It is what it Is – The Science of Middle-earth

Much of the writing about Tolkien and his works focusses upon the literary aspects of his Middle-earth works. Therefore it is rather unusual to come across a book that describes itself as a new understanding of Tolkien and his world using scientific disciplines to examine Middle-earth.

The Science of Middle-earth (Roland LeHouq, Loic Mangin and Jean-Sebastien Steyer (eds) Pegasus Books 2021) provides an interesting, at times provocative and at times amusing look at Tolkien’s Middle-earth world. It is a compilation of essays that consider that scientific foundations of Middle-earth and its denizens. The book claims that Tolkien had an interest in aspects of science – cosmology, geography, metallurgy, botany and geology and without this knowledge he would have been unable to create the Middle-earth of the depth and breadth that he did. It is claimed, too, that Tolkien was aware of the way in which science could align itself with power, imposing its values in an imperialist manner.

Feanor in The Silmarillion, Celebrimbor of Eregion and the thinkers of Lorien combined a quest for knowledge with artistic creation. Tolkien said that

“the Elves represent the artistic, aesthetic and purely scientific aspects of the Humane nature raised to a higher level than is actually seen in Men..they have a devoted love of the physical world, and a desire to observe and understand it for its own sake.” (Tolkien to Michael Straits 1956).

The book is divided into thematic sections – each section gathering together a number of scientific studies and disciplines to demonstrate how these are deployed in Middle-earth. The sections are as follows:

World-building – addressing matters such as the sociology of Middle-earth, economics, families, power and politics, language, evolution and communication in Middle-earth and closes with philosophy in Middle-earth.

Anchoring in Space and Time, in which there are essays on archaeology, history and historiography in Middle-earth, a consideration of linguistics and a study of the mythology of corruption and dependence.

The section on “Spectacular Settings” includes studies of the plants, landscape and geography of Middle-earth including a consideration of the tectonic makeup of Arda, the subterranean worlds and the gemology of Middle-earth along with a consideration of Medieval-Fantastical metallurgy. The One Ring comes in for a careful examination in a consideration of the quality of invisibility it confers along with its complex chemical history and what would be required to make such a potent object.

The people of Middle-earth are considered in the section entitled “Remarkable Characters”. Here are examined the hobbits from a physical point of view including a study and how the rather larger feet of hobbits gives them certain characteristics, the recent discovery of a human ancestor in Indonesia who was nicknamed “hobbit” and how this impacted upon paleoanthropology, the physical decline and metamorphosis of Gollum, the eyesight and optical characteristics of the Elves, the relationship of Dwarves to hyenas and a consideration of whether an Ent is a plant or an animal and some of the “real-world” similarities that exist. Saruman’s Uruks are discussed in a context of genetic modification and the section closes with a phylogenetic approach to humanoids In Middle-earth (aided by some helpful diagrams).

The final section is entitled a Fantastical Bestiary and looks at what re referred to as mythotypes within the realm of beasts and then a consideration of ornithology and the way Tolkien treats birds – and especially the Great Eagles like Thorondor – the fantastical oliphaunts and their relationship to elephants, the nature of Wargs and their parallels in Scandinavian folklore, a careful study of Beorn and whether he was a Man-bear or a Bear-man (there is a difference) – spiders in Middle-earth referred to as arthropods, as well as the different types of dragon that make appearances in the Tolkien canon – it should be recalled that Glaurung could not fly whereas Smaug and Ancalagon the Black could and these evolutionary differences are considered. The horrible Monster in the Water outside the Mithril Gate of Moria is considered and the section closes with a discussion of Tolkien’s cryptozoological bestiary.

All of this provides for vert entertaining reading along with some thought-provoking observations. I do, however, have two problems with the approach adopted.

The first relates to reliance by many of the writers upon Peter Jackson’s movie adaptation of the Lord of the Rings. It must be remembered that these movies were Jackson’s imagining of Tolkien’s imagining and although in many case Jackson got it right, my own view is that if a writer is looking at Tolkien’s Middle-earth it must be based upon the materials that Tolkien created. Luckily we have a very large depth of material contained in the published Canon (The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion) and the background materials and information provided in Unfinished Tales and in the multi-volume History of Middle-earth. There is more than enough material available from Tolkien’s pen that would not require resort to Jackson’s movies.

The second is the importation of certain physical and scientific realities into the analysis. For example the sections on the Ring focus upon the physical attributes of the Ring and overlook the high level of craftsmanship of Elves like Feanor and Celebrimbor and the fact that Sauron had demi-godlike qualities (he was a Maia) that allowed him to channel his power into an object in a way that is not possible given our current scientific knowledge.

I have always viewed Middle-earth as similar but not identical to our own – not perhaps an alternate reality but a parallel universe. In this respect my own view is that the scientific constraints imposed upon our physical existence need not necessarily apply to Middle-earth. There are similarities in that there are creation myths, the concept of the Fallen Angel and certain supernatural or metaphysical elements in both universes, but that the rules in Middle-earth differ from ours. I do not need a scientific rationale for the long-sightedness of the Elves other than that it is a reality in Middle-earth. Nor do I need an explanation of the One Ring based on the state of OUR knowledge rather than the realities of object creation within a Middle-earth universe.

So from time to time I felt dragged back into the reality of my universe and away from the Secondary World created by Tolkien. I must admit that some of the explanations and theories are quite amusing and for the Tolkien aficionado it may provide some hours of amusement.  But my own view is that as far as Middle-earth and its workings are concerned  – as is so often said these days – it is what it is.


The fault, dear Brutus, is not in social media/ But in ourselves

The title of this post is a paraphrase of a couple of lines from “Julius Caesar” Act 1 Scene iii Lines 140 – 141 – apologies to Will Shakespeare of Stratford.

This post is a companion piece to one that I wrote about misinformation and to which reference is made. Lest there be any doubt I am not advocating for misinformation or disinformation. I dislike both. I am concerned with objective fact and reasoned opinion in an effort to ascertain truth and have been all my life.

It is easy – perhaps a soft option – to lay the spread of misinformation at the feet of social media. After all, people post to social media and in a sense the information remains passive until someone else reads it. And therein lies the problem. In my last post I advocated a position based on the employment of common sense and critical faculties – qualities that we all possess.

