This is another piece about misinformation and disinformation. I have already written about these issues here and here. In this piece I discuss a paper recently released by the Disinformation Project. I consider the definitions that are used and offer a slightly more nuanced approach to the meaning of the terms “misinformation” and “disinformation”. I then go on to discuss some of the available remedies for problems arising from the dissemination of disinformation and close with a discussion of the way in which fear seems to be weaponised to achieve the goal of “social cohesion”. I close with an observation about vested interests and the campaign against disinformation.
The working paper “The murmuration of information disorders: Aotearoa New Zealand’s mis- and disinformation ecologies and the Parliament Protest” from the Disinformation Project captured media attention and is itself an interesting study.
I have previously been rather critical of the way in which the terms “misinformation” and “disinformation” have been bandied about and the authors of the working paper have defined their terms.
Misinformation is false information that was not created with the intent to harm people.
Disinformation is false information that was created with the intent to harm a person, community, or organisation.
The material that is available from the Disinformation Project website does not offer any discussion of how these definitions were settled although it is fair to say that similar definitions have appeared in other publications.
Regrettably, the definitions both suffer from a lack of nuance. The nature of the information is not clarified. The definitions do not state whether or not the information conveyed is a statement of fact or opinion. Furthermore the definitions fail to recognise that often a fact may be determined by a process of inference or conclusion based on other existing facts. It may well be that upon further analysis an inferential conclusion may be erroneous. Whether or not it should be described as false gives rise to another issue. The use of the word “false” suggests a fraudulent, dishonest or morally questionable motive. Yet an inferential conclusion may be reached honestly and in good faith.
The definition of “misinformation” goes on to suggest that the information (which may be incorrect) was created and in that sense the suggestion is that it derived from imagination rather than from a number of other pieces of evidence or sources. In my view rather than use the word “created” the word “communicated” should be used and more properly crystallises the nature of the problem.
A person may develop some information either from imagination or from other evidential sources but may do nothing with it. In that respect the information, irrespective of its correctness, is passive. Only when it is communicated and comprehended by an audience does the information become active.
The definition of misinformation also contains the element of motive. A person may analyse a number of facts and arrive at a conclusion. That conclusion may be communicated. The conclusion may be incorrect or misleading. But the communication of the information was in good faith as to the correctness of the conclusion or its veracity. In such circumstances, the motive for the communication of the information does not matter.
If one is looking for a more nuanced definition of “misinformation” that incorporates the above matters it could read “misinformation is information that is communicated and that is erroneous.”
That definition avoids the issue of motive and the use of the rather loaded word “false”.
“Disinformation” as defined creates some issues. A simple word to describe disinformation is that it is a lie. However, in the definition the word false is used which, in the context of a lie, is a correct term. I have some difficulty with the issue of intention. The intention must be to harm a person, community, or organisation.
A Matter of Harm
I wonder if harm is the correct term. In the context of the Harmful Digital Communications Act, harm is defined as “serious emotional distress” which would be a satisfactory, albeit limited, definition for a person or a community. However, it would not be applicable to an organisation.
Harm could also mean some form of adverse consequence which causes loss or damage. In this respect the communication of false information with the intention of causing loss or damage resembles a crime involving dishonesty. In this respect it could be argued that section 240(1)(d) of the Crimes Act 1961 is applicable. This reads:
“Every one is guilty of obtaining by deception or causing loss by deception who, by any deception and without claim of right….. causes loss to any other person.”
Deception is defined as follows:
- a false representation, whether oral, documentary, or by conduct, where the person making the representation intends to deceive any other person and—
- knows that it is false in a material particular; or
- is reckless as to whether it is false in a material particular; or
- an omission to disclose a material particular, with intent to deceive any person, in circumstances where there is a duty to disclose it; or
- a fraudulent device, trick, or stratagem used with intent to deceive any person.
Thus it would seem that the communication of false information would fall within the ambit of deception. It is accompanied by the necessary intention and if it causes loss/harm then the offence would be available.
However, as I understand it from the material that is available on the Disinformation Project website and the various commentaries on the “Mumuration” paper the harm that is contemplated is more inchoate and nebulous.
The paper states:
“Disinformation highlights differences and divisions that can be used to target and scapegoat, normalise prejudices, harden us-versus-them mentalities, and justify violence.
Disinformation and its focus on social division are at risk of cementing increasingly angry, anxious and antagonistic ways around how we interact with one another, eroding social cohesion and cooperation.
This has dangerous implications for our individual and collective safety”
Thus, the harm that is perceived is that of divisiveness, antagonism, prejudice and possible physical danger resulting from the use of language that is inciteful. There is concern at the erosion of social cohesion and co-operation.
This theme is picked up by David Fisher in his analysis of the paper. Fisher suggests that the trafficking of false and misleading information should be elevated to the level of national security. With respect I consider such a statement to be unnecessarily shrill and the proposal to be unwarranted. The underlying theme of Fisher’s analysis is that the dissemination of disinformation, some of which originates from overseas sources, poses a threat to established institutions and processes. He cites local body elections and the general election next year which could see a rise in disinformation.
When it comes to next year’s general election – which attracts much higher public engagement – expect to experience friction as a growing faction with a discordant perception of reality bangs into those who retain faith in the way we live.
The concerns that are voiced by the Disinformation Project and by Fisher express a fear that society is under threat from the spread of disinformation primarily from a cluster of 12 groups of Facebook or social media platforms.
These concerns carry an implicit message that “something must be done”. For some of the disinformation concerns there are already remedies. I categorise these remedies available under existing law as “communications offences”. I have discussed them in an earlier post entitled “Dangerous Speech” but I shall summarise these remedies here.
Threats of violence or of harm are covered by section 306 – 307A of the Crimes Act.
