Political deception is as old as politics itself.
There have always been political actors who have attempted to twist and manipulate information. Sometimes this includes politicians, political activists, journalists, and even governments. When the inaccuracy of information is accidental and innocent it is referred to as “misinformation”, but when it is deliberate and malign it is labelled “disinformation”.
Arguably political deception is getting worse. The technological and media landscape is changing in ways that allow disinformation and misinformation to be spread more easily, with dangerous consequences.
Unfortunately, this heightened potential for deception comes at a time when there is much greater political polarisation and fragmenting of New Zealand’s social cohesion. This is not just a consequence of the pandemic hangover, but also accelerating social dislocation caused by ongoing crises of inequality, housing affordability, access to health and education, and so forth.
Coming into a general election it’s important that we are on guard against the possibility of politics being manipulated by bad actors. It’s therefore not surprising that on Friday there was widespread media coverage of the alarmist claims by a research company called The Disinformation Project. Their main spokesperson, Sanjana Hattotuwa, warned that urgent action needs to be taken to prevent New Zealand’s election descending into hatred and violence.
Hattotuwa was speaking in the context of the transgender culture wars that escalated after the Posey Parker rally in Auckland’s Albert Park was deemed unsafe and cancelled. At the same event, Green Party co-leader Marama Davidson was hit by a motorcycle, and she singled out domestic violence carried out by “Cis white men”.
The Disinformation Project was established to keep a close eye on fringe posts on social media such as Facebook and Telegram and, according to an RNZ report, Hattotuwa “says the levels of vitriol and conspiratorial discourse this past week or two are worse than anything he’s seen during the past two years of the pandemic – including during the Parliament protest”.
But what does Hattotuwa want done to protect New Zealand’s general election? He mentions the need for some sort of “legislation” to be passed, presumably in terms of greater censorship, hate speech, or tighter regulation of political activity during the election.
His critics have suggested Hattotuwa might simply be drumming up demand for business. His Disinformation Project is a research company that sells its analysis services to social media companies and the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet (DPMC).
The latter employed The Disinformation Project’s services in 2022, commissioning Hattotuwa and his colleague Kate Hannah to provide monthly reports on levels of disinformation and online vitriol.
Unfortunately for Hattotuwa and Hannah, the DPMC contract didn’t last long, and The Disinformation Project has also recently been cut adrift from the University of Auckland, which initiated the research vehicle through Te Pūnaha Matatini, which is based in the University’s Physics Department.
Hattotuwa is now arguing for the Government to invest more in political infrastructure, as it did during the pandemic, to control dissident or extremist views and politics. He told RNZ last week: “Every institutional mechanism and framework that was established during the pandemic to deal with disinformation has now been dissolved. There is nothing that I know in the public domain of what the government is doing with regards to disinformation.”
Questions about hyperbole
Hattotuwa and Hannah have managed to gain a great deal of media coverage about their social media research, largely because they make quite extraordinary and colourful statements about what is going on online and it makes for good stories.
Last week, for example, Hattotuwa claimed that in the aftermath of the Posey Parker visit levels of vitriol directed at the trans community had risen to “genocidal” levels. He argued that nefarious disinformation spreaders had entered into the transgender debate spreading hate about the transgender community, and claimed that it represents the importation of content from foreign “neo-Nazi, neo-fascist, anti-Semitic networks and individuals”.
These claims received plenty of sympathetic media coverage without question. Although commentator Thomas Cranmer said the claims about genocide were “absurd” and “outlandish”, and only serve “to highlight that the Disinformation Project lacks any perspective or objectivity”.
In terms of the upcoming election, Hattotuwa claimed on Friday that “the election campaigning is not going to be like anything that the country has ever experienced”, and rising distrust in authorities is the problem. He told RNZ that dissidents are “going to go and vent their frustration, it might mean with a placard, it might mean with a gun.”
There is an element of escalation in Hattotuwa’s own claims. In media interviews over the last few years, the statement is constantly made that the latest levels of extremism and hate are “worse than anything he’s seen”. Each month, each year, each debate is apparently worse than the one before. A common refrain is that they are witnessing an “exponential growth” in disinformation, or hate has grown “inexorably”.
