New Zealanders have heard a lot about “disinformation” in the last couple of years. And “misinformation”.
According to the home-grown research group The Disinformation Project, “Misinformation is false information that was not created with the intent to harm people,” while “Disinformation is false information that was created with the intent to harm a person, community, or organisation.”
Either way, what the TDP calls “information disorders” have become such an issue for the government that our Prime Minister made them the subject of the Commencement speech she gave at Harvard University last week.
Unfortunately, it was rather one-sided, reflecting values that, judging by the frequent applause, went down well in one of the bastions of liberalism, but are themselves a breeding ground of information disorders.
Jacinda Ardern’s focus was on the “keyboard warriors” of social media who are, she warned the 8000 graduates before her, shaking the foundations of liberal democracy.
“Democracy…is fragile,” she said, quoting Benazir Bhutto – a predecessor on the podium at Harvard. To take it for granted “is to ignore what happens when facts are turned into fiction and fiction into fact. When you stop debating ideas and start debating conspiracy. It ignores what we are now confronted by every single day.”
Ardern did not mention Covid-19 in her speech, but more than two years of criticism and personal abuse by a media-savvy minority over her government’s handling of the pandemic was surely in her mind.
Three months ago it came to a head as anti-vaxxers descended on parliament grounds to protest the imposition of vaccine mandates and passes. MPs would not talk to them; some of their hangers-on rode other political hobby-horses or sent abusive messages to the Beehive; the situation deteriorated and the occupation ended after 23 days in ugly scenes as the police used force to evict or arrest those remaining.
It was a divisive and bitter episode that profited no-one but the masters of the social media platforms hosting protest supporters. On one single day, according to a Disinformation Project analysis, traffic on supportive social media pages reached 350,000 interactions, compared with 247,000 for all of the mainstream media sites put together.
No doubt there was some “misinformation” and “disinformation” in all of this, but throughout the pandemic there has also been real information that was simply set aside by governments and mainstream media as a nuisance which would complicate the response to a perceived public health crisis. Isn’t that precisely the environment in which other “information disorders” are likely to flourish?
In any event, it is not only the unwashed (Ardern imagines the typical keyboard warrior who puts nasty comments in her news feed as “a lone person unacquainted with personal hygiene practices dressed in a poorly fitted super hero costume one that is baggy in all the wrong places”) who perpetrate misinformation, disinformation and conspiracy theories.
The foundation of democracy, Ardern said in her Harvard speech, is trust in “institutions, experts and governments”, but this trust is being eroded today by the peddlers of false information on social media.
Actually, trust is also being eroded by those very institutions and experts.
In the middle of her speech, by way of light relief from the doomsday theme of evil algorithms, Ardern listed some proud achievements of the New Zealand parliament in recent years – eight of them under her premiership:
“In the past 10 years we have passed laws that include everything from the introduction of gay marriage and the banning of conversion therapy, right through to embedding a 1.5 degree climate change target into law, and banning military-style semi-automatics and assault rifles. And, the decriminalisation of abortion. [Whoops and cheers from some of the audience.]”
This is a mixed bag, to be sure. In the light of the Christchurch mosque slaughter in 2019, banning the use of assault weapons by civilians was a reasonable step. The climate change target? Maybe.
But gay marriage enshrines in law the fiction that two people of the same sex can have a relationship that is the same as marriage, when it is manifestly different in its nature and in its importance to society. Legalising it leads to further law changes (regarding adoption and surrogacy) that promote the cruel fiction that a child does not need the nurture of its own mother and father.
Banning “conversion therapy” when it has not been used for decades, but using the term to pass a law which threatens with criminal sanctions anyone – including parents – who discourages a minor or mentally impaired person from “transitioning” to the opposite sex, involves disinformation of the most serious kind.
Based on shoddy research, and ignoring other evidence as well as the voices of increasing numbers of professionals, it falsely teaches young people and their parents that going trans can do them no harm and is even a good path to follow.
As for the complete decriminalisation of abortion, that is based on the great lie of the last 60 years that the child at any stage of its development in the womb is not a human being with its own intrinsic dignity and rights. This is the worst disinformation of all, intending fatal harm to the child and ignoring the harm it does the mother.
Ardern admitted that these law changes “have not been without debate and difference,” but maintained that “they are all examples of times where we have navigated deep change without, for the most part, leaving deep rifts.”
That is not true. The fact that academics provide data, and professionals their opinions, in favour of such misleading and harmful law changes; that the majority of politicians across the board voted for them, or even that the majority of citizens don’t openly protest – none of that means that “deep rifts” are not opening up in our democracy.
When fundamental facts of human nature, and fundamental values and institutions such as marriage and the family are contradicted by law and taught to new generations, of course those who disagree will feel alienated. Some will persevere in dialogue about these issues, but others will find an outlet not just on social media, but, as we have seen, in more militant ways.
Then, keyboard warriors will be the least of our worries.