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As rumours swirl, media grapple with how to responsibly cover conspiracy theories

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As rumours swirl, media grapple with how to responsibly cover conspiracy theories

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In New Zealand, as overseas, authorities are dealing with two parallel crises: the Covid-19 virus and the maelstrom of misinformation surrounding it. Hayden Donnell reports for RNZ Mediawatch.

The announcement that Auckland was going into lockdown for a second time was met with a deluge of conspiracy theories and misinformation, including from several prominent political figures. That “infodemic” is forcing journalists to confront the question of how they should report on the rapid rise of social media-fueled conspiracy movements.

In the hours after prime minister Jacinda Ardern announced Auckland would be moving back into lockdown, Billy Te Kahika Jr did something he’d done many times before, and switched on Facebook Live.

The New Zealand Public Party leader launched into a familiar refrain. “We have been saying for over a month now this lockdown was coming. We did say it would be the second week of August,” he said.

Te Kahika’s insinuation that this week’s lockdown was planned in advance was false.

New Zealand Public Party leader Billy Te Kahika responds to the lockdown announcement on Facebook Live (Photo: screenshot)

Ardern and director general of health Ashley Bloomfield have both said they found out about the new Covid-19 outbreak roughly five hours before the lockdown announcement. There’s no evidence they’re lying, and plenty they’re telling the truth.

In the past, theories like Te Kahika’s might have been more easily sidelined. But the blues musician from Whāngarei has built up a substantial following on social media since he started posting screeds of misinformation and conspiracy theories during the last lockdown in March.

Thanks to what he calls his research, his Facebook audience has grown from a few hundred to more than 20,000. His New Zealand Public Party meetings have been met with packed halls.

On Tuesday, Te Kahika’s theory spread rapidly online. It was echoed by celebrities, including the Australian chef Pete Evans, who said the lockdown was a “scam”, in a post that linked back to the New Zealand Public Party.

Popular Instagram influencer Zoe Fuimaono, who goes by the handle @blessedindoubles, implied the new health measures were helping usher in military rule.

Gerry Brownlee (Image: Getty Images/Tina Tiller)

Even National Party deputy leader Gerry Brownlee was accused of engaging in conspiratorial thinking, after hinting that the government had known more about the resurgence of Covid-19 than it was letting on in a press conference on Wednesday.

These sorts of ideas became so prevalent that Ardern had to address them multiple times at press conferences on Wednesday.

“I’ve heard suggestion that we may have had this information earlier than we had said. There is no reason why we would ever do that,” she said on Wednesday morning. “I do worry that those kinds of theories do nothing to support what needs to be collective action from all of us.”

That afternoon, Ardern characterised Brownlee’s implied allegations as “nonsense”.

The media was also quick to cast a sceptical eye over the outbreak of conspiratorial thinking, with RNZ’s Kim Hill repeatedly bringing up Brownlee’s claims during a withering interview with National Party leader Judith Collins on Thursday’s Morning Report.

A group of 50 health experts signed an open letter urging politicians to stop undermining public health messages on Covid-19.

But even if it was strongly condemned by the government, medical professionals and the media, the boil-up of misinformation highlights a problem facing authorities as they try to stamp out Covid-19 for a second time.

They’re now essentially dealing with two parallel crises: the virus and the maelstrom of misinformation surrounding it, which the WHO has termed an “infodemic”.

Recent news reports have hinted at the sheer scale of ill-informed, and often conspiratorial belief driving that infodemic.

An internal Facebook report leaked to NBC showed the social media platform hosts thousands of pages linked to the conspiracy theory QAnon, with millions of followers between them. Even a recently-elected Republican member of the US House of Representatives is associated with QAnon.

Widespread conspiratorial thinking has fed into that country’s disastrous Covid response, helping to undermine public health messages.

Demonstrators protest a stay-at-home order to combat the pandemic on May 04, 2020 in Hartford, Connecticut. (Photo: John Moore/Getty Images)

In an article on Thursday, Newsroom’s Sam Sachdeva argued comments like Brownlee’s risk moving New Zealand in the same direction. “Making ominous references to ‘interesting facts’… runs the risk of undermining public buy-in for a longer lockdown, should one be required,” he wrote.

“As the US has torn itself apart over a politicised Covid response as deaths shoot upwards, we have patted ourselves on the back.

“Such complacency on the health front has proved to be a mirage – we can only hope the quality of our political discourse does not similarly evaporate.”