In this piece I discuss the importance of understanding the medium as a prelude to considering the “responsibility” of social media for the dissemination of misinformation. Exponential dissemination, as I argue, is an essential characteristic of digital communications systems and impacts upon our information expectations

In an earlier post I observed that the target of the concerns about misinformation is “the Internet” – a generalized target that encompasses a world wide communications network. A more recent comment on disinformation attributes its spread to social media.

In a sense, both critiques are correct but they both focus on the content layer rather than upon the medium itself. And it is when we understand the nature of the medium we realise that in many respects it enables many behaviours, some of which are execrable. But the problem is that the cat is out of the bag, the djinni is out of the lamp – which ever metaphor you prefer.

What we are facing are paradigmatically different behaviours in the communications space from anything that has gone before. And because the paradigm is a different one from that to which we are accustomed, we yearn to push back, to return to things “the way they were”. And in saying this we hearken back to an earlier communications paradigm that was, as is the present paradigm, defined and underpinned by the media of communication.

When Marshall McLuhan cryptically said “The Medium is the Message” he was saying that in understanding the impact of the message we must first understand the impact of the medium or media of communication. And although we tend to focus upon what we see and hear – the content layer – the real game changer lies much deeper than that – within the medium itself. It is the medium that enables behaviours and in many respects and as a result of continued use impacts upon the values that validate those behaviours.

Every medium of communication possesses certain properties or affordances that are not immediately obvious. My starting point is the analytical framework developed by the historian Elizabeth Eisenstein in her seminal work The Printing Press as an Agent of Change.[1] In that work Eisenstein identified a number of qualities present in print technology that differentiated the communication of information in print from that communicated in manuscript. These qualities were not the obvious ones of machine based creation of content but focussed upon the way in which printed material was going to and did impact upon the intellectual activities of educated elites in Early-modern Europe. These qualities were beneath the content layer; not immediately apparent but vital in considering the way in which readers dealt with and related to information and ultimately had an impact upon their expectations of information and how, in turn, they themselves used print to communicate.

Using McLuhan’s suggestion and developing the way in which Eisenstein identified her underlying qualities of print technology, I have identified a number of different qualities[2], some of which overlap and some of which are complementary.

However, rather than merely identify these qualities I have developed a form of taxonomy or classes of qualities which are occupied by specific exemplars.[3]

For example, I have identified what I call Environmental Qualities. They arise from the context within which digital technologies develop and are descriptive of the nature of change within that context, and some of the underlying factors which drive that change. Because digital technologies primarily involve the development of software tools which operate on relatively standard computing equipment, the capital investment in hardware and manufacturing infrastructure is not present in the development of digital tools, although it certainly is in the development of the hardware that those tools require.

Thus the development of digital software can take place in any one of a number of informal locations where the only requirements are a power supply, a computer and a programmer or programmers. This lack of infrastructural requirements enables the development of software tools which can be deployed via the non-regulated environment of the Internet giving rise to the qualities of permissionless innovation and continuing disruptive change which are discussed in detail.

A second set of qualities I have identified as technical qualities. These are so classified because they underlie some of the technical aspects of the new digital technologies. Some of these qualities are present in a different form in the print paradigm. Eisenstein identified dissemination of content as a quality of print that was not present within the scribal paradigm. I have identified exponential dissemination as an example of a technical quality – the way in which the technology enables not only the spread of content as was enabled by print, but dissemination at a significantly accelerated rate with a greater reach than was enabled by physical dissemination.

Another of the qualities that I identify as a technical one is that of information persistence, summed up in the phrase “the document that does not die.” Once information has been released on to Internet platforms the author or original disseminator loses control of that content. Given the fact that as digital information travels through a multitude of servers, copies are made en route meaning that the information is potentially retrievable even although it may have been removed from its original source.

Other examples of “technical qualities” such as the way in which linear progress through information challenged by navigation via hypertext link in what I call the delinearisation of information; the dynamic nature of information and its malleability in digital format; the way in which seemingly limitless capacity allows for storage of a greater amount of information than was previously considered possible; the apparent non-coherence of digital information and the need for the intermediation of hardware and software to render it intelligible and the problem of obsolescence of information caused by loss arising not from deterioration of the medium but as a result of the unwillingness of software companies to support earlier iterations of software which enabled the creation of an earlier and now inaccessible version of the content. All are aspects of technical qualities that underpin the content of digital information.

The third category of qualities are what I call user associated qualities – qualities that arise in the behaviour of users in response to digital information technologies. Among these user associated qualities is the searchability of digital information and its associated availability and retrievability arising from the development of ever more sophisticated search algorithms and platforms, and the ability of users to participate in the creation of and use of content as a result of the interactive nature of digital technologies, in particular social media.

In some respects aspects of these qualities overlap – they do not stand alone. Indeed the searchability of information presents its own special difficulties. Trying to locate information on the Network has been a problem even before the Internet went commercial. There were search tools such as Gopher in the early days but the advent of sophisticated algorithm driven search tools such as Google have changed the landscape entirely.

Algorithms also select and promote posts and information on social media and associated platforms and frequently select information that is “high engagement”. The algorithms that curate content do so to drive increased engagement. Thus we have a merging of searchability and user participation. The problem is that this imperative of increased engagement seems to attract users who are confused and often gullible and who seek information that confirms their worst fears. For them, social media becomes an echo chamber. But although it is the content that they seek, the availability of the content arises from the inherent qualities of the medium

Thus, all these qualities, cumulatively, have an impact upon our “relationship” with and expectations of information and which have an influence on behaviour.  One form of behaviour is what may be called the online disinhibition effect. This inevitably leads to a consideration of the contentious issue of the effect that new technologies have upon the way that we think. It is suggested that the issue is not so much one of neuroplasticity advanced by Susan Greenfield[4] or “dumbing down” of attention spans as suggested by Nicholas Carr[5] but a slightly more nuanced view of the way that the medium and the various delivery systems redefine the use of information which informs the decisions that we make.[6]

Paradigmatically different ways of information communication and acquisition are going to change the way in which we use and respond to information. And we must recognise that change has happened, that some of our preconceived notions about information and its reliability must change, and that we must adapt our approaches. It is no good trying to hold on to past standards regarding information. They have morphed as a result of the new communications paradigm. It will be interesting to see how the proposed Content Regulatory System Review develops. The target is content, described by McLuhan as akin to  “the juicy piece of meat carried by the burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind” whereas the true target of the review should be the medium and the way that it is changing attitudes to content.

