Tova O'Brien: It’s time for a Misinformation Minister

Opinion: Yesterday I was having a lovely conversation with a warm, thoughtful, smart and experienced journalist. 

We were talking about balancing personal relationships in parliament - whether you can be friends with the same politicians you’re reporting on... when she casually dropped in an example - yeah like you flatting with Jacinda Ardern, she said. 

Now, this is absolutely not an indictment on the person I was speaking with. It’s purely a testament to how widespread, how far-reaching misinformation and disinformation is. 

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Misinformation being what she was inadvertently advancing - incorrect or misleading information. Disinformation being deliberately deceptive - which was the original guise and intent of that particular rumour. 

To undermine the independence of journalism and misrepresent the Government’s power over, and relationship with, the press gallery. 

Now as dis and misinformation goes - this is totally innocuous and bothers me not in the slightest. In fact, it kind of amuses me. In the same way that people think I’m the Prime Minister’s bridesmaid kind of amuses me. 

But what yesterday’s conversation alerted me to and which worries me a bit more is the spread of this stuff. 

No longer is it relegated and believed by the tin hat-wearing, flat earth believing, COVID-denying margins. 

Thanks to social media and probably also thanks to how seemingly innocuous and arguably plausible these rumours are, they’ve been picked up by all of us. 

Rather than the big bang conspiracy theories which seek to topple entire democracies in one fell swoop or campaign, this approach is more of a pernicious, death by a thousand cuts approach. Lots of little rumours attempting to chip away at institutions like journalism. It’s a slippery slope from Prime Ministerial flatmate to this ‘election was rigged’ - and as we’ve seen in the United States it’s dangerous.

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The person I was talking to yesterday will be fine. I set her straight. That was that. 

But it’s the vulnerable and susceptible I worry about. I feel sad for them. People so willing to believe everything, anything that fits a narrative or gets fed to them by preying bots on Twitter designed to seed unrest. 

I’d been wondering why so many COVID deniers and anti-vax conspirators were suddenly proponents of Vladimir Putin and a friend pointed out to me that it was because the same Russian bots that were spreading disinformation about covid and the vaccine before and during the parliament protests also propagated propaganda about Putin.

It would almost be funny - this kind of random redirection into the propaganda de jour - first COVID, then Putin, now let’s make them all believe dinosaurs are back, or decaf is delicious - like you could almost have fun with it. 

Except it’s not funny. It’s sad, it’s scary. There are people out there who need help and instead, powerful propagandists are taking advantage of that. 

Sure John Key and Helen Clark also faced rumours similar to those this Prime Minister faces. It’s partly part of the job but social media is fuelling the Ardern rumours at a different level. 

I watch with interest and hope for Netsafe’s new code of conduct signed up to by the tech giants but we need more. 

There’s no minister or Government agency specifically tasked with monitoring and dealing with the increasing threat posed by dis and misinformation. 

That should change. 

It’s time for a Misinformation Minister. Though the title might need some work, could be misconstrued and counterproductive. 

This was not a paid message.