The Disinformation Project really made its mark during last year’s parliamentary lawn occupation, when it received global coverage for its research that showed political extremism was out of control in New Zealand. Hattotuwa told international outlets like the New York Times that “There is a tsunami of bile every day” in New Zealand. He said he had left the civil war in Sri Lanka but found that, although he had discovered a peaceful country when he arrived to study in New Zealand, it was now similar to Sri Lanka. He told the New York Times: “The long and short of it is that I can’t recognise our Aotearoa from what I studied then. There is no link. It’s chalk and cheese.”
Since last year, Hattotuwa says things have got much worse. Despite the anti-vaccine movement’s public protests getting smaller, and their political influence declining, he says they are getting bigger online. Hattotuwa told the Spinoff last month that “In every measurable way… it is more toxic today and more misogynistic than it was in 2022.”
Hattotuwa says when there was a news story about anti-vaccination parents preventing their baby from getting surgery due to concerns over blood donations, the Disinformation Project found the level of online aggravation was “unprecedented. It exceeded anything, including the 2022 protest.”
Similarly, things got worse again in 2023 according to the researchers. Hattotuwa told the Spinoff that the level of violent material posted in the wake of Jacinda Ardern resigning as prime minister was “greater than the sum total of what we studied in 2022”.
That has then been surpassed once again, apparently. This week Hattotuwa has said that the levels of hate directed at the Green Party co-leader Marama Davidson are even worse than what Jacinda Ardern ever received.
Questions about The Disinformation Project’s methodology
Do the constant claims from the Disinformation Project amount to fear-mongering? Some of the claims come across as hysterical, but it’s hard to tell because no real evidence is given to back them up.
The project’s website brings up many pseudoscientific arguments, but little in the way of what would normally be viewed as scientific research. For example, RNZ reported last week that “Hattotuwa said details of the project’s analysis of violence and content from the past week – centred on the Posie Parker visit – were so confronting he could not share it.”
Hattotuwa elaborated: “I don’t want to alarm listeners, but I think that the Disinformation Project – with evidence and in a sober reflection and analysis of what we are looking at – the honest assessment is not something that I can quite share, because the BSA (Broadcasting Standards Authority) guidelines won’t allow it.”
But when extraordinary claims are made about violence and hate, and how New Zealand’s democracy is in danger, surely some basic and substantial evidence is required? Otherwise, there will be suspicions that Disinformation Project is every bit as flaky as the conspiracy theorists that they seek to expose.
For instance, Hannah and Hattotuwa appeared recently in TVNZ’s Web of Chaos documentary in which they suggested that 350,000 New Zealanders have been captured by “alt-right” politics. Elsewhere Hattotuwa claimed that 1.8m New Zealanders subscribe to extremist beliefs. But no real evidence is provided.
Care needed not to silence democratic dissent
It is troubling that the Disinformation Project only concentrates on the misinformation and disinformation of fringe actors but never on that spread by authorities. A true disinformation project would also hold governments to account for when they have been caught out distributing or endorsing misinformation. As journalist Chris Lynch argued in the weekend, “the Disinformation Project’s efforts to combat misinformation seem to have fallen short when it comes to holding the government accountable for any inaccuracies or misleading information.”
The only complaint the Disinformation Project ever makes about the Government is that they aren’t investing enough money, or seeking enough advice, on defeating disinformation. As one critic suggested last week, the message about disinformation seems to be: “It’s so bad, you need to give us money”.
Such misuse of the disinformation problem could make things worse in election year – especially in terms of silencing debate and democracy. Chris Lynch argues: “This kind of propaganda is dangerous. It creates a false narrative that casts legitimate dissent and criticism as hate speech and attempts to silence those who hold differing views. By labelling critics as ‘transphobic’ or ‘bigoted’, his comments serve to stifle open and honest discourse while simultaneously inflaming tensions and further polarising society.”
Hannah and Hattotuwa are correct that extremism, hate, and disinformation are serious issues that need serious attention. But the Disinformation Project does a disservice to democracy and the fight against disinformation when they scaremonger in an opportunistic way. Therefore the media must report on their research in a sufficiently robust way that does the subject justice. The risk is that we actually make the problem worse if we tackle such sensitive issues so poorly.
The “Chicken Little” approach of claiming the sky is falling, or the “Boy who cried wolf” strategy of exaggerating real threats, should remind us all how the seriousness of problems can be undermined by reckless or opportunistic approaches. Instead, it’s now time for a more robust and sober discussion on disinformation and extremism.
Dr Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Government and Public Policy at Victoria University of Wellington. He is the director of the Democracy Project.