This rather lengthy discussion of the underlying nature of communications systems in the Digital Paradigm is really an introductory to a comment on a piece by Dr Jarrod Gilbert which appeared in the NZ Herald on 23 August.

The article deals with some of the more bizarre manifestations of behaviour and information that seem to beset us. Dr Gilbert acknowledges that this sort of thing is not new but that what is new is the ability for such views to spread quickly and widely – like a contagion as he put it, phraseology that would seem to be apt in these plague-ridden times – but he then lays the responsibility for this at the feet of social media. Social media, he says, provides the oxygen and then proceeds to look for the spark which, if I read him correctly, he attributes to disinformation.

We have to be careful with this word because it can get confused with its close cousin “misinformation”. Just to recap, I have discussed misinformation in an earlier post but it has been defined by the Infodemic Report discussed in that post as  “false information that people didn’t create with the intention to hurt others”. Disinformation, in the same report, has an element of malevolence to it – it is defined as false information created with the intention of harming a person, group, or organisation, or even a country.

The definition in the Oxford English Dictionary is less threatening that that appearing in the report but the dissemination of deliberately false information is common to both. The OED defines disinformation as:

“The dissemination of deliberately false information, esp. when supplied by a government or its agent to a foreign power or to the media, with the intention of influencing the policies or opinions of those who receive it; false information so supplied.”

Dr Gilbert then goes on to consider how bizarre ideas disseminated on social media spread so easily. One aspect is the authoritarian explainer personality whose commentary has an aspect of credibility even although there may be no basis for it. Another is the personality drawn to paranormal thinking or conspiracy theories. Once one conspiracy is believed it becomes easy to believe others.

Having considered the human element and the gullibility of audiences, Dr Gilbert turns his attention to social media and there is no doubt that the use of algorithms, as I have discussed above, enhances engagement which is an essential aspect of the business model of many social media platforms. The association of disinformation and social media is well known and deserves to be highlighted although, as I later suggest in this post, there is a sinister aspect to this within the context of an “authorized truth.” Another feature of social media is that it is not generally viewed as a trusted source of information. In a recent survey two thirds of those questioned expressed low trust in social media. So those about whom Dr Gilbert complains are in a minority and probably prefer the echo chamber that social media affords.

But are social media platforms the problem. I suggest that to say so is to look for the low hanging fruit. The problem is far more nuanced and complex than that. If we look at the underlying properties of the medium we find user participation and exponential dissemination enable the spread of ideas rather than heaping the blame on “social media.” These inherent qualities of digital communications systems would exist despite social media. It is just that social media have managed to “piggy-back” on these characteristics in developing business models.

As the title of this post suggests, with appropriate paraphrasing, the real fault is not with social media but with ourselves. The problems of misinformation and disinformation are not technical issues but are human issues – behavioural issues. It may well be, as I suggest, that behaviours have been modified by the properties of digital communications systems. But in many respects those systems are passive purveyors rather than active influencers. People are influencers, utilizing the enhanced communications opportunities provided by digital systems.

[1] Elizabeth Eisenstein The Printing Press as an Agent of Change  (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1979) 2 Vols. Reference will be made to the 1 volume 1980 edition; Elizabeth Eisenstein, The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe (Cambridge University Press (Canto), Cambridge, 1993).

[2] Eisenstein identified six for print.

[3] I have discussed the qualities or affordances of digital technologies in more detail in my book Collisions in the Digital Paradigm: Law and Rulemaking in the Internet Age (Hart Publishing, Oxford, 2017). The qualities that I identify (and which are summarized above) are:

Environmental Qualities:

                Continuing disruptive change

                Permissionless Innovation

Technical Qualities

                Delinearisation of information

                Information persistence or Endurance

                Dynamic Information

                Volume and capacity

                Exponential dissemination

                The non-coherence of digital information

                Format obsolescence

User Associated Qualities

                Availability, Searchability and Retrievability of Information

                Participation and interactivity

[4] Susan Greenfield “Modern Technology is Changing the Way our Brains Work, Says Neuroscientist” Mail Online, Science and Technology 15 May 2010 (last accessed 25 July 2016)

[5] Nicholas Carr The Shallows: How the Internet is changing the way we think, read and remember (Atlantic Books, London 2010); Nicholas Carr “Is Google Making Us Stupid: What the Internet is doing to our brains” Atlantic July/August 2008 On line edition (last accessed 25 July 2016)

[6] For a counter argument to that advanced by Greenfield and Carr see Aleks Krotoski Untangling the Web: What the Internet is doing to you (Faber, London, 2013) especially at pp.35 – 36. For a deeper discussion see Chapter 2 under the heading “The Internet and How we Think.”

[7] New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990 section 14.

Getting the Right Quotation

It is a matter of concern when the editor of New Zealand largest circulating newspaper makes an assertion about the source of a quote, and gets it wrong. In saying that I am not suggesting that there are similar shortcomings in other stories or articles, but I am sure that we are all familiar with comments that have been taken out of context or that are good for a soundbyte.

So what has prompted my ire on this subject. The Herald editorial for 21 August 2021 entitled “Lord, what a wonderful quest” opens with the following words

“With due acknowledgement to JRR Tolkien: “Deep in the land of Mordor, in the Fires of Mount Doom, the Dark Lord Sauron forged a master ring, and into this ring he poured his cruelty, his malice and his will to dominate all life.”

Since picking up on these opening words of the epic trilogy 20 years ago, New Zealand has been on a wondrous journey.”


This assertion is patently incorrect. The first volume of “The Lord of the Rings” which is “The Fellowship of the Ring” opens with a foreword from Tolkien himself, followed by a prologue divided into 4 parts –  “Concerning Hobbits”, “Concerning Pipeweed”, “Of the Ordering of the Shire” and “Of the Finding of the Ring” together with a Note of Shire Records. The first chapter, proper, is entitled “A long-expected party” and commences with the words

“When Mr. Bilbo Baggins announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton”. No mention of the origins of the One Ring.

