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Half of NZ has at least one misinformed belief – Expert Reaction

A survey from the Classification Office offers a glimpse at how pervasive misinformation is in New Zealand, and how it’s affecting our beliefs. 

From the nationally representative survey of 2,300 Kiwis, one in two had at least one belief based in misinformation, and one in five had at least three such beliefs. These ranged from believing scientists are lying about the safety of vaccines, to believing 5G communications cause Covid-19.

The SMC asked experts to comment on the survey. 

Kate Hannah, Research Fellow, Department of Physics, University of Auckland; and project lead for The Disinformation Project, Te Pūnaha Matatini, comments:

“While many of the findings described in The Edge of the Infodemic: Challenging Misinformation in Aotearoa (June 2021) could be seen as worrying, the survey data and report reveal some key understandings of New Zealanders relationship with misinformation and the media. Most New Zealanders are concerned about misinformation, particularly the impact of COVID-19 misinformation for Aotearoa’s response to the health and social issues raised by the pandemic. Most New Zealanders think that something should and could be done. And many New Zealanders are affected by misinformation –in their level of belief in some aspects of false or misleading information, and in their perception of its impacts on public discourses and interpersonal connectedness.

“We expect that people will have misinformation narratives that make sense to them; this is what these kinds of conspiracies or narratives are designed to do. What is cause for optimism is the way in which our communities recognise the impacts of misinformation, make attempts to counter it or find out good information sources when they are exposed to misinformation, and are eager for there to be wide-ranging public discussions about what can be done. This is a hugely useful and timely study, which is representative of Aotearoa and focuses on what we share: a concern about, and desire to improve, the information ecosystems which New Zealanders access to make decisions and understand the world.”

No conflict of interest declared.

Dr Matt Williams, Senior Lecturer, School of Psychology, Massey University, comments:

“This report provides some valuable descriptive information about what New Zealanders’ perceptions of misinformation. For example, the report provides some useful information about the prevalence of some beliefs related to misinformation, and New Zealanders’ trust in various sources of information. The report is clearly presented and the findings and methodology seem to be described transparently. This all said, there some pieces of information in the report which I think could themselves inadvertently be misinterpreted quite easily, so that’s what I’ve chosen to comment on below.

“The report emphasises the fact that most of the sample believed that misinformation is becoming more common over time. While it appears that most participants in the sample indeed believed that false or misleading news and information is becoming more common, it’s important for readers of the report to understand that this does not constitute evidence that misinformation is actually becoming more common over time. It’s entirely possible that misinformation is becoming more common, but we cannot rely on participants’ perceptions at just one point in time to tell us that. Determining whether misinformation is becoming more common over time would require longitudinal research and a clear definition of what it would mean for misinformation to become “more common” (more common as a percentage of all information shared?)

“Relatedly, the report emphasises the idea that “everyone is affected” by misinformation, and provides findings about New Zealanders’ perceptions about the influence of misinformation. Of course, it is interesting to know what New Zealanders think the influence of misinformation might be. But it’s important to understand that the data presented in this report tells us almost nothing about how strong the actual influence of misinformation on people’s views is. Determining that would require experimental or longitudinal research, not a descriptive survey.”

No conflict of interest

Dr Jagadish Thaker, Senior Lecturer, School of Communication, Journalism & Marketing – Te Pou Aro Korero, Massey University, comments:

“The impact of false or misleading information is felt heavily on our social and political relations. Misinformation plays mischief with our trust in social and political institutions, ruins personal relationships, casts barriers for social cohesion, and leads us to make poor choices.

“Over half of New Zealanders (57%) believe that they have come across false or misleading information in the last six months, with about a quarter (21%) saying that they come across such misinformation daily or weekly. A third (32%) are unsure and a minority (13%) say they haven’t come across any misinformation at all. The most common examples of misinformation given by respondents were related to COVID-19, followed by US election results.

“A large majority of New Zealanders (82%) are somewhat or very concerned about the spread of misinformation and an equal proportion (81%) believe that misinformation is becoming more common. About two in three respondents believe misinformation has influenced, a fair bit or a lot, New Zealanders’ views on public health (66%), environmental issues (64%), and religious, racial, and sexual minorities (61%). More than half say it has influenced Kiwis’ view about politics and elections in New Zealand (56%).

“About 8 in 10 respondents say they get news or information on social media, even as they have low trust in such channels. As motivation to use social media is both for information seeking and sharing among family and friends, sometimes it may be difficult to spot fake news, particularly when it is shared by a trusted family member or a colleague. Even if some have spotted a fake news article shared by a friend, they are unlikely to point it out.

“Therefore, it is not surprising that half of New Zealanders (50%) have some level of belief in at least one statement associated with misinformation. It is important to note that people with high level of concern about the spread of misinformation, and belief that misinformation has influenced New Zealanders’ views about various topics are also most susceptible to misinformation.

