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Griffin on Tech: The web is awash with misinformation and Kiwis are worried

Peter Griffin. 25 February 2022, 5:37 pm

The anti-mandate protest village sprawled across the grounds of Parliament is probably little more than a mildly irritating curiosity, unless you work or live in the area. You may even agree with their cause, if not their methods.

But it is likely that if you spend much time on social media platforms, you will have been exposed to the strange grab bag of ideas fuelling some in the protest movement. Even professional platforms such as LinkedIn have hit peak crazy in the last couple of weeks as friends and colleagues take up the anti-mandate cause - some might argue with some justification - but then dive into its dubious off-shoot arguments.

Those ancillary philosophies and arguments extend to concerns that the "plandemic" is really just a ploy to install one massive world government, that vaccine-related deaths are being covered up and, perhaps most bizarrely of all, that wireless devices on the top of the Beehive and other buildings are being used to zap protestors to give them a form of the "Havana syndrome" American diplomats around the world have experienced.

Misinformation has been trending throughout the pandemic, but the conflict inherent in the protest occupation has brought it to a climax. It's not surprising then that New Zealanders are increasingly worried about misinformation and the hate speech that has too often accompanied its spread during the pandemic. 


InternetNZ's latest poll of 1,001 New Zealand adults this week revealed that 66% of New Zealanders are either 'extremely concerned' or 'very concerned' about information that is misleading or wrong, up from 56% last year. The proportion very or extremely concerned about the spread of conspiracy theories jumped from 42% to 58%.

Until recently, conspiracy theories were an abstract thing for most of us, something to chortle at when a friend shared them in their newsfeed. But it has become very real for us since anti-vaccine sentiment or vaccine hesitancy created a group within the population without the triple jab protection against the virus, and the current divisiveness in society caused both sides to dig in and harden their views. At it's worst outcome, we may find some in our country very unwell; potentially due to concerns over vaccine safety fuelled by misinformation. 

"We are facing major challenges online - a lot of them with broader themes of misinformation and hate - and we need to come together to try and solve these," InternetNZ chief executive Jordan Carter notes in the report.

"It is not a problem that Aotearoa is facing alone, but I believe that we can show some international leadership in this space if we can shift the dial and start to overcome these challenges."

The web is still worth it

It's not clear exactly how InternetNZ proposed doing that. But it has made one thing clear, it doesn't see NetSafe's proposed Code of Practice for Online Safety and Harms as being part of the solution. In a submission on the code, which NetSafe drafted in consultation with the major social media platform operators, InternetNZ said work on the code should be "paused".

"The proposed Code started in the wrong place and should have been developed starting with local communities rather than online services. Because of that starting point, and the potential for perceived conflicts of interest with services funding NetSafe to operate the Code, we think work on the Code needs to pause now."

With 79% of those surveyed by InternetNZ reporting that they use at least one of Meta's platforms (Facebook, Messenger, Instagram, WhatsApp) daily, the role of Big Tech in combatting fake news, conspiracy theories and hate speech can't be underestimated. 

But despite the increasingly toxic environment online, the survey also reveals the huge utility we still derive from the internet, with 86% reporting that the benefits of using it still outweigh the negatives. We need to keep that in mind as we look for solutions to the problems and as a host of companies seek to build Web3, the next iteration of the web. 

We've gained so much from the innovation the internet has enabled. In searching for a way back to the ideals its founders held, we shouldn't sacrifice what has made it so damn good. That's the challenge we now face and it is one that may help define the shape of the next decade. 


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Ron Segal 25 February 2022, 6:08 pm

In the end I would suggest that the only satisfactory answer to so called 'misinformation' and 'hate speech', the labelling of which is most often highly subjective and relative to viewpoint, is improved individual critical thinking. Training and education in critical thinking is where the funding and effort should be going.

Paul Matthews 27 February 2022, 9:49 pm

I couldn't agree with you more. We seem to be living in an age where critical thinking has left the building. People seem unable or unwilling to even comprehend different perspectives on things and live in their own little bubbles of belief.

Gary Benner 25 February 2022, 9:21 pm

" the role of Big Tech in combatting fake news, conspiracy theories and hate speech can't be underestimated."

As a professional, I seriously ask the question, are these the people we want to have that control, or should they be as uninvolved as Spark / Vodafone / 2 Degrees are on the traffic that passes through their systems.

The power of large business interests, whether that be in telecommunications, or pharmaceutical are not inherently beneficent - far, far from it, and left unchecked can use their largess and power to lobby at all levels of government, thereby becoming the arbiters of truth - inevitably to suit their goals, and not that of society as a whole.

The experience over the last 2.x years has shown us the power that "big tech" have in dictating what we see and what information we have access to. When the pandemic broke those claiming that the virus came from the Wuhan Lab were roundly written off as "conspiracy theorists". People were de-platformed and mocked. We now know that the consensus that this is the most probable cause.

We also have a massive issue with access to raw data, upon which independent analysis can be made. Pfizer (the company fined over US$2 Billion for unethical business practices) has tried to seal their raw research data justifying the use of mRNA as a vaccine for 76 years. As we all know now they do not - they are only therapeutic treatments as they do not prevent infection nor transmission of the virus. Current Medsafe in NZ data is highly obfuscated. eg. hospitalisation data does not differentiate between those admitted for reasons other than covid (eg having a baby, or getting shot by a gun) but getting included in the covid admission stats because they apparently when tested had covid.

This is the true misinformation, and sadly allowing large business interests to use their communications and manufacturing infrastructures, as well as financial power to have a huge influence on our society, is decidedly unhealthy.

To summarise, society as a whole should be the determinant of what is to be part of our society, and that has been no more evident than the massive censorship applied to the large number of individual medical, and other professionals who hold views different to that promoted by governments around the world. Only to find that in time their concerns are / were justified, and the political decisions made, to be unwise - as our Court decision today has demonstrated.

John Blackham 27 February 2022, 1:01 pm

I recall a CW interview with Paul Brislen 26 years ago. The opening line of his article, that I scared him, remained on-line a long time.

I had suggested that school leaving age should be lowered to 10, because if we had not given children sufficient skills to navigate our new electronic world they would be doomed.

The two skills missing in our education system then and I assume still today, are listening and analysis.

I once sat in the boardroom of a large US corporation and listened to 20 VPs say no to our proposition. My colleague just listened what they were really saying. After they had all said their bit he responded, to which the CEO said, 'We are all agreed' and we got the deal.

Blocking misinformation or hate speech makes the problem worse. These are symptoms of our inability to effectively communicate, a function that the Web has turbocharged, but for which we are employing skills that have changed little since the Stone Age.

As I said to Paul, 'If Adolf Hitler had the Internet we'd all be speaking German.'

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