Indeed the origins of the Ring and its history begin to develop throughout the story. The genesis of the One Ring develops in “The Fellowship” – Chapter 2 – “The Shadow of the Past” as Gandalf tells Frodo

“In Eregion long ago many Elven-rings were made, magic rings as you call them, and they were, of course, of various kinds: some more potent and some less. The lesser rings were onl;y essays in the craft before it was full-grown, and to the Elven-smiths they were but trifles – yet still to my mind dangerous for mortals. But the Great Rings, the Rings of Power, they were perilous”

The making of the One Ring is not referred to at this stage in the story but the link with the Dark Lord Sauron is mentioned after Gandalf confirms that Frodo’s ring is indeed the One.

“The Enemy still lacks one thing to give him strength and knowledge to beat down all resistance, break the last defences, and cover all the lands in a second darkness. He lacks the One Ring.

The Three, fairest of all, the Elf-lords hid from him, and his hand never touched them or sullied them. Seven the Dwarf-kings possessed but three he has recovered, and the others the dragons have consumed. Nine he gave to Mortal Men, proud and great, and so ensnared them. Long ago they fell under the dominion of the One, and they became Ringwraiths, shadows under his great Shadow, his most terrible servants. Long ago. It is many a year since the Nine walked abroad”

The aspects of the One Ring and some of its qualities are revealed as the story progresses but it is not until “The Council of Elrond” (Book II, Chapter 2 of “The Fellowship of the Ring”) that we are told of the history of the Ring.

“Then all listened while Elrond in his clear voice spoke of Sauron and the Rings of Power, and their forging in the Second Age of the world long ago. A part of his tale was known to some there, but the full tale to none, and many eyes turned to Elrond in fear and wonder as he told of the Elven-smiths of Eregion and their friendship with Moria, and their eagerness for knowledge, by which Sauron ensnared them. For in that time he was not yet evil to behold, and they received his aid and grew mighty in craft, whereas he learned all their secrets, and betrayed them, and forged secretly in the Mountain of Fire the One Ring to be their master. But Celebrimbor was aware of him, and hid the Three which he had made, and there was war, and the land was laid waste, and the gate of Moria was shut”

So it is clear that “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy does not start with the words quoted as suggested in the editorial. Indeed the true origins of the Ring slowly develop until the revelations at the Council of Elrond – a significant and important chapter, for it is here that Tolkien’s new “hobbit story” transforms into an heroic epic.

There are other references to the origins of the Ring in “The Silmarillion” in the section entitled “Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age” and in “Unfinished Tales” in Part III,  Chapter 4 entitled “The Hunt for the Ring”. Tolkien tells of the making of the Ring in a letter to Milton Waldman (“The Letters of J R R Tolkien” Humphrey Carpenter (ed) at p. 152 – 153)

“The Elves of Eregion made Three supremely beautiful and powerful rings, almost solely of their own imagination , and directed to the preservation of beauty: they did not confer invisibility. But secretly in the subterranean Fire, in his own Black Land, Sauron made One Ring, the Ruling Ring that contained the powers of all the others, and controlled them, so that its wearer could see the thoughts of all those that used the lesser rings, could govern all that they did, and in the end could utterly enslave them…….

[Sauron] rules a growing empire from the great dark tower of Barad-Dur in Mordor, near to the Mountain of Fire, wielding the One Ring.

But to achieve this he had been obliged to let a great part of his own inherent power (a frequent and very significant motive in myth and fairy-story) pass into the One Ring”

But what is the source for the quotation attributed to Tolkien in the Herald editorial. It certainly has Tolkien’s “voice” and the facts contained in it accord with the information in “The Lord of the Rings”.

The quotation comes from the prologue to the Peter Jackson adaptation of “The Lord of the Rings” – “The Fellowship of the Ring”. The words are spoken by Galadriel – the words in brackets are in Elvish:

“(I amar prestar aen.)

The world is changed.

(Han matho ne nen.)

I feel it in the water.

(Han mathon ned cae.)

I feel it in the earth.

(A han noston ned gwilith.)

I smell it in the air.

Much that once was is lost, for none now live who remember it.

It began with the forging of the Great Rings. Three were given to the Elves, immortal, wisest and fairest of all beings. Seven to the Dwarf-Lords, great miners and craftsmen of the mountain halls. And nine, nine rings were gifted to the race of Men, who above all else desire power. For within these rings was bound the strength and the will to govern each race.

But they were all of them deceived, for another ring was made. In the land of Mordor, in the Fires of Mount Doom, the Dark Lord Sauron forged a master ring, and into this ring he poured his cruelty, his malice and his will to dominate all life.”

The sentence “In the land of Mordor” is as stated in the movie sound-track. The use of the word “Deep” does not appear in that source. An internet search on the phrase reveals a number of sources all of which repeat the same error.

All that to one side, the words quoted by the Herald editor are from the movie and certainly do not open Tolkien’s trilogy as it appears in print.

This may be seen to be an exercise in pedantry, and perhaps it is. Tolkien scholars (and I rank myself among them) are rather particular about their field of study and the attribution of sources, as is the case in any field of academic study, is important. I have not provided page numbers for the quotes in this piece if only because the number of printings of “The Lord of the Rings” means that pagination varies. I have adopted the system I used in my “The Song of Middle-earth – JRR Tolkien’s Themes Symbols and Myths” citing source and chapter number.

I do not expect a Herald editorial to provide footnotes. But is an accurate quotation and attribution too much to ask?

(Sources consulted in writing this post are J.R.R Tolkien “The Lord of the Rings”; J.R.R. Tolkien “The Silmarillion”; “The Letters of J R R Tolkien” Humphrey Carpenter (ed);J.R.R. Tolkien “Unfinished Tales” (Christopher Tolkien (ed)); Wayne G Hammond and Christina Scull “The Lord of the Rings – A Reader’s Companion”; David Harvey “The Song of Middle-earth: J.R.R. Tolkien’s Themes Symbols and Myths” “The Fellowship of the Ring” Extended DVD Edition – Peter Jackson Director.)

What is Truth? Misinformation and the Edge of the Infodemic – A Commentary

“And what is ‘truth’? Is truth unchanging law? We both have truths. Are mine the same as yours?”