“This points to double-edged sword of self-belief in identifying misinformation—we choose to believe in information that aligns with our prior beliefs and discard other information as misleading.

“While the spread of misinformation is harmful, it should not impact our freedom of free expression. Therefore, apart from legislation, we have to seek other ways to address this pandemic of misinformation.

“A large majority of New Zealanders say that resolving the misinformation pandemic requires actions at multiple levels: individual, community, local council, national government, and international social media corporations.

“Developing critical media skills to help people spot misinformation and help them identify the primary strategies used to misinform people will likely inoculate people against misinformation.”

No conflict of interest declared.

Tom Barraclough and Curtis Barnes, researchers and consultants, Brainbox Institute, comment:

“We have concerns about this work and the way it is going to be used. We feel obliged to express these concerns despite the noble intent behind the work, and with full understanding of the difficult circumstances facing the Classification Office and the Chief Censor’s office.

“We are skeptical of the conceptual work and definitions underpinning the methodology. These issues have contributed to our doubts about the statistics it has produced. We are skeptical about whether this work should be relied upon to justify regulation or other policy work.

“The headline conclusions which will be taken by most readers are unlikely to be justified by the data or methodology. Put simply, the data describes how much “false or misleading information or news” people believe they are encountering in New Zealand. The report acknowledges this, but also creates the impression it describes how much misinformation is actually in New Zealand. The report also makes claims about the actual impact of misinformation in society, rather than respondents’ perceptions of that impact.

“The definitions adopted in the work are insufficiently targeted and blur important distinctions between key concepts (e.g. news/information, false/misleading). As a result, it is possible to read each reference to the word “misinformation” as really being a reference to “misleading news”. Some of the pull quotes in the report make it clear this is what survey respondents had in mind. The report therefore risks undermining perceptions of public trust in the news media, one of the core institutions responsible for mitigating the effect of misinformation.

“The study’s designers chose not to use established definitions and distinctions when asking respondents about their views. As a result, we cannot be sure survey respondents are talking about the same thing when responding to any given question. For example, one respondent may have in mind deliberate lying, whereas another has in mind accidental ignorance. Their answers may be different as a result.

“A core harm created by misinformation and disinformation is that it fuels unjustified doubt about who and what can be trusted. Unfortunately, the report risks exacerbating this sense of distrust. Another risk created by misinformation and disinformation (including “fake news”) is that these labels can be weaponised to undermine legitimate debate on contested matters of public policy. The report itself uses the terminology in this way.

“We also raise concerns with two other aspects of the report. The first is the importance of a human rights approach when dealing with misinformation and disinformation (the subject of a 2021 report by the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression which was not cited). The report also relies on the overstated concept of social media echo chambers, which are now in doubt following empirical work testing their proposed effects.

“Finally, we note that misinformation is not a matter strictly within the Classification Office’s statutory mandate. Rather, its role is to be an independent watchdog for extreme publications depicting, promoting or tending to support sex, horror, crime, cruelty or violence in a way that is injurious to the public good. It does so with wide public support. There is a risk that the Censor’s core function could be compromised by expanding its policy work in ways that touch on truth and falsehood.”

Note: “Our comments are given on the basis that we haven’t been able to access the information at the URL provided within the report, which might have provided more detail. We have published reports and book chapters on deepfakes and disinformation and investigated the New Zealand legal system to assess whether it was prepared for the threat of deepfakes/disinformation. We are currently conducting work for a client investigating the topic of regulating social media platforms.”

No conflict of interest declared.

Professor Marc Wilson, School of Psychology, Victoria University of Wellington, comments:

“These results (based on a survey of around 2,300 New Zealanders surveyed from mid-February to mid-March this year) aren’t entirely surprising and are roughly consistent with other research in other parts of the world.

“That US politics was the second-most common subject of perceived misinformation may reflect the salience of the contested certification of the 2020 US election, and the inauguration of Joe Biden just before the survey window. At the same time, prior research on conspiracy theories in New Zealand shows that the US exercises a disproportionate impact on our thinking about what is true and what is false.

“I think this is great research. What I’m less clear on from the report itself is the extent to which perceived ‘misinformation’ might include exposure to narratives that go against the official version of events (e.g., Biden was elected fairly thus misinformation includes narratives stating his election was illegitimate) versus narratives that are consistent with the official account (e.g., Biden’s election was legitimate is misinformation). This is acknowledged briefly in the report. At least one example provided in the report may illustrate this ambiguity – ““The Covid hoax; the gun grab and events preceding; the ‘climate emergency’; ‘peak oil’ (circa 1980?); the misrepresentations about the motives and scale of protests in USA. Pretty much everything you’ve been told is a lie, researcher guy.” Male, other European, age 25-29”. What this means is that we can’t assume homogeneity in the people who perceive misinformation, or the nature of that misinformation.

