs met.

False information is as old as the (colonised) hills

The roots of false information need to be explored if we are to overcome it. False information and the strategies its proponents use are first and foremost about creating division between groups in society. This is so we don’t work together to put in place changes that would make the biggest difference to the wellbeing of most of us. It’s a tactic embedded with inequality.

It is well documented that false information, including counter narratives, have been used by those with a financial stake in the tobacco and fossil fuel industries to undermine what the science revealed about the harm they cause. However, in Aotearoa New Zealand (and no doubt in other colonised countries) false information was first used to take land and resources from Māori: it’s a story as old as the (colonised) hills.

The following is an extract from my book A Matter of Fact on false information:

“It was the mid-1800s in New Zealand, Te Tiriti o Waitangi had been signed, and Auckland city had grown to the limits of the land wealthy Pākehā owned. The appetite for more land and the resources on and within those lands was voracious as the financial rewards for powerful settlers were significant. Pākehā society more generally sought to assimilate Māori into the ways of the  Pākehā, erroneously believing it to bring to Māori the benefits of a more civilised society. Māori in Waikato and in other areas of New Zealand acted to protect their lands from acquisition and their self-determination and identity as a people in the face of these threats. The Kīngitanga movement in Waikato, for example, ensured that while it was possible for government and private individuals to acquire land from Māori, no Māori in the Waikato would sell.

The so-called ‘limited circle’ was a group of powerful and wealthy men who used their positions within Parliament and society to enact a series of laws that would ultimately get them the land they wanted. It would prove devastating to Māori for generations. Laws such as the Native Lands Act in 1862 advanced war against Māori and enshrined the confiscation of their land as punishment. What came next feels chillingly familiar. Using their influence and ownership of the main newspapers of the time, a campaign of false information about Māori was run. 

Historical researcher Matthew Nickless names the technique at the centre of the campaign a “red lens”. This technique involved portraying Māori as a violent and savage people, who presented a “looming threat” to the settlements of Europeans. Nickless’s work shows that these untruths, and the narrative they embedded (which still exists today), created an environment that justified a physical and cultural war on Māori by means of which the ‘limited circle’ was able to advance their land acquisition agenda.

The roots of false information being used to undermine western science today, whether on Covid-19 or climate, are found in its use against the science and mātauranga of indigenous cultures, in the history of racist division. We should not overlook these racist roots as we seek to overcome the false information used to continue to harm Māori and Pacific people, people of colour, and now most of us. There is a lesson here about prejudice, misuse of power and racism and how it eventually comes to harm most of us if we do not reject it.

Coming together is the most pragmatic response

We can address the false information as it lies by addressing the individual mistruths. However, the squirt gun of truth is no match for the firehose of false information being unleashed upon us to create and maintain division. So it starts with the collective us. With efforts that seek directly to overcome and reject division that false information proponents seek. To work together within our differences. To celebrate and draw upon the strength of leadership, knowledge and innovation in all our cultures.

It’s together that we are strongest in response to those who would start (or continue) false information. It is together, linked, not ranked, that we have the best opportunity to bring our many types of knowledge and experience: indigenous science, western science, Matauranga Māori to the challenges we face, as humans. It is acting together and continuing to be the pragmatic problem solvers we are that will help us to reject the actions of those who would use false information to undermine our goals and progress. Building on the spirit of pragmatism and collective problem-solving that all of our ancestors who came here – be it five or 500 years ago – gave us, we have a good chance.

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