Jesus Christ Superstar

I have given some thought about releasing this paper. The reason for my hesitation is that it could be misinterpreted as a support piece for misinformation. That is not its purpose. My primary concern arises from what I perceive as a shift towards a State-based determinator for truth and, as a corollary, that any perspective or opinion that does not conform to that “truth” is misinformation. In my view the issue of misinformation is a more nuanced one and this paper argues that the solution to dealing with misinformation should be in the hands of individuals who can make their own evaluations of the validity or otherwise of pieces of information before acting upon the. Some of the suggestions that have been made in the misinformation paper under discussion are extremely reasonable and sensible. What I am concerned about is the intrusion of the State into the area of belief and points of view. Freedom of thought (or conscience) has long been a cornerstone of liberal democracy.


Censorship is a controversial issue in a modern democratic and liberal society, although it has taken place in one form or another over the centuries. This has included art censorship from the strategically placed drapes on the magnificent Michelangelo frescoes on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel to the controversy surrounding the Mapplethorpe photographic exhibition in New Zealand, film censorship from All Quiet on the Western Front[1] to Baise-Moi[2] and book censorship such as James Joyce’s masterpiece Ulysses[3] and more recently in New Zealand with Ted Dawe’s Into the River.[4]

Censorship challenges freedom of expression by imposing minimum standards of socially acceptable speech on the contemporary community. Under s 14 of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990 (Bill of Rights) everyone has the right to freedom of expression; a right as “wide as human thought and imagination”.[5] Censorship acts as an abrogation of that right, so how is freedom of expression under the Bill of Rights and censorship under the Act to be accommodated? Some guidance is available from the Court of Appeal in the case of Moonen v Film and Literature Board of Review[6].

Moonen held  that there is  a responsibility on the Classification Office and the Board of Review when carrying out their work to explain how a publication falls into the category of publications that Parliament has deemed objectionable. The Classification Office and the Board of Review must also demonstrate why classifying certain publications as objectionable is a demonstrably justified limitation on freedom of speech. Generally the Moonen approach is followed.

New Media Issues

But lately the Chief Censor, Mr. David Shanks, has been calling for a widening of his brief. At an Otago University conference about ‘Social Media and Democracy’ in March 2021, Mr. Shanks told the conference the way we regulate media is not fit for the future.

“We can be better than this. I think there’s some very obvious moves that we can do here to make the current regulatory system and framework more coherent for a digital environment,” he said.[7]

The “Misinformation” Study

As part of an overall review of regulatory structures surrounding harmful information dissemination, the Government released a discussion paper on hate speech and at the same time the Chief Censor released a paper entitled “The Edge of the Infodemic: Challenging Misinformation in Aotearoa” which in essence is a survey about how citizens are concerned about misinformation. The internet and social media are identified as key sources – while experts and government are trusted more than news media. 

The Chief Censor says it shows the need for urgent action. But the question must be asked – why? Do we need the government or some government agency to be the arbiter of truth? Are we so uncritical that we cannot discern misinformation from empirically based conclusions?

The concerns about new media are not new. Many of the criticisms of the Internet and social media levelled by the Chief Censor have been articulated in the past.  Speaking of newspapers Thomas Jefferson expressed an acidic concern that editors “fill their newspapers with falsehoods, calumnies and audacities”.[8]

What is seen as a problem seems to be a difficulty in accepting that as many as there are people there are opinions. One wonders whether the questions properly addressed the issues. The findings of the report must be concerning. New Zealanders tend to distrust online sources of information.

Only 12 percent had high trust in news and information from internet and social media users – and 83 percent think this group frequently spreads misinformation on purpose.

But 79 percent also said they get news or information from social media and also use it to verify information.

The report found New Zealanders have a relatively high level of trust in news and information from scientists, researchers or experts (78 percent) and government agencies and officials (64 percent).

Six out of 10 respondents reported high trust in New Zealand’s news media – a more favourable result than the responses recorded for overseas news media.

But these findings beg the question I have already raised. Are we talking about facts or are we talking about opinions. Even facts can be “spun” to fulfil a particular purpose and can be interpreted in a number of ways. The facts remain the same. The interpretations may differ. And this is important in a vibrant and developing society. The “truth” for one may not be a “truth” for another.

The concerns that the report advances have been derived from an extensive survey that has been conducted. The findings of the survey lead inexorably to the conclusion that “something must be done” and I would suggest that the “something” involves the control or monitoring of information. And it must be of concern that the self and statutorily described[9] censor is driving this.

So what does the report tell us. I state the findings and my observations in italics follow each one.

First, it is common for New Zealanders to see news and information they think is false or misleading. Opinions differ as to what counts as misinformation, but one topic identified as a source of misinformation surrounds Covid 19. Another concern is that this misinformation is influencing people’s views about things like politics, public health and environmental issues, and many see misinformation as an urgent and serious threat.

What is apparent from this concern is that misinformation is recognised. This would seem to suggest that those who contributed to the survey are still in possession of the reasoning and critical faculties and can distinguish valid information from rubbish. The volume of misinformation may drive a concern but what does it threaten. This question seems to be unanswered.

But arising from this is another more fundamental issue and one that I have already alluded to – what is misinformation. Is it a skewing of facts – something that politicians are skilled in although for them it is called “spin” – or is it a statement of opinion. One wonders how many statements of opinion are taken as fact, especially if the reader or listener or viewer agrees with the opinion.

Secondly New Zealanders tend to distrust online sources of information generally, and this is especially true of social media. Many New Zealanders think social media users and corporations often spread false and misleading information intentionally. At the same time, the internet is the most popular source of news and information, while also being a reference point to verify, fact check or confirm this information.

The first point is a valid one. Do not implicitly trust everything that you see online. With a medium like the Internet – and social media platforms – everyone has a voice. Whereas mainstream media could be selective, had verification duties and are subject to rules about balance and a disciplinary process such as the Broadcasting Standards Authority or the NZ Media Council, social media does not. Thus it follows that statements by individuals on social media platforms should at least be taken with a grain of salt and should be subject to critical scrutiny and verification.

Whether online or offline, most New Zealanders tend to trust information from more traditional sources like government officials, scientists and the New Zealand news media. However, the research shows that people with higher trust in online only sources of information – and who use these sources more often – are more likely to express belief in statements associated with misinformation.

