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.