The research group had a controversial role in the Covid-19 pandemic and has now entered the transgender debate by making a series of outlandish claims.

FROM ACADEMIC RESEARCH TO NEWS HEADLINES: THE DISINFORMATION PROJECT'S INFLUENCE ON NEW ZEALAND MEDIA

By Thomas Cranmer

The Disinformation Project has once again hit the news, this time by making the absurd claim that, in the aftermath of Kellie-Jay Keen’s visit to New Zealand, the trans-community has been subject to “genocidal” vitriol.

Disinformation Project researcher Dr Sanjana Hattotuwa said the extremity of the content was more characteristic of far right and neo-fascist and neo-Nazi groups, and the fact it was now being taken up by groups that flourished because of Covid measures was “really worrying”.

“Something that we've never seen before is the import of content from Australian neo-Nazi, neo-fascist, anti-Semitic networks and individuals and their personal networks, into Aotearoa New Zealand.”

Hattotuwa said there was an “extremely strong correlation” between online hate and the possibility of physical violence.

“I mean, when people say that they're going to go and vent their frustration, it might mean with a placard, it might mean with a gun.”

Hattotuwa’s answer is to argue for greater protection to “deal with disinformation and conspiratorialism”, stating that countermeasures could include legislation, security-sector reform, community-based action, or a stronger focus on implementing the recommendations of the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the terrorist attack on Christchurch mosques. In short, he is advocating for censorship. Alot of it.

However, if anything, this latest foray into the press has only served to highlight that the Disinformation Project lacks any perspective or objectivity when dealing with matters in the public square. Despite its claim to be independent, it’s abundantly clear that it is very closely aligned to the politics and ideology of the current government.

The Disinformation Project was founded in early 2020 and describes itself as “studying information disorder ecologies” by using mixed methods approaches to analyse and review the seed and spread of information disorders – and their impact on the lives of New Zealanders. The group sat within Te Pūnaha Matatini (TPM) at the University of Auckland until 2022 when it was spun out as an independent entity. During that time, the Disinformation Project has been a small but important cog in the government’s pandemic machinery.

The government’s information monitoring capabilities grew rapidly and organically during the pandemic, covering numerous ministries and agencies. In a briefing paper to the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet (DPMC) in December 2020, it notes:

Ideally efforts to counter mis/disinformation should be led outside of government by the media, civil society, NGOs, academia and the private sector. Several leading academics, research organisations such as Te Pūnaha Matatini, and other organisations such as Netsafe and InternetNZ have already been very active, and we are exploring how to support them and lift their capacity in this work.

Oversight of mis/disinformation is a sensitive issue, as any public commentary or perceived control of a ‘counter-disinformation effort’ can reinforce conspiracy meta-narratives about state manipulation of information and give legitimacy to those claiming an erosion of free speech. For this reason, we would not recommend formal allocation of disinformation responsibilities or the identification of a government spokesperson. A group of relevant Ministers with whom significant issues can be highlighted and public communications approaches approved will, however, be important to ensure appropriate proactive oversight of official activity in this area.

The briefing paper clearly demonstrates an understanding of the sensitivity of monitoring social media and notes TPM’s (the Disinformation Project’s) role in the efforts coordinated by DPMC.

TPM’s role is also highlighted in a briefing paper from DPMC in November 2021, which noted that since August of that year, “in response to a request from DPMC for insights into the mis/disinformation landscape and its effect on COVID-19 mitigation measures, Te Pūnaha Matatini (TPM) has been providing regular analytical reports on the online COVID-19 mis/disinformation and extremist landscape. TPM researchers have been able to access a wide range of online platforms and networks, and use both data and narrative analysis to show how there has been an increase over time in extremist rhetoric within New Zealand.”

Indeed, the December 2020 briefing paper notes that:

The mis/disinformation spectrum is a broad one, and while most instances of it will be content that does not stray into illegality, may be somewhat socially acceptable and often will constitute political discourse, there will be instances when disinformation crosses into illegal or dangerous activity. The incitement to attacks against cell towers are a recent example.

The paper warns that disinformation has become international and is often “couched in broad human rights and basic freedoms terms … fertile ground amongst followers of a few influencers, political parties and some church congregations”:

The internationalisation of disinformation emanating from the US and/or amplified on US-based platforms is one factor in this. Anti-mask and anti-lockdown narratives, often couched in broad human rights and basic freedoms terms (and often grounded in narratives linked to the US Constitution) found fertile ground amongst followers of a few influencers, political parties and some church congregations.

Interestingly, the paper comments on the approach of our security partners within the Five Eyes noting that some are using “state-controlled counter-narratives”:

Amongst our closest security partners, work to counter disinformation is coordinated by a number of different agencies, and responses vary from state-controlled counter-narratives through to funding civil-society initiatives. This work is evolving very quickly and, as such, below is only a very brief snapshot of the various parts of Five Eyes’ governments that are addressing the issue of mis/disinformation. We will be engaging more closely on this issue in 2021 to learn more about partner approaches.

As the Disinformation Project acknowledged this week, its responsibility is not to monitor far-right extremism, which falls within the remit of the security services and the police. Instead, its responsibility is to monitor disinformation in the so-called “gray area” which the government recognises is likely to be legal speech.

However, this raises concerns related to the Privacy Act regarding the collection, use, and storage of personal data. Additionally, there are human rights considerations at play, particularly in terms of freedom of expression. By monitoring politicians and journalists and attempting to counter messages that it classifies as misinformation, it is treading a very thin line. It risks infringing on the rights of individuals to express their opinions freely and interfering in political debate between elected representatives.

In fact, in a September 2020 evaluation, the Disinformation Project named Mike Hosking and Gerry Brownlee as “High Profile Narrators” who were identified as driving or perpetuating disinformation as a call to action to like minded followers. The paper states:

Concerningly, several of the prominent narrators were directly engaged with political endeavours, and the spread of disinformation perpetuated by political actors in high profile conservative-leaning New Zealand parties. It is, however, unclear the extent to which narrators hold a genuine belief in the conspiracies they promulgate, or simply see these theories as an opportunity to build an audience for material or political gain.

Gerry Brownlee was also name-checked for his questioning of whether masks were necessary or simply government fear-mongering. Shortly after he raised the issue, Brownlee backtracked on the point.

However, politicians and the media have the right to question or criticise the government's actions if they have legitimate reasons to do so. Similarly, the public is entitled to express their views and hold the government accountable within the confines of the law.

The Covid-19 pandemic unfolded rapidly, with the science evolving and the government adapting its approach to reflect the latest knowledge. In fact, the government has apologised or acknowledged errors in several areas of its Covid-19 response. It would be misguided if opposition political parties, the media, and the public could not question the government or propose alternative options without being accused of spreading disinformation.

For instance, the Disinformation Project examined the “accidental release conspiracy theory” concerning the origin of Covid-19. Its September 2020 assessment observed that “these specific conspiracy theories were deemed credible for a time but were subsequently shown to be unjustified upon investigation.”

However, just last month, Stuff reported that the FBI, along with the US Energy Department, endorsed the Covid lab leak theory. FBI Director Christopher Wray was quoted by Stuff as saying, “The FBI has assessed for some time now that the origins of the pandemic most likely involve a potential lab incident in Wuhan.”

The Disinformation Project has now entered the transgender debate by making highly exaggerated claims about the level of abuse that the transgender community has faced since Kellie-Jay Keen's visit to New Zealand. As everyone knows, transgenderism is a highly politicised issue with strong opinions on both sides. By joining the discussion as it has, it has demonstrated that it is only interested in censorship and promoting the progressive left's political ideology.

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