This probably says more about the critical faculties of those who rely on online sources for their information. And this goes to a lack of development of intellectual rigour that goes back to the education system, together with a level of naivete that would suggest that too many people accept anything without question or without careful analysis. It is not the source of the information that is to blame. It is the uncritical stance of the reader that is the problem.

The report then goes on to widen the problem with some rather sweeping generalisations.

Misinformation is widespread and affects everyone. This is true regardless of age, gender, ethnicity or other characteristics.

Subject to defining misinformation (which I discuss below) there is no doubt that all facets of information, true or false are widespread. Does this affect everyone? If what is meant is “does everyone come into contact with misinformation” there is certainly that potential. But if the meaning of the word “affect” is to influence I would have some quibble about the suggestion that misinformation influences everyone. Once again this has more to do with the critical analysis of information, but I consider this conclusion to be overly broad

It’s relatively common for New Zealanders to express belief in at least some ideas that are linked to misinformation – ideas which are not backed by the best available evidence we have.

I would be very interested to see the evidence for this statement and once again it speaks more to the naivete and lack of critical rigour on the part of the audience. And, of course, even a bad idea may be worth consideration if only to analyse it and discard it. The problem I think lies in the use of the word “belief” which suggests something other than an evidence based or empirical conclusion

When people rely on misinformation to make important decisions it can have a harmful impact on the health and safety of our communities. It can also affect us on a personal level, contributing to anxiety, anger, and mistrust.

Agreed. But the issue is the reliance that is placed on misinformation and once again – at risk of repeating myself ad nauseum – much depends upon the critical faculties and analysis employed by the audience. If people choose to make important decisions without properly analysing the source of the evidence supporting those decisions then that is a matter for them.

People often take action themselves in response to misinformation – such as searching different sources to see if information is accurate, looking at more established news sources, or talking about it with people they trust.

New Zealanders also see this as a societal problem that requires more action. They have differing views on who should do this and how. Many think government, news media and experts have the biggest role in dealing with the spread of misinformation, but that individual internet users and social media corporations also have an important role.

Many New Zealanders see the Government as the solution to problems. Rather I agree that responsibility for ascertaining whether content is information or misinformation should the in the hands of the recipient. I agree that individual internet users and social media users have a role – but it is not for the social media corporations to vet content or carry out some moderating activity over content. I base this comment on the fact that Internet based information and indeed the communications paradigm it has introduced means that we must recognise that paradigm shift and consider regulatory solutions in light of it.

What is “Misinformation”?

The problem of “misinformation” and the concerns that are expressed in the report depend very much upon the definition of the term. The Report offers some brief definitions. There is a specific rider to the definitions offered which narrow the concept down to something that is potentially harmful. Other definitions are quite a bit wider.

The Report definitions are as follows:

Misinformation: false information that people didn’t create with the intention to hurt others.

Disinformation: false information created with the intention of harming a person, group, or organisation, or even a country.

Mal-information: true information used with ill intent.

The definitions set out are quite specific and share a similar characteristic and that is that the spread of the information (misinformation, disinformation or mal-information) is accompanied by a specific intention and that is to harm or hurt others[10].

The Report goes on to say

“Misinformation is nothing new, but there are increasing concerns worldwide about the prevalence of misinformation – especially online – and its potential to impact democracy, public health, violent extremism and other matters. We’ve seen how the spread of false and sometimes hostile misinformation and conspiracy theories continue to impact on our whānau and communities during the Covid-19 pandemic, and how extremist talking points and ideology can contribute to real-world violence such as the March 15 attacks in Christchurch.”

Misinformation is defined in the Oxford English dictionary as “false or erroneous information”, and as the report states, the existence of false or erroneous information is nothing new. Falsity implies that the communicator of the information is aware of the falsehood but perpetrates it nonetheless. Erroneous implies error or mistake which lacks the element of wilful deception.

Putting to one side the emotive reference to the March 15 attacks – and there is no evidence that the terrorist was influenced by misinformation – the concern that is expressed is that false, erroneous and sometimes hostile information and conspiracy theories have an impact. As it proceeds the Report seems to lose sight of the qualification that harm must be intended and seems to focus more upon the falsity or error of the information circulated.

Two issues arise from this. The first is that the recipient of information must be critical of the information received and subject it to analysis to determine whether it is “true” or “false”.

The second is that most information disseminated, especially across social medias platforms, is opinion or “point of view” which means that the disseminator is coming from a particular standpoint or is writing with a particular agenda. It would be incorrect for anyone to suggest that the opinion pieces in the New Zealand Herald by columnists such as Simon Wilson, Richard Prebble, Michael Cullen or Mike Hosking are anything else but that. They are interpretations of fact taken from a particular standpoint. It is up to the reader to determine whether first, the facts bare valid and secondly whether the opinion is therefore valid. Finally, if the answer to both questions is in the affirmative there is nothing to compel the reader to accept the opinion. The reader is free to disagree with it.

An associated issue arises and that is the guarantee of the freedom of information contained in section 14 of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990. The provisions of section 14 are wide. They refer to the imparting and receiving of information – thus widening the usual understanding of freedom of expression to be the imparting of information. It is significant too that section 14 does not qualify the word “information”. There is no suggestion that the information must be true or that it cannot be “misinformation.”

Information is that which informs. To inform someone is to impart learning or instruction, to teach or to impart knowledge of some particular fact or occurrence. The traditional meaning of information suggests an element of factual truth and thus misinformation is erroneous or incorrect information. One interpretation of section 14 is to use the traditional meaning of information which suggests an element of fact based truth. A wider interpretation would include material based on mistaken facts. And then, of course, there is the question of opinion which is a view of one person about a certain set of circumstances.

But in the field of information, misinformation, fact and truth there will always be disputes. Some will be trivial. Others will be significant. Some may be wrong headed. Others may be designed to mislead. Given these varieties of information, what is proposed that we should do about what is referred to in the report as the “infodemic.”

An Internal Inconsistency?

The Infodemic paper contains the following critical acknowledgement.

Misinformation is not in and of itself illegal – and it would be impractical and counterproductive to make it so. It should not be unlawful to express a view or belief that is wrong, or that is contrary to prevailing evidence and opinion.

