How the fight against Covid-19 conspiracies is changing

When Peeni Henare headed into the Far North to reassure people over the Covid-19 vaccine, he brought with him something no other minister could.

Before Parliament, Henare lived in Moerewa with his family. It’s a poor town, a freezing works town, a hearty town, sometimes a troubled town, and largely a Māori town.

It’s a place where – like many places in the North – there is a disconnect from central government and faith in the state, which Henare acknowledges. It’s a part of the world poorer for centralised services, where often the only time government is seen is when it is taking away something, or someone.

And so, Henare’s trip to the Far North was really a trip home, and he brought from Wellington the authenticity of a home-town boy. As he travelled to Kaeo, Kaikohe and Kaitāia, he met people who knew him and whose lives he knew.

When they asked, “Is it true the government will force everyone to be vaccinated?”, he was there, kanohi ki te kanohi, and able to reply, “No, that’s not true.”

There was more to Henare’s visit than simply the Associate Minister of Health pressing flesh in the provinces. It signalled a shift in the Government’s communications strategy as it prepares to head off the disinformation and misinformation being spread ahead of the Covid-19 vaccine rollout.

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For so long, the message came from the 1pm press briefing, or the post-Cabinet press conference hosted by the Prime Minister at 4pm on Mondays. As Jacinda Ardern said in March last year when this first began: “We will continue to be your single source of truth.”

Just as the virus has mutated, so have the elements that make up the infodemic countering medicine and science-based public health advice. The evolution of the infodemic was plotted out by researchers at Te Pūnaha Matatini, one of New Zealand’s Centres of Research Excellence, from “unreliable information related mainly to the origins of the virus or potential cures to narratives which enter into conspiracy theory discourses about state control and individual rights”.

It was concerning, the researchers said, because “for Aotearoa New Zealand to successfully mitigate the effects of Covid-19, it is critical for the majority of the population to adhere to public health advice”.

Getting there would take more than just science and public health communication – the Government’s “single source of truth”. It would need a “wide-ranging response to the increasing discussion of unreliable sources, untrustworthy narrators, and conspiracy narratives in media, political, and civil society discourses”.

The advice of the researchers seems much like what we’re seeing now. First, they said, make good the failures of the past – recognise the failure to engage sufficiently with concerns of Māori, Pasifika and disability communities, and then build bonds with those people.

Doing so helps those working in public health get an early understanding of the next conspiracy, or mistruth, and to counter it early. By building bonds at community levels, relationships are built and then “prioritised as tools for the spread of trustworthy and reliable information”.

Henare in the North

In the North, and particularly among Māori, Henare is able to operate at that community level. He’s known to people in these communities. He is a fluent te reo speaker, which he says older Māori prefer.

As that local boy who now sits in the Beehive, he takes his platform with him where it travels, and for some he speaks to, it will raise him higher than anyone else with the same message. He gets cut-through where others wouldn’t.

And, he says, in those communities that are difficult to access, “they may not trust government or politicians, (but) they trust their local Māori health trust”.

It’s a bond of trust recognised by Geoff Milner, chief executive at Moerewa-based Ngāti Hine Health Trust. It’s one of a number of iwi-based health trusts across the country that – as Milner says – enjoy relationships with their communities that other providers might not achieve.

In the North, there are currently two of six planned vaccination centres operating, but one of the lessons of the pandemic thus far is that those who are the greatest distance from government – in geography but also in trust – are less likely to engage with mainstream health providers.

“We’re adding another choice,” Milner says. They know some in their community didn’t come out of the valleys or leave their homes for Covid-19 testing. “We can take services into difficult places.”

It’s a powerful platform operating at grassroots. Says Milner: “It’s going to require all of us pulling our weight to get to the 85 per cent [vaccination level] we need.”

With that, Milner captured the essence of the current struggle. As the vaccines become available, they truly become effective the closer the uptake nears 100 per cent. Every conspiracy theory or lie that gains traction serves to defeat that effectiveness.

This was the underlying point of Te Pūnaha Matatini’s research – that using a platform in a less-than-constructive way undermines the medical and scientific approaches that give us all the best way of getting through the pandemic unscathed.

