Mediawatch: Fake news montage calls for action in New Zealand
By Colin Peacock, RNZ Mediawatch Presenter
Two New Zealand government agencies have revealed growing concern about the intensity and impact of online misinformation – and prompted strong calls for government action.
But behind the scenes, the government is already considering how to regulate media content to protect us from “evil” — and digital platforms are already heading in new directions.
“There is no minister or government agency specifically tasked with monitoring and addressing the growing threat posed by disinformation and misinformation. That should change,” Tova O’Brien told her Today FM listeners last week.
For her, the tipping point has been friends and peers recycling false rumors about the prime minister and his partner that have been circulating for at least five years.
The Tova show poked fun at those rumors — and the paranoid people who spread them — in a comedic song when it launched in March. Co-host Mark Dye asked the Prime Minister about one – the claim that O’Brien and Ardern were once roommates.
The Prime Minister laughed it off at the time, but last week O’Brien told his listeners that the worst rumors had now spread so widely that there was nothing funny about them anymore.
“Thanks to social media . . . they were picked up by all of us,” she said.
“Sad and Scary”
“It’s sad and it’s scary and . . . powerful propagandists are taking advantage of it.
“Now is the time for a government ‘disinformation minister’,” she said – acknowledging that the job title could be misinterpreted.
But last Monday a minister said he was on the case.
“Who is the minister in charge of social networks? Is that you?” Duncan Greive asked the Minister for Broadcasting and Media Spin off podcast The fold.
“I guess . . . and we try,” said Willie Jackson, who also said he heard misinformation from people he knows, including relatives.
“There are a lot of things out of control, but I try to bring some balance,” he said.
“We are currently going through a whole review of content regulations. I await some of the results.
This review, overseen by Home Affairs Minister Jan Tinetti, began in May 2021 – and it’s complicated.
Role of regulators
It reconsiders the role of the regulators and complaints bodies that maintain mainstream media standards today – the Broadcasting Standards Authority, Advertising Standards Authority, Media Council and Classification Office.
And for the first time, online outlets, including social media, could also be classified as “media service providers” obliged to also meet agreed standards.
Just last week, the BSA published new research showing New Zealanders are concerned about misinformation from digital social media platforms ‘making it harder to identify the truth’.
But while people can complain to the Broadcasting Standards Authority about the accuracy of what they see or hear on air, successfully challenging fake news online is virtually impossible.
“We need to put a set of rules on the table. At the same time, we have to balance these rules with freedom of expression,” said Willie Jackson. The fold.
Jackson also said he will meet with executives from Google and Meta (Facebook’s parent company) soon to discuss all of this and more.
They already know there is a problem.
Living by the Code — or ticking boxes?
Google, Facebook, Twitter, Amazon and Tik Tok all signed up to Aotearoa New Zealand’s new Code of Practice for Online Safety and Harms overseen by Netsafe last week.
It’s been hailed as “a world first” in multiple outlets, but also condemned by some critics as a possible box-ticking exercise – one that only requires the powerful rigs to tick easy boxes.
The Code creates an oversight committee to review public objections – and it will be yet another self-regulatory body that people can complain to.
“It seems that the worst sanction is that they are asked to leave the agreement, which is not a sanction at all. It is understandable that some people would say that concrete legislation with appropriate penalties would be preferable,” former newspaper editor Andrew Holden told RNZ this week.
“Signatories can choose which measures they agree to implement, and which they don’t think are appropriate for them, and they can ignore them,” noted Tom Pullar-Strecker, Stuff’s technology editor.
Netizen group Tohatoha called it “an industry-led model that eschews the real change and accountability needed to protect communities, individuals, and the health of our democracy.”
“I think this is an attempt to pre-empt this regulatory framework that is being put in place,” Tohatoha chief executive Mandy Henk told Newstalk ZB last week.
She was referring to this review of media content regulations that is slowly happening behind the scenes and out of the headlines. One round of consultations with the news media has been completed on the basics — and another has begun on some details and the framework.
Single Window for the Digital Age
The review indicates that the content may harm individuals, communities and society.
A digital age one-stop shop to regulate and set standards for all media could force offshore tech companies to tackle misinformation on their platforms – or be penalized.
Online outlets, including social media, could be categorized as “media service providers” with minimum standards to be met, just like established news media and broadcasters.
RNZ Media Watch understands Cabinet will soon consider a proposed new regulatory framework, with details to be released next month for public comment and discussion.
The stated goal of the review is also “to mitigate the harmful effects of content, regardless of how the content is distributed.”
One possibility is the development of ‘damage minimization codes’, with legislation setting minimum standards for the prevention and mitigation of damage. It could even mean the creation of new criminal offenses and penalties for non-compliance.
Can this be done without compromising freedom of expression in general – and fundamental press freedoms in particular?
Good reporting that is clearly in the public interest regularly causes distress – even “harm” – to certain people or groups. (Investigative reporting on Gloriavale over the past 30 years, for example).
Online giants ahead of the game
But while the government and the media industry ponder all of this, social media platforms continue to evolve in unexpected ways.
Over the past fortnight, users of Facebook and its sister platform Instagram have found their feeds to contain a lot more stuff from influencers, celebrities and even strangers – and less stuff from their friends, family or their favorite sources of information.
The reason is that Facebook is fighting Tik Tok, the Chinese video-sharing app that now has more than a billion users worldwide, many of them here in New Zealand.
AI-based algorithms are shaping much more of what social media users will now see. What this means for the spread of misinformation here in New Zealand is still unclear.
Two days after the unveiling of the new social media code of practice, Meta’s vice president of public policy for Asia and the Pacific was in Auckland to talk about “regulatory models that can lead to greater transparency and accountability of digital platforms and the work done to promote greater security in the Meta family of applications.
“We are already creating and developing guardrails to ensure security, privacy and well-being in the metaverse,” Simon Milner said, although misinformation on Facebook or Instagram today was not mentioned.
This article is republished under a community partnership agreement with RNZ.