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Misinformation rife during 2020 election: Tohatoha

Techblog staff. 17 May 2021, 7:03 am

Tohatoha CEO Mandy Henk and Emmi Bevensee, developer of the Social Media Analysis Toolkit (SMAT), have presented oral evidence to the Justice Select Committee that shows misinformation from 'malicious actors' originating on fringe websites and communities flowed to mainstream social media during the New Zealand election of 2020.

The government's Inquiry into the 2020 General Election and Referendums invited public submissions on several key areas relating to the election, including "the integrity and security of our electoral system in light of emerging challenges, with a particular focus on technology and social media." 

Henk and Bevensee outlined Tohatoha's research findings in this area to the Committee alongside representatives from InternetNZ, noting that the organisation's approach to misinformation "is rooted in a commitment to evidence-based interventions and data driven responses."

"Malicious actors here in New Zealand and overseas are taking advantage of the openness at scale that social media platforms present," said Henk. "These actors use racialised disinformation to spread hate driven narratives and conspiracy theories. They are a threat to our elections, our peaceful way of life, public health, and our shared understanding of truth." 

Tohatoha's initial research utilising the SMAT tool suggested that:

●        There is clear evidence of election-related mis- and disinformation spreading, much of which included hate targeted at marginalised communities.

●        At least two persons claiming to be New Zealand election officials were involved in spreading conspiracy theories on fringe platforms.

●        Conspiracy theories related to the January 2020 attack on the US Capitol, including those spread by hate groups, are cross-pollinating with New Zealand specific content.

●        Covid-19 and conspiracy theories related to associated public health measures are also influencing the discourse on electoral processes.

●        Fringe conspiracy content is spreading into the mainstream and influencing in-person actions.

Henk told the Committee that Tohatoha's data analyses demonstrate genuine threats to New Zealand's democratic processes and the likelihood of further threats to public health and safety measures, as well as to the well-being and safety of communities across Aotearoa New Zealand.

"We have seen what happens when we allow disinformation to spread unchecked. From tobacco to climate change; to racist disinformation all the way to the storming of the US Capitol building, doing nothing is a mistake that puts our democracy at risk and risks our economy and social cohesion," she said. 

"The movement of information and misinformation is complex and happens at enormous scale--but countering it is done person to person; within communities and within schools, libraries, and faith groups."

"Our efforts into studying information movements online already benefit and steer our community-facing initiatives, and we hope the Committee will explore resourcing these efforts to allow them to continue and scale as needed."

"New Zealand's democracy is worth the investment."

The full report that Tohatoha and SMAT submitted to the Justice Select Committee can be viewed here.


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