Brownlee has since backtracked on his comments, saying it wasn’t his intention to play into the hands of conspiracy theorists.

Even if Brownlee didn’t mean to aid those groups, modelling from Te Pūnaha Matatini shows the latest lockdown has been met with a spike in discussion of online disinformation both online and in the media, though not necessarily a corresponding increase in the amount of disinformation being distributed.

The question of how to cover conspiracies

Despite the increasing real-world harm caused by conspiracy theories, many media outlets devote few resources to covering online misinformation, and those that do are often guilty of delivering uncritical coverage.

Nelson’s Mainland TV has been criticised for airing the discredited documentary Plandemic in full, despite it containing an abundance of falsehoods and misinformation about Covid-19.

A Gisborne Herald report on one of Te Kahika’s meetings from July 8 was simply headlined ‘Global plandemic’. It lead with the startling header:

“Labour ‘communists’ Jacinda Ardern and Ashley Bloomfield are complicit in a global agenda of state control that involves construction of the coronavirus ‘plandemic’.

“New Zealand Public Party founder and lay minister Billy Te Kahika made that claim to a packed room at Waikanae Surf Life Saving Club on Saturday night.”

The Raglan Chronicle struck a similar tone in its coverage of one of those meetings, spelling out many of his more outlandish beliefs without surrounding context, under the headline ‘Post-lockdown Billy Te Kahika event attracts many’.

An article in the Raglan Chronicle after a NZ public Party meeting there in July.

An article in the Raglan Chronicle after a NZ public Party meeting there in July. (Photo: supplied)

Stuff’s Charlie Mitchell, who recently wrote a lengthy feature on Te Kahika’s rise, said he had to wrestle with some ethical questions before embarking on the story.

He had to weigh two competing ideals: his desire to not give a platform to information that’s false or misleading, and his imperative to cover matters of public interest in a way that’s fair, and gives people a right of reply.

“In this case those two ideas are in conflict with each other. You can’t really have both. To accurately characterise what Billy Te Kahika believes, you have to by definition have to repeat information that is false or at best unsubstantiated.”

Mitchell decided not to take an adversarial approach with his feature, opting instead to put Te Kahika’s beliefs in proper context.

“We didn’t go in all guns blazing, prosecuting a case against conspiracy theories or Te Kahika specifically. We just wanted to recognise that these conspiracy theories exist and if you want to understand why you have to listen to these people and talk to them in a way that isn’t judgemental, which is a very fine line to walk.”

David Farrier

David Farrier (Photo: supplied)

Documentary maker and journalist David Farrier advocates a similar approach to dealing with conspiracy theorists.

“I think being kind and open to these people is important and also just showing there are shades of grey. You can talk to your friend that’s into that stuff say ‘yeah I don’t always trust institutions and the government either, I don’t always think they have my best interests at heart, but where I start to become a bit skeptical is that I’m pretty confident that 5G towers aren’t being installed to spread Covid-19’,” he said. “Chip away, slowly.”

Farrier keeps tabs on the rise of movements like QAnon in New Zealand through his blog Webworm. He regularly features interviews with conspiracy theory experts on how to debunk misinformation, and deter people from falling into online rabbit holes in the first place.

But that’s not enough, he said. He wanted more media attention to be devoted to conspiracy movements, as they make a social media-enabled move from the fringes into the mainstream.

“I would love to see this stuff we’re talking about going out to a much wider audience,” he said. “I think we need to be talking about this stuff on a much grander scale, and contextualising it, because you can’t just report that ‘hey a bunch of people out there believe that 5G is giving us cancer or it’s actually going to give us Covid-19’. We have to explain why this stuff’s happening, why we’re hearing all this dialogue. We have to critically pull it apart so hopefully we can stop it from spreading further.”




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Sanders and Schumer call on McConnell to hold hearings to fight election conspiracy theories – KTVZ

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Sanders and Schumer call on McConnell to hold hearings to fight election conspiracy theories - KTVZ

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Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer of New York are calling on Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to create a new bipartisan committee focused on election integrity and schedule hearings to reassure Americans over a process President Donald Trump has repeatedly sought to undermine.

There is growing anxiety among Democrats, and some Republicans, that Trump will not only continue to sow doubt over the legitimacy of the coming election but throw the subsequent count into chaos by declaring victory before all the votes can be tallied, including the millions that will arrive by mail.

