Covid rumours packaged and spread

There has been a lot of talk about how Covid rumours and conspiracies have been perpetuated over the last couple of weeks, including by politicians (particularly Gerry Brownlee and Winston Peters).

Dylan Reeve tracked down who packaged rumours that seems to have led to a viral spread of racist bull. The aim was to understand how it happened rather than to out the Reddit poster and wreck his life (he seems to be suffering a lot as it is).

Post by David Farrier.

Webworm talks to the man who started the COVID-19 outbreak rumour in New Zealand

Today is a long newsletter, and it involves a conversation with the man who started a rumour / conspiracy theory that spun out of control over the weekend here in Aotearoa, New Zealand.

My colleague Dylan Reeve tracked him down, and called him. The man had been half expecting a call:

I have been in this fight-or-flight mode for the last 48 hours. I just realised how bad it was on Saturday, which is when I went in and tried to clean up as much as I could, but by then it’s got a life of its own.

It’s my hope that in talking with Patient Zero of a conspiracy theory, we can understand a little more how they spread, and the victims they leave in their wake.

An interesting interview with ‘James’ followed, which includes:

So we got into lockdown on Tuesday night, and then there was a bunch of chat on the 12th, everyone was all over the place and a couple of mates had a discussion.

There was some talk from a friend from Auckland Uni, and some other people had mentioned to me as well, related around somebody sneaking into a managed isolation. 

So it was basically – I made a poor decision to put that in writing on Reddit. 

I realised a couple of hours later and removed it as much as I could, and by that stage it had been used in screen shots.

But that was too late. It had been picked up, repackaged with some fairly racist overtones, and it went viral.

Most of what spreads on the Internet stays on the Internet, but this prompted a respnse from the Minister of Health and the Director-General of Health: Chris Hipkins and Ashley Bloomfield slam spreading of ‘vile’ rumours about latest Covid-19 cluster

Health Minister Chris Hipkins has urged New Zealanders to stop spreading unverified rumours, after one particular rumour “spread like wildfire” on social media.

Hipkins said the rumour contained a number of “vile slurs”.

“Not only was it harmful and dangerous, it was totally and utterly wrong,” Hipkins said.

“Please think twice before sharing unverified information”

Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield also weighed in, saying that people in the Māori and Pacific communities had done more than their share for the community by coming forward to get tested at higher rates than other groups in New Zealand during the first outbreak, despite having lower rates of infection.

“There should be nothing in the description of this outbreak that suggests that there is anything about this community that is a problem,” Bloomfield said.

“They have been incredibly co-operative and incredibly supportive and we should all be thanking and supporting them.”

The particular rumour involved the claim that a woman in the current cluster contracted the virus by sneaking into a managed isolation facility, Hipkins said.

“It was fully investigated and that investigation concluded that it was completely false,” Hipkins said.

He said the rumour may have been orchestrated.

“There have always been and will always be rumours, but this one smacked of orchestration [and] of being a deliberate act of misinformation”.

Hipkins said his warning applied to everyone, including his Cabinet colleagues. This could be awkward for Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters, who this week shared an unverified rumour about the latest cluster coming through a border breach.

“I think all ministers, all MPs, and all leaders in the community should lead by example and be cautious about the information that they choose to share,” Hipkins said.

Peters claimed that a ‘reliable journalist’ was his source.

Related to this from Newsroom: ‘Infodemic’ evolves as Covid-19 returns to NZ

Last Tuesday night, as Jacinda Ardern revealed that four people in Auckland had tested positive for Covid-19 and the city would be going into Level 3 lockdown, social media appeared to erupt with conspiracy theories.

These ranged from false claims about the Government’s response to outlandish theories about the origins or seriousness of the virus. They were spread on all levels, from concerned grandparents posting to their Facebook friends lists to Instagram influencers sharing to tens of thousands of followers.

Politicians got in on the game as well – independent MP Jami-Lee Ross and former guitarist Billy Te Kahika Jr. recorded a livestream heavy on conspiracy theory that garnered more than 100,000 views and critics accused National Party deputy leader Gerry Brownlee of dog-whistling to the same conspiracists during a press conference the next day. Brownlee later said he had got himself into a “bad spot” with his misjudged comments.

But a leading conspiracy theory researcher says the prevalence of misinformation about the pandemic online has not changed in the past week. The tone, however, may have. What threat might this misinformation pose? And what can – or should – New Zealand be doing about it?