There are certain types of misinformation with which the law should be involved such as information which promotes criminal or terrorist activity and may fall within the existing ambit of the Films Video and Publications Classification Act, the Human Rights Act or the Crimes Act.

These legal restrictions are perfectly legitimate. They are very limited and are justifiable limitations on the right of freedom of expression guaranteed by section 14 of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act. But misinformation does not fall within their ambit, nor should it as acknowledged by the Report.

This then raises the issue – what is the problem? Is the raison d’etre for the paper to identify an issue and sound a warning. Or does it go further. The answer, in my opinion, lies in the latter. Realistically the paper recognises that misinformation will never be eliminated nor should it. But in keeping with Mr. Shanks concerns expressed in 2019, the real target for stemming the infodemic lies in dealing with the disseminators – and by that I mean not the individuals who spread misinformation but the digital platforms that enable wide dissemination.

Addressing the Problem

I shall outline the proposals advanced by the Infodemic paper but would offer a note of caution. Some of the proposed solutions are based on existing regulatory or content assessing models. They ignore some of the essential properties of digital systems which make regulation in the Digital Paradigm and completely different exercise from existing regulatory models.

I have discussed the problems of regulation in the Digital Paradigm elsewhere and in some detail[11]. Suffice to say that to engage in any form of content control in the Digital Paradigm is difficult given that the dissemination of content is inextricably entwined with the medium of distribution.

Marshall McLuhan’s aphorism “The Medium is the Message” states the problem, albeit somewhat opaquely. To attempt to control the message one must first understand the medium. This is often overlooked in discussions about regulation in the Digital Paradigm. It is something of an exercise in futility to attempt to apply the models or standards that are applied for what is essentially mainstream media regulation. And to treat online platforms, irrespective of their size and market dominance, in the same way as “analog” or mainstream media platforms ignores the fact that online platforms occupy a paradigmatically different communications space from mainstream media platforms like newspapers, radio and television.

With that cautionary observation I shall consider the proposals in the Infodemic paper.

The report offers five possible avenues for dealing with what it refers to as the Infodemic.

  1. Informing and empowering New Zealanders – this solution is expressed in the report as a means by which misinformation about Covid 19 and vaccinations may be countered. Of course, from a general perspective this is a wider issue than just misinformation and conspiracy theories about the pandemic. Many New Zealanders are concerned about the impact of misinformation across a broad range of topics, including the environment and racial tolerance.

Some of this is based on mistrust of accurate sources of information and it is suggested that steps should be taken to help those who are affected by misinformation and conspiracy theories.

This, of course, is based on the assumption that there is an empirical basis which suggests that alternative views are wrong and should not be believed. And this harks back to the quotation at the beginning of this piece. Are my “truths” the same as yours.

The concern that I have about this proposal is the suggestion that there is but one truth, one “authorised version” to which adherence must be given. It may be easy to prove that a Covid vaccine is effective on the basis of scientific analysis and empirical proof. It may be less easy to prove matters which travel in the realms of faith and belief. And the problem with “authorised versions” is that they become of “approved version” with the result that other “truths” may become sidelined and dismissed to the point where they become heretical.

  1. Education – this is a solution that I find appealing. Media literacy and critical thinking skills can help us sort fact from fiction and interpret information. These skills can also help build resilience in the community against misinformation.

A central government campaign could reach many people but is unlikely to influence people and communities who already have lower trust in government. And should it come from the government in any event – a government which may have its own political agenda?

Education in schools is also needed to empower and equip our young people to recognise and challenge misinformation. Our education system already aims to provide children and young people with the critical thinking skills necessary to navigate a complex world.

  1. Content Moderation and Industry Responsibility – Recent research suggests that misinformation travels through the internet much more rapidly than accurate information. This is one of the realities of internet based information. In the same way that the printing press enabled the increased dissemination of information so the Internet does this in an enhanced and exponential way.

The algorithms that select and promote posts and information on many social media and digital platforms often select information that is ‘high engagement’ – that is, information that attracts more comments, shares and likes. Misinformation can often be high engagement, as it can easily be more sensational, or generate stronger emotions. These algorithms, it should be observed, are also used by mainstream media who use online platforms and accounts for the “ranking” that reports may have on a news website.

Online platforms other than those used by mainstream media who may be subject to the New Zealand Media Council  are not generally subject to the same standards around accuracy, fairness and balance that newspapers, broadcast or other news media are.

However, as I have suggested above, it is a mistake to attribute the responsibilities of mainstream media platforms to online platforms. They are paradigmatically different.

The first point is that content that is broadcast or published in mainstream media goes through an editorial process. Content that is posted on social media does not, nor should it be the duty of the provider of the platform to moderate another person’s content that has been posted.

The second point is that content moderation is a difficult process in the digital paradigm given that essentially social media platforms handle large quantities of data that are later rendered into soe recognisable of comprehensible form. Of course, algorithms can and should be used to trap dangerous content that advocates violent harm or action.

It is suggested that there should be engagement with digital platforms in a co-ordinated way along with industry codes of practice which could result in a consistent set of expectations and approaches in New Zealand.

Once again this suggests a “one truth” solution which creates difficulties is a society with a plurality of opinions.

One suggestion is for users to “call out” and report misinformation, but much depends on how this is done. The development of the “cancel culture” regrettably is intolerant of different strands of opinion and I fear that “calling out” is not the way to go. Rather engagement in rational debate and proposing an alternative would allow for the marketplace of ideas to come into play and separate the wheat from the chaff.[12]

  1. Regulation and Policy

Once again the proposal seeks to compare mainstream media with a paradigmatically different information system that is the Internet.

The statement is made as follows:

“While most misinformation is not illegal, much of it would be in breach of industry standards concerning accuracy. Such standards apply to broadcast services (under the Broadcasting Act), print media (under the standards administered by the New Zealand Media Council) and advertising (under the Advertising Standards Authority). Most of the broadcast and industry self-regulatory models were not set up to address the challenges presented by the digital age such as misinformation shared on platforms like Facebook or YouTube.”

Then it is suggested that a consistent regulatory approach across non-digital and digital misinformation alike is needed.

If I understand it correctly what is being suggested is that the regulatory approach applicable to mainstream media, which developed in an entirely different paradigm from digital media, should be applied across the board.

