How social media turned protest into a problem

A wave of misinformation that had a strong influence on the Wellington protest has sparked renewed calls for the regulation of social media giants.

From claims that Covid-19 is a ‘pandemic’ to the belief that concrete bollards placed around Parliament were emitting electromagnetic radiation, fringe ideologies embraced during the three-week occupation of Parliament have spread widely online via platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Telegram.

Stephen Judd of FACT Aotearoa conspiracy busters says some of those involved are promoting “completely different media and news universes”.

A stark example occurred during the fire on the lawns of Parliament on March 2. As the blaze burned, Facebook influencer Chantelle Baker told her 96,000 followers – without any evidence – that it was started by the police.

“You realize the police knocked over a generator… they set fire to a tent, so the police caused that,” Baker told a team she identified as “mainstream” media.

“So I hope you understand that, I hope you’re not saying it’s protesters when it was the police who started this fire.”

READ MORE: Misinformation: Down the rabbit hole, and back

Minutes later, Baker ran into a protester starting a separate fire and told them to stop, but continued to blame the police.

“The police have set the fire and they can try to put it out,” she said.

The next day, Baker posted a retraction via another livestream.

“I’m glad I’m wrong – it doesn’t worry me in the least because we’re live.”

But by then it was too late – misinformation had spread widely.

“Of course the cops started the fire,” one Facebook user wrote. “The classic tactic then is to blame people and make them look bad.”

“They were undercover cops, not protesters, see Chanelle (sic) Baker live,” another said.

“It’s like a virus”

Dozens of others have since repeated the same false claim. Technical commentator Paul Brislen says they can spread incredibly quickly on social media.

“If one person shares something, it goes to their friends; if they all share it equally, you suddenly reach an audience of tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands… It’s kind of like a pyramid effect… can go completely crazy and that’s where the virus comes from – it’s like a virus.”

He says the algorithms of platforms like Facebook are designed to “show you more of what you like”, even if it’s harmful.

“If you clicked on a video, a chat video for example, a chat video page will invite you to join the page. You receive more information that reinforces your beliefs, whether they are accurate or not. is the real danger here.”

In early 2021, a Classification Bureau survey found that 19% of Kiwis held three or more beliefs associated with misinformation, a statistic according to Chief Censor David Shanks has “almost certainly” worsened recently.

“We are seeing an increase in the number of bad actors who have learned to use digital platforms to spread their distrust of public institutions and the media, which means they are creating followers who only truly believe what they believe. they say.”

He says the government must push for stricter regulation of platforms that promote misinformation, like what happened after the Christchurch terror attack.

“Regulating the internet is something that New Zealand alone cannot achieve. If you look at the Christchurch appeal after the horrific attacks of March 15, New Zealand was a leader in terms of approach collaborative, multinational and multi-stakeholder to make a meaningful difference to the level of extremism and terrorism content online.”

He says that although there has been criticism, the changes have not happened fast enough, significant steps have been taken.

“Major tech platforms that are members of the Call have updated their terms of service to prohibit terrorist and violent extremist content, and have improved their detection capabilities and user reporting mechanisms, while putting in place policies more stringent regarding live streaming…

“The Christchurch Appeal continues to grow in global membership. It now includes 55 governments, most of the world’s liberal democracies, and most importantly the United States has now become members. This gives us an idea of ​​how we could participate in a worldwide conversion to address this problem.”

The law is catching up

Panels adorn the statue of Seddon in Parliament

FACT’s Judd would like to see the accounts of disinformation spreaders shut down. The Facebook page of anti-vaccine group Voices for Freedom was taken down last year for spreading false information. The group created another in March, but it was quickly shut down again, although it can still post to Instagram, Twitter and TikTok.

“If people spreading misinformation are blocked from using mainstream platforms like Facebook, they can go elsewhere,” Judd said. “But the good thing about that is that they can be harder to find, which means they have to work harder to get a platform for their ideas. So even there it can have a real effect. .”

Globally, the law is catching up with some of the worst misinformation spreaders. Prominent US conspiracy theorist Alex Jones is currently facing multiple lawsuits after losing defamation suits over his claims that the Sandy Hook school shooting was faked. Jones failed to appear at recent deposition hearings and will be fined $25,000 to $50,000 per weekday until his appearance.

We could see legal action here too. In February, New Zealand outlet Counterspin Media promoted a so-called “documentary” that questions whether the killing of 51 people in the Christchurch terror attack was staged. The documentary has been classified as objectionable and could see those who share it imprisoned for up to 14 years.

Shanks says dealing with misinformation is a “delicate balance.”

“We can’t take away people’s freedoms or reduce human rights, but the bottom line is that it’s really clear that some people are spreading extremist ideas and, ultimately, terrorist ideas.

“This problem gets worse if we don’t do anything about it. It’s a big problem, but it’s something we need to address.”

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