In a letter to McConnell, Sanders and Schumer quote back the Kentucky senator’s own words, in which he attested to the reliability of mail-in voting by citing its successes in Oregon, Washington and Colorado, which have been using the system for years.

Trump has repeatedly questioned the validity of mail-in voting, promoted conspiracy theories questioning election security, called on supporters to act as unsanctioned “poll watchers,” and suggested that the absence of a clear result by the evening of November 3 would in some way cast doubt on the eventual outcome. Key allies in powerful positions, like Attorney General Bill Barr, have followed suit. Barr has persisted in puffing up a debunked claim that ballots received by mail would somehow strip the sender of their privacy — ignoring well-established safeguards.

By escalating the matter now, Sanders and Schumer are responding to growing concern, in partisan and nonpartisan spaces, that Americans are not adequately prepared for the potential of a longer-than-usual wait for results or Trump’s willingness to short-circuit the democratic process if he smells defeat.

“Democrats and Republicans in Congress must come together to ensure that we have a free and fair election where every vote is cast and counted without intimidation,” Sanders told CNN, “where no one has to put his or her health in danger to cast a ballot, and where we have full confidence in the results.”

The proposed hearings would invite a cross-section of election officials from across the country to testify to the security and reliability of mail-in, early- and in-person voting — subjects on which Sanders and Schumer, again, referenced McConnell’s own words.

“Despite the clear security of our vote-by-mail system, some have continued to undermine it with unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud,” they wrote. “As you have correctly said, people ‘can vote early, you can vote on Election Day, or you can drop it in the mail,’ and that voters should ‘not worry about your vote not counting.’”

The minority leader and Sanders, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats, also want more detailed discussion about the fraught hours, or days, after the polls close and a real-time watch of the election horse race potentially swings from one candidate to another.

“We know a number of states may well be counting ballots for a period of time after Election Day, and that those votes may be determinative in this election,” the senators wrote to McConnell. “To avoid disinformation, conspiracy theories, and suspicion about results, we must understand the likely timeline for this process.”

The letter goes on to reference the recent war games-style preparations conducted by a group called the Transition Integrity Project, a bipartisan gathering of operatives and academics that made headlines when some of the outcomes of their exercises — including “both street-level violence and political impasse” — were reported on in late July.

“A bipartisan group of experts and officials have studied multiple scenarios where the outcome of the election was not immediately known. Some of these scenarios resulted in unrest and even violence,” Sanders and Schumer wrote, suggesting the Senate should elevate similar discussions and familiarize the public with the uncertainties ahead. “We would like to hear from the most knowledgeable people in the country as to how we can do everything possible to make sure that the election and the period afterward is secure and peaceful.”

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HHS official sorry for conspiracy theory video

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HHS official sorry for conspiracy theory video

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HHS supported Caputo, with a statement that called him a critical, integral part of the presidents coronavirus response, leading on public messaging as Americans need public health information to defeat the COVID-19 pandemic.

There was no immediate statement from the White House.

Attempts to reach Caputo were unsuccessful.

On Capitol Hill, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., called on Azar to fire Caputo, accusing the spokesman of trying to interfere with CDC reports to the medical and scientific community, as well as the public at large. And Senate Minority leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., called on Azar himself to resign, citing interference with the CDC as one example of what he termed the administration’s failures.

Officials at CDC have privately complained of recent efforts by political appointees at main HHS to try to edit or press for changes in the agency’s weekly MMWR publications, a go-to resource for public health professionals.

MMWR articles are technical, but they reveal telling details. One published earlier this year noted that while Trump’s travel restrictions dramatically reduced travel from China in February, nothing was being done at that time to restrict travel from Italy and Europe, where the coronavirus was spreading widely and rapidly. Analysis of virus samples from hard-hit New York in March suggested it was introduced there from Europe and other parts of the U.S., the CDC article reported.

Caputo is an unswerving Trump loyalist. His recent book, The Ukraine Hoax, claims the presidents phony impeachment was rooted in a vast conspiracy.

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unwinona:This is exactly what conspiracy theorists and anti-vaxxers have done with their HIV/AIDS…

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unwinona:This is exactly what conspiracy theorists and anti-vaxxers have done with their HIV/AIDS...

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My RSS Feedunwinona:

This is exactly what conspiracy theorists and anti-vaxxers have done with their HIV/AIDS and Polio narrative (among others), only we’re seeing it escalated to weeks and months instead of years or decades.

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