Facebook, possibly the biggest platform of all, claims to remove “false claims about the safety, efficacy, ingredients or side effects of the vaccine, including conspiracy theories”. Our government – and others – have put pressure on Facebook and other social media providers to join the fight against false or misleading information.

A Facebook spokesman told the Herald it had removed 12 million pieces of “harmful misinformation” since March last year.

And yet, it proliferates in social media, with disinformation and misinformation finding root in places predicted in the report by Te Pūnaha Matatini – high-profile platforms, largely from “conservative” political positions.

Siouxsie Wiles attacked

One of those involved in producing the report, University of Auckland cultural historian Kate Hannah, watched exactly that unfold in February when a Facebook post by National Party MP Simon O’Connor was swamped by anti-vaxxers and conspiracy theorists.

On February 8, O’Connor took to Facebook with a link to a Herald article in which microbiologist Dr Siouxie Wiles criticised Air New Zealand for serving drink and food on flights as it encouraged the removal of masks.

In the article, Wiles had also objected to Air NZ’s connection to research urging looser border controls, in part carried out by “Plan B” epidemiologist Dr Simon Thornley, a critic of the Covid-19 elimination approach.

“It was one academic’s attack on another”, wrote O’Connor, and Wiles was “behaving more like an activist than an academic”.

“The behaviour of Dr Wiles as reported shows a dangerous arrogance and perhaps too much time being a ‘Covid celebrity’ and not enough time reflecting on what it means to actually be at university.”

In the days that followed, O’Connor’s Facebook post blew out beyond the usual handful of comments accrued by the Tamaki MP. Abuse and conspiracy were heaped on Wiles as commenters falsely accused her of unethical behaviour, attacked her academic credentials, and were just really nasty and unpleasant.

It was during this period that a video of Wiles’ home appeared on the internet, as did her address and home phone number.

As the number of comments grew and posters piled into Wiles, Hannah wrote to O’Connor, explaining as a constituent and an expert on the Te Pūnaha Matatini disinformation project that she was concerned about the post, the response it generated and the apparent lack of moderation.

She told O’Connor: “This harassment is highly gendered, and unfortunately with your comments you have provided an opportunity for people with more extreme views on Covid-19, the role of women in public, and NZ’s response to the pandemic to feel that an MP sympathises with their views.”

It’s not about stopping debate, she said. Rather, it was doing so “without contributing to the current highly volatile environment”.

O’Connor replied, telling Hannah he was “saddened” at the release of Wiles’ personal details. The issue of managing debate, though, was difficult, he told her.

The concept that “the reactions of those on the fringe should ultimately shape how we act in the main” was troubling, he wrote. “Put another way, if scientists, politicians, researchers etc can’t speak because idiots will say something in reply, then we are in a problematic space.”

Use your voice wisely

To which Hannah told O’Connor he had missed the point – it’s not about moderating speech. Rather, she wrote, “that those with platforms should consider the ways in which they evaluate what they choose to share or say within that context”.

O’Connor told the Herald he wasn’t happy about his post being “hijacked”. Without staff support, he said he struggled to moderate his Facebook page.

As for the original post: “I stand by my words. How others respond, that’s for them.”

It’s not the first time this pandemic that Wiles has been a target. She has felt compelled to let police know of some of the abuse.

“I’m trying to work out how to manage it,” she says. “I haven’t done anything wrong so I’m going to keep going. I’m not doing any of this because I want to be famous or a celebrity.

“My motives are for us to get through this with as few people dying as possible.”

Wiles will keep pushing the best scientific advice she can on how we can all survive the pandemic. She has the expertise, and it is that which gives her a solid platform on which to speak. As she says: “As a microbiologist, I know my stuff.”

She will be one of the voices, each with platforms of varying size and strength, who will be multiple sources of truth standing against those attacking the science-led public health messaging. With the vaccine rollout, Te Pūnaha Matatini predicts “it is inevitable that this will be a major focus for ongoing disinformation and conspiracy narratives”.

No longer is a “single source of truth” enough. In the battle for hearts, minds and vaccination, it is time for many sources of truth.

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