Trolling through the news media

On Sunday Health Minister Chris Hipkins issued a stern warning about spreading disinformation: “At a time we are fighting a pandemic, this sort of behaviour is designed to create panic … and is completely unacceptable.” 

He highlighted a dilemma in which New Zealand’s news media now find themselves. They have a duty to inform the public about what our politicians are saying even when, to draw on the cartoon above by my old friend Rod Emmerson, it is bullshit.

In the past week there have been a succession of comments by politicians on both sides of the soon-to-be dissolved House that both fit the definition of disinformation and have the potential to cause panic.

National’s deputy leader Gerry Brownlee began stoking the conspiracy theories even before Covid-19 reappeared in the community. 

He issued a media release saying “the Government needs to come clean on what they know about the state of Covid-19 in New Zealand.” openly suggested Jacinda Ardern and Dr Ashley Bloomfield were hiding something from the public: “What do these guys know that they are not telling us?” He was parroting what party leader Judith Collins has earlier asked an election gathering.

On the day the country was told of the return of community transmission of the virus, he stood in front of journalists and said the timing of recent government advice on mask wearing and Bloomfield’s Covid test (reassuring the public that it was bearable) had been “an interesting series of facts”. Asked to explain, he did a Sergeant Schultz impression of “I know nooothing” innocence.

Last weekend deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters unhelpfully added to the conspiracy theories by telling Australia’s ABC News that he had been given information from a “reliable source” that a breach of the quarantine system led to the Auckland outbreak. Again, the inference was the Government knew but wasn’t saying. It turned ugly when social media carried false rumours that one of the current cases had broken into a quarantine facility.

Then came the contrition: Speaking to Newstalk ZB’s Canterbury Mornings on Friday, Brownlee admitted he had got himself into a “bad spot” and that he “certainly didn’t intend to create any fear”. Unsurprisingly, Peters would not back down but stated rather lamely that “the rumour that you’re seeing on social media is not my rumour”.

No doubt Collins also had no intention to create any fear when she told RNZ’s Morning Report yesterday that people feared using a postal ballot “because what we’ve seen before and what we’re seeing now is that particularly the elderly are too frightened to receive envelopes because they’re worried that Covid might be on them.”

All of this is a classic propaganda technique: Plant an idea by insinuating it into an apparently innocent statement of fact or, better still, an apparently legitimate question. Then deny any malicious intent when it comes home to roost. We see it day in and day out on social media.

The public are victims in this but so, too, are the news media.

Journalists are caught in an invidious position. They know full well that what some  politicians have said is, at the very least, mischievous. They know that the inuendo dripping from the statements is designed to create doubt over the Government’s handling of the pandemic. They know that many of the statements are unsupported by evidence. Yet, because they are made by senior politicians, media believe they are obliged to publish them.

That stands in contrast to the anonymous pieces of disinformation that flow freely around social media. News media received copies of the posts alleging a current community-transmission Covid patient had broken into a quarantine facility and was the likely primary source. They checked with health authorities who investigated and debunked the story. It was not published.

Had that rumour been stated by a senior politician, the dynamics would have changed and – even if there was a Ministry of Health disclaimer included – the story would have run in some form. And, for those who wanted to believe it, the rumour would become fact. In part, it would become fact because they had already believed they had been told by Judith Collins, Gerry Brownlee and Winston Peters that there was a cover-up.

The American media have had to deal with reporting political falsehoods throughout the Trump presidency. Leave aside partisan media whose verification system is based on who is saying it as much as what is said. The objective modus operandi is to report what the politician has said but to include the results of robust fact checking as far up the item as possible. 

Unfortunately, it is also a fact that debunking disinformation has little effect on those who prefer the original statement because it fits their own worldview. Many have outlooks corrupted by the digital equivalent of the Greek legend of Pandora – the Internet. Remember how Pandora opened a container that let death, pestilence and innumerable evils enter the world? Less remembered is her action in closing the container. Only one thing was left inside. It was hope. Unfortunately, the Greek word elpis can also be translated as “expectation” and we can expect either the best or worst. The word is deceptive. So, laudable and necessary as fact-checking is, there are no guarantees that it will have the intended result.

Should journalists simply tell the politicians – in a most polite way – that they are not going to publish their bullshit? Well, no. The public have a right to hear the utterances of those that would be elected to office, whether they are true or not. It is an important way in which electors can gauge integrity.

However, in the midst of a pandemic or any other national crisis, there are other considerations also in play. Not least is public confidence in the institutions charged with protecting the nation’s safety.

Media have a particularly delicate juggling act when a pandemic and an election coincide. They must hold accountable those exercising extraordinary powers, give air to those who want to hold that power, and keep a nervous public informed on what is being done to keep it safe. 

It is not easy, but it can be done. Much rides on the way news and opinion is presented. Disinformation should not be given undue prominence because it is uttered by a politician, but nor should it be suppressed. Failures by government should be exposed, but in ways that repair shortcomings. Above all, media should not be party to presenting information in ways that erode confidence at a time when the public’s psyche has taken a battering.

However, if journalists bear a responsibility for public morale so, too, do politicians.

Back in March I wrote a commentary on what I called ‘adversity journalism’. In it I said: “Adversity journalism will, at times, mean flying the flag and beating the drum to support national unity and purpose. That may not sit well with some journalists but, frankly, being holier than thou won’t count for much if the death toll begins to rise.”

I would like politicians to read that column but replace the role of journalist with their own. They will find there is not a lot of difference in the way both should act in times of national emergency.


A shout-out to Professor David Robie and AUT’s Pacific Media Centre for standing up to Facebook over the spurious removal (on grounds of nudity, would you believe?) of a link to an article highlighting threats to media freedom in Melanesia. David is a tireless fighter for the rights of Pacific peoples and it is great to see that he has not meekly accepted Facebook’s dubious actions. Published on the International Federation of Journalists website, the article related to the contents of the latest issue of Pacific Journalism Review (now in 26th year) that is published by the centre. David has enlisted the aid of Reporters Without Borders to have the post reinstated after failing to get any sense out of Facebook. “I wrote to FB twice and completed their so-called objection process 3 times (for each of the attempted shares) and never received an acknowledgement, let alone an actual response,” he said. “Their process is so opaque and untrustworthy.” Read the Pacific Media centres coverage here:

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.