Inquiry into the 2020 General Election and Referendums

Inquiry into the 2020 General Election and Referendums

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Submission to the Justice Committee – April 2021

Introduction

We are Tohatoha Aotearoa Commons, a nonprofit incorporated society working to advance a just and equitable digital world, together with SMAT (for “Social Media Analysis Toolkit”) , an allied project creating open source tools for the analysis of cross-platform social media trends. Our organisations share a vision of an internet that works for the public good, one that provides universal access to opportunity and to knowledge.

In working for our vision, countering misinformation and extremist content has, by necessity, become a top priority, an essential complement to Tohatoha’s support of open government initiatives and of public copyright licensing that enables the benign sharing of information and knowledge.

Our work on misinformation is rooted first and foremost in community engagement, including community and school workshops, exhibitions, and training sessions. These on-the-ground events, coordinated directly with affected people, work in tandem with SMAT’s data analysis approach to tracking the spread and analysing the content of online misinformation, allowing us to more fully understand the information environment where our interventions are targeted.

Our data confirm that the 2020 election occurred alongside a dangerous spike in online misinformation

Our data analysis, discussed below, confirms that the 2020 election saw a particularly significant and dangerous spike in online misinformation and extremist fringe content that threatens the public trust on which our democracy depends. Absent meaningful changes to online ecosystems or to New Zealand’s approach to handling online misinformation, we have every reason to expect a similar or more dangerous experience in future elections.

Direct community engagement should be the core of any counter-misinformation strategy

We are skeptical of misinformation countermeasures that operate top-down or that engage with the problem as one that is purely technical or digital. Our work in community engagement reinforces our understanding of misinformation as first and foremost a human problem, one that is rooted in the unique circumstances of communities and individuals. We encourage the Committee to explore community-based educational interventions as part of any misinformation strategy for future elections.

Remedies to misinformation and extremist content require a detailed, data-driven, and up-to-date understanding of a complex social media ecosystem

The movement of information and misinformation is complex and happens at enormous scale. We believe that countering misinformation requires insight into where misinformation is coming from, how it moves, and where it spreads. Our efforts into studying information movements online already benefit and steer our community-facing initiatives, and we hope the Committee will explore resourcing these efforts to allow them to continue and scale as needed.

We have prepared a detailed report on the spread of harmful content affecting the 2020 Election

Using SMAT’s tools and data analysis experience, our initial report surveys and maps the flow of certain kinds of fringe misinformation and extremist content in the run-up to the 2020 Election. This report summarizes an analysis of roughly one billion posts on fringe platforms known for white supremacist and conspiracy content. We encourage the Justice Committee to review our entire report, which we will publish online at blog.smat-app.com/p/new-zealand-election in the days following this submission. A few key conclusions from that report follow below:

● Misinformation originating on fringe websites and communities flows to mainstream social media.
● Ethnic and religious minorities, along with other marginalised groups, were targets of election-based conspiracies that coincided with real world manifestations later found at protests against the government’s COVID-19 response initiatives.
● Overseas conspiracy theorists, including those related to violence in the U.S. Capitol, have local counterparts who are spreading misinformation.
● Individuals participating in the spread of election-based misinformation and conspiracy theories are numerous, and include individuals who claim to have worked in the election, harming the public’s trust and confidence.

The report concludes with the statement:

Our data and analyses demonstrate genuine threats to New Zealand’s democratic processes and the likelihood of further threats to public health and safety measures, as well as to the well-being and safety of communities across Aotearoa New Zealand.

We welcome further opportunities to discuss and share our work

These are issues that we believe are at the core of our democracy’s health and the future of New Zealand. We would welcome the opportunity to engage further with the Committee about our work and our report into the 2020 Election.

Mandy Henk
CEO, Tohatoha

For more information or media enquiries, contact:
Brendan Boughen
Comms Manager, Tohatoha
E: brendan@tohatoha.nz
M: 027 839 6044

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