“Interestingly respondents report approximately similar levels of concern about the impact of misinformation regardless of the issue in question – e.g., low of 51% think that misinformation has at a fair bit or a lot of influence on views about NZ agencies and officials versus high of 66% for views on public health. This suggests that there may be a common core to the issues that are perceived to be subject to influence through misinformation. Again, however, it’s not clear what it means that 74% say it’s true that “False information about climate change is an urgent and serious threat to NZ society” – one could say this is true whether one believes that climate change is a hoax, or it’s real. Currently, about 60% of New Zealanders believe that anthropogenic climate change is happening (and a further 10% say the climate is changing as part of a natural process), a smaller proportion than believe misinformation about climate change is a threat, suggesting at least some of these folks are climate skeptics.

“Unsurprisingly, the report identifies the role of social media in news consumption as a potential contributor to misinformation. Respondents are generally skeptical of social media (two-thirds express low trust) and are rather more trusting of NZ news media and the government (around two-thirds trust these sources) and a reassuring three-quarters trust scientists and other non-specific experts. So far so good, but I’m also a little concerned that almost as many folks (59%) trust people they know personally (family and friends) as trust Government and mainstream media. This highlights the importance of personal ties – after all Skinny advertises their service by noting that we trust the opinions of people we know in helping inform our decisions! Interestingly and slightly contradictorily a significant majority (around 75% and more) also say that all of these sources at least occasionally spread misinformation.

“The report identifies that misinformed beliefs (where participants disagree with conventional ‘truth’) is less common among Pakeha than Maori, Pasifika and Asian participants. This is consistent with research on conspiracy and superstitious beliefs, that has been argued to reflect the ways that minorities have historically been treated. For example, African-Americans are more likely to believe that drugs prescribed to them are a form of experimentation, but there are numerous examples (e.g., the Tuskeegee syphilis study) where this has in fact been the case – in short, there’s reason to think that groups that have been shafted are super-sensitive to the possibility they’re being shafted again! Such differences aren’t accountable for by education alone, so should not be taken to indicate that any group is necessarily more susceptible to misinformation BECAUSE of any differences in education.

“The report makes several sensible suggestions for remediation. One of the concerns I have about some of the recommendations (more education, encourage critical thinking) is that they make perfect sense, but they have made perfect sense for decades. If 60-70% of New Zealanders believe in climate change, but more than 95% of climate scientists and climate science say this is the case, then it’s more than just an issue of shouting at people that they’re wrong. This is because people’s attitudes towards these contested issues don’t exist independent of each other, and are rooted in deeper psychological predispositions. My own work shows that trust in scientists and science is a key predictor of attitudes towards contested scientific issues, but trust in scientists and science is itself rooted in more basic attitudes towards how we perceive the world. Trying to shift attitudes about important issues is hard because they’re sticky – it’s hard to move just one tyre when it’s attached to a car!”

No conflict of interest declared.

Giulio Valentino Dalla Riva, Senior Lecturer in Data Science, School of Mathematics and Statistics, University of Canterbury, comments:

“The report is very timely, as we really need to start a conversation about how we consume information and inform others. It’s way more complicated than just “fake news” or “debunking”. It’s a matter of being able to rely on robust evidence and a plurality of experiences when, collectively, we take important decisions. It’s about ensuring that the voices of those people that a history of colonialism, white supremacy, sexism, has tried to silence are valued.

“The strongest message I get from the report, as a scientist, is that we need to do more and better communication. We should build stronger relations with our local communities. Being trusted is all about relations, especially in Aotearoa. Many of us have done great, but it’s not enough.

“The way our society is informed and inform others is changing. More and more, we can and want to access information autonomously. We are living through a process of “disintermediation”: gatekeepers, authoritative intermediaries (people, media, institutions) that try to control how we look and interpret information, are in crisis. Their role is contested.

“And, well, politicians, journalists, scientists: they’re a very diverse bunch of people. While we are lucky to have many wonderful scientists in New Zealand, we have seen a few that consistently offer examples of bad communication or peddle pseudoscientific claims. And there is a bunch of senior column writers, mostly middle-aged white dudes, that write very misinformed pieces. There are also many good examples! Yet, it takes way less to break a trust relationship than to build one. Unfortunately, the survey talks about these roles as whole, so it’s tough to distinguish between healthy, critical, scepticism and an apocalyptic defeatism. It is up to us scientists to be worthy of the trust of the public.

“The other important point, for me, is that we all are susceptible to believe in false, even funny, stuff. We often believe in misinformation because we recognise some issue, and we can’t formulate a more poignant criticism. Conspiracy fantasies are “diversion narratives”: they are ways of ignoring the deep problems of our society (inequalities, exploitation, racism, colonialism). We often prefer to run after some alien spy than taking a good look at ourselves in the mirror and bucking up.

“It’s ok to believe in funny stuff, sometimes. The point is how we adapt to novel information when we encounter it. Can we own a mistake and fix it? And, even more importantly, can we use that information to build a more just and inclusive society?”

Conflict of interest statement: “I contributed to an initial phase of the survey design.”