This ignores that fact that most if not all of the content on digital media and especially social media is user generated. In fact social media allows everyone who has an internet connection to have a voice. Whether or not any attention is paid to that voice is another matter. But within a democratic society, this opportunity has never before been available. And if one looks, for example, at an autocratic state such as the Peoples Republic of China with its severe restraints on freedom of expression and its extreme regulation of Internet content, the question must be asked – is that the road that we wish to travel?

  1. Research and evaluation -The understanding of what needs to be researched and evaluated is becoming clearer, and this should be an ongoing process. The information environment will continue to rapidly evolve – often in ways no-one can predict. As new evidence emerges, interventions will change as well.

This solution seems to suggest that the reason for research and evaluation is to determine interventions and regulatory responses. This must be something of a concern in light of the comment earlier made that misinformation is not illegal and nor should it be.


There are two major issues that arise from the paper.

There is no doubt that misinformation can be problematical. It is, however, one of the attributes of a society that values diversity of opinions and point of view and that values and celebrates a plurality of beliefs.

Eroding Freedom of Expression?

In some respects it is difficult to discern the target in the misinformation paper. Clearly it has been inspired primarily by the conflicting information that has been swirling around about aspects of the Covid crisis. But there is more including references to the 15 March 2019 terror attacks and the various issues surrounding the introduction of 5G, QAnon and the United States polarised society and conspiracy theories.

But there seems to be a deeper issue and that surrounds calls that have been made to regulate the Internet or at least impose some restraints on the activities of social media platforms. Part of the problem with social media platforms is that they allow for a proliferation of a variety of opinions or interpretations of facts which may be unacceptable to many and downright opposed to the beliefs of others.

Governments and politicians, although they are great users of social media platforms, cannot abide a contrary message to their own. In a democracy such as New Zealand it is something with which they must live although there is little hesitation at nibbling away at the edges of expressions of contrary opinions.

Characterising them as “misinformation” is a start down the road of demonisation of these points of view. At the same time, following the 15 March massacre, the Prime Minister of New Zealand instituted the “Christchurch Call” – an attempt to marshall international support for some form of Internet regulation. No laws have been passed as yet and social media organisations, seeing which way the wind is blowing, have made certain concessions. But it is, in the minds of many, still not enough.

In New Zealand a review of media regulatory structures lies behind the “misinformation” study along with the ill-considered and contradictory proposals about “hate speech”. The assault on freedom of expression or contrarianism is not a frontal one – it is subtle and gradual but it is there nonetheless. It is my opinion that the real target of the “misinformation” study is not “misinformation” but rather the expression of contrary points of view – however misguided they might be. And that is a form of censorship and it is therefore not surprising that this move should come from the Chief Censor.

A Democratic Solution

It would be to tread a dangerous path to place the determination of “good information” and “bad information” in the hands of the government or a government organisation. Only the most extreme examples of misinformation which may do demonstrable harm such as objectionable material or terrorist information should be subject to that level of moderation. To add “misinformation” as a general category without precise definition to the sort of material that is objectionable under the Films, Videos and Publications Classification Act would be a retrograde and dangerous step.

There is already a form of content moderation in place, run through the Department of Internal Affairs which makes a filter available to Internet Service Providers to block certain content.[13]

Of the proposals suggested above it will be apparent that I favour as little interference with online platforms as possible, and I do not support anything more that minimal interference with content that is not demonstrably harmful and am of the view that what people wish to see as a “truth” should be left to the individual to make his or her own judgement.

The problem with “misinformation” has been heightened by the conflicting points of view surrounding the Covid crisis – indeed the paper itself picks up on this by describing the misinformation problem as an “infodemic” – the 2020 US Presidential election and some of the conspiracy theories that have been circulating courtesy of Qanon and the like.

But it is not a problem that warrants government or regulatory interference and indeed it should be noted that the Department of Internal Affairs review of media and online content regulation focusses upon content that is harmful.

Misinformation may misinform but much of it depends upon the reader or listener’s willingness to stand apart and subject the content to critical analysis. The problem, however, is that for many people they believe what they want to believe and their truths may not be those held by their neighbours.

[1] Chris Watson and Roy Shuker In the Public Good? Censorship in New Zealand (Dunmore Press, Palmerston North, 1998) at 35.

[2] Re Baise-Moi [2005] NZAR 214 (CA).

[3] United States v One Book Called “Ulysses” 5 F Supp 182 (SD NY 1933); United States v One Book Entitled Ulysses by James Joyce (Random House Inc, Claimant) 72 F 2d 705 (2d Cir 1934).

[4] Re Into the River Film and Literature Board of Review, 14 October 2015.

[5] Moonen v Film and Literature Board of Review [2000] 2 NZLR 9 (CA) at [15].

[6] [2002] 2 NZLR 754 (CA)

[7] “Battle Against Online Harm beefs up censor’s power” Media watch 21 March 2021

[8] He also stated on another occasion “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspaper without government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter”

[9] Films Videos and Publications Classification Act 1993 section 80(1).

[10] In some respects this resembles the types of actionable digital communication under the Harmful Digital Communications Act 2015. In both the civil and criminal spheres under the act there must be harm which is defined as serious emotional distress. The report does not go into specifics about what is required to hurt or harm others.

[11] See David Harvey Collisions in the Digital Paradigm: Law and Rulemaking in the Internet Age” (Hart Publishing, Oxford 2017) esp. at Chapter 2.

[12] As at the time of writing it should be noted that a comprehensive review of media content regulation in New Zealand was announced by Minister of Internal Affairs, Hon Jan Tinetti, on 8 June 2021. The review is managed by the Department of Internal Affairs, with support from the Ministry for Culture and Heritage. The review aims to create a new modern, flexible and coherent regulatory framework to mitigate the harmful impacts of media content, regardless of how it is delivered.

The framework will still need to protect and enhance important democratic freedoms, including freedom of expression and freedom of the press.

It correctly observes “Our existing regulatory system was designed around a traditional idea of ‘analogue publication’, such as books, magazines and free-to-air TV, and does not have the flexibility to respond to many digital media types. As a result, it addresses harm in a shrinking proportion of the media content consumed by New Zealanders and provides little protection at all for digital media types which pose the greatest risk for harmful content.” See (Last accessed 9 July 2021)

[13] (Last Accessed 9 July 2021)