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?


“No evidence’ supporting rumour suicide rates have increased under lockdown

A press release from the Mental Health Foundation:

There Is No Evidence New Zealand’s Suicide Rates Have Increased Over Lockdown

The Mental Health Foundation is deeply disappointed to see a rumour circulating that there has been a dramatic increase in suicides in New Zealand over the lockdown period.

“There is absolutely no truth to this rumour,” MHF chief executive Shaun Robinson says. “It is totally irresponsible and untrue.”

The Foundation is concerned at the level of credibility given to such claims, which it has seen popping up with increasing frequency, and urges both the public and journalists to carefully consider their sources of information.

“There are very few people in the country who are able to accurately assess numbers of suicides at a national level in real-time,” Mr Robinson says. “It is critically important not to contribute to misunderstandings and false information about suicide in New Zealand.

“While mental health workers, police and other people are an integral part of New Zealand’s suicide prevention efforts, individuals will not be able to give an accurate picture of national suicides.”

The Foundation is particularly worried about the impact these rumours will have on people who are currently vulnerable to suicide.

“Whenever we have a public discussion about suicide, people who are currently suicidal or who are vulnerable to suicide are always listening,” Mr Robinson says. “It’s often not possible to tell who these people are, particularly online. But they’re there, and, often, they are looking for reasons to justify or rationalise how they’re feeling – they’re very vulnerable to the suggestion that if others are taking this path then they could take it too. We should not be adding to this serious risk.

“These rumours and their accompanying commentary imply that suicide is an expected, understandable and proportionate response to COVID-19, and that’s both untrue and an extremely unhelpful thing to suggest.”

The Foundation strongly encourages anyone who sees this rumour to refrain from sharing or publishing it, even if it is to correct it. Sharing misinformation, even with the best of intentions, causes further harm.

“This is a tough time for New Zealanders, but we’re seeing a lot of goodwill toward working together and supporting each other to get through,” Mr Robinson says. “We know it’s been hard, but we’re heartened to see how many people have found the positives in lockdown and are actively working to do things that support their own mental health and care for others. We feel incredibly proud of New Zealanders.”

Need to talk? You can free call or text 1737 to chat with a trained counsellor. They’re available 24/7.

Odd claim of Gayford rumour – by Gayford

And odd comment from Clarke Gayford in a Guardian interview about rumours, repeated by NZH: Clarke Gayford on vicious rumours and raising a baby with Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern

It’s odd for a number of reasons, that it has come via a Guardian interview (Jacinda Ardern has featured in the Guardian before), that Gayford has kept the rumour mill alive, but mostly that he mentions a rumour that there seems to be no evidence of.

Clarke Gayford has revealed he’s been forced to tone down his social media behaviour after being smeared as the subject of a false rumour campaign.

It would have been prudent for Gayford to ‘tone done’ when Ardern became Prime Minister regardless of inevitable rumours.

Gayford, in an interview with Britain’s the Guardian, said the saga had forced him to make changes.

“If I talk about it now, it just pours more petrol on it.”

And he has talked about it to the Guardian.

But he had felt compelled to rein in having “a good rant on Facebook” and had felt “like a right chump” having to edit his own Wikipedia page to remove another false rumour – that he had once been a police cadet, the Guardian reported.

Here it is in the Guardian interview: Clarke Gayford on fatherhood, food and fending off sharks

What was it like to be smeared?

“If I talk about it now, it just pours more petrol on it,” he says. But the instinct to watch his behaviour, already instilled by a life in the media, have been sharpened since meeting Ardern four years ago. While he’s had to rein in his enthusiasm for “a good rant on Facebook” – and has felt “like a right chump” editing his own Wikipedia page because the fake news that he was once a police cadet kept coming up in interviews – he keeps coming back to the “higher cause” of social justice and environmental action he sees Ardern getting on with.

However Graeme Edgeler can’t find any evidence that the rumour appear on Wikipedia.

I haven’t heard the police cadet rumour anywhere before. This seems an odd claim by Gayford.

Perhaps Gayford should consider reigning in his Guardian interviews. It’s hard to understand him doing  interviews like this – does he think he will get international sympathy without getting any attention in New Zealand? He must understand how the Internet works.