Section 307A would seem to be a possible answer to the consequences of disinformation although the language of the section is difficult.
The relevant portions of the section read as follows:
Every one is liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 7 years if, without lawful justification or reasonable excuse, and intending to achieve the effect stated in subsection (2), he or she:…..
- that purports to be about an act likely to have 1 or more of the results described in subsection (3); and
- that he or she believes to be false.
Subsection (2) which deals with the effects that are sought to be achieved reads as follows:
The effect is causing a significant disruption of 1 or more of the following things:
- the activities of the civilian population of New Zealand:
- something that is or forms part of an infrastructure facility in New Zealand:
- civil administration in New Zealand (whether administration undertaken by the Government of New Zealand or by institutions such as local authorities, District Health Boards, or boards of schools):
- commercial activity in New Zealand (whether commercial activity in general or commercial activity of a particular kind).
The results that are likely to occur are set out in subsection (3) which reads as follows:
The results are—
- creating a risk to the health of 1 or more people:
- causing major property damage:
- causing major economic loss to 1 or more persons:
- causing major damage to the national economy of New Zealand.
However, subsection (4) creates an exception and exempts certain activities from the effect of s. 307A. It reads:
“To avoid doubt, the fact that a person engages in any protest, advocacy, or dissent, or engages in any strike, lockout, or other industrial action, is not, by itself, a sufficient basis for inferring that a person has committed an offence against subsection (1).” (The emphasis is mine)
There has been one case, to my knowledge, that specifically deals with section 307A – that of Police v Joseph  DCR 482.
Other examples of communications offences may be found in the following statutes:
a) the Human Rights Act 1993;
b) the Summary Offences Act 1981;
c) the Harmful Digital Communications Act 2015;
d) the Broadcasting Act 1984; and
e) the Films, Videos, and Publications Classification Act 1993.
f) the Crimes Act 1961.
It should be conceded that not all of the offences created by these statutes deal with the problem of disinformation and I do not propose to discuss all of them and refer the reader to my earlier post on “Dangerous Speech”.
Indeed, the law has been ambivalent towards what could be called communications offences . In 2019 the crime of blasphemous libel was removed from the statute book. Sedition and offences similar to it were removed in 2008. Criminal libel was removed as long ago as 1993.
At the same time the law has recognized that it must turn its face against those who would threaten to commit offences. Thus section 306 criminalises the actions of threatening to kill or do grievous bodily harm to any person or sends or causes to be received a letter or writing threatening to kill of cause grievous bodily harm. The offence requires knowledge of the contents of the communication.
The offence prescribed in section 308 of the Crimes Act involves communication as well as active behavior. It criminalises the breaking or damaging or the threatening to break or damage any dwelling with a specific intention – to intimidate or to annoy. Annoyance is a relatively low level reaction to the behavior. A specific behavior – the discharging of firearms that alarms or intends to alarm a person in a dwelling house – again with the intention to intimidate or annoy – is provided for in section 308(2).
The Summary Offences Act contains the offence of intimidation in section 21. Intimidation may be by words or behavior. The “communication” aspect of intimidation is provided in section 21(1) which states:
Every person commits an offence who, with intent to frighten or intimidate any other person, or knowing that his or her conduct is likely to cause that other person reasonably to be frightened or intimidated,—
(a) threatens to injure that other person or any member of his or her family, or to damage any of that person’s property;
Thus, there must be a specific intention – to frighten or intimidate – together with a communicative element – the threat to injure the target or a member of his or her family, or damage property.
In some respects section 21 represents a conflation of elements of section 307 and 308 of the Crimes Act together with a lesser harm threatened – that of injury – than appears in section 306 of that Act.
However, there is an additional offence which cannot be overlooked in this discussion and it is that of offensive behavior or language provided in section 4 of the Summary Offences Act.
The language of the section is as follows:
(1) Every person is liable to a fine not exceeding $1,000 who,—
(a) in or within view of any public place, behaves in an offensive or disorderly manner; or
(b) in any public place, addresses any words to any person intending to threaten, alarm, insult, or offend that person; or
(c) in or within hearing of a public place,—
(i) uses any threatening or insulting words and is reckless whether any person is alarmed or insulted by those words; or
(ii) addresses any indecent or obscene words to any person.
(2) Every person is liable to a fine not exceeding $500 who, in or within hearing of any public place, uses any indecent or obscene words.
(3) In determining for the purposes of a prosecution under this section whether any words were indecent or obscene, the court shall have regard to all the circumstances pertaining at the material time, including whether the defendant had reasonable grounds for believing that the person to whom the words were addressed, or any person by whom they might be overheard, would not be offended.
(4) It is a defence in a prosecution under subsection (2) if the defendant proves that he had reasonable grounds for believing that his words would not be overheard.
In some respects the consequences of the speech suffered by the auditor (for the essence of the offence relies upon oral communication) resemble those provided in section 61 of the Human Rights Act.
Section 4 was considered by the Supreme Court in the case of Morse v Police  NZSC 45.
In some respects these various offences occupy points on a spectrum. Interestingly, the offence of offensive behaviour has the greatest implications for freedom of expression or expressive behaviour, in that the test incorporates a subjective one in the part of the observer. But it also carries the lightest penalty, and as a summary offence can be seen to be the least serious on the spectrum. The section could be applied in the case of oral or behavioural expression against individuals or groups based on colour, race, national or ethnic origin, religion, gender, disability or sexual orientation as long as the tests in Morse are met.
At the other end of the spectrum is section 307 dealing with threats to kill or cause grievous bodily harm which carries with it a maximum sentence of 7 years imprisonment. This section is applicable to all persons irrespective of colour, race, national or ethnic origin, religion, gender, disability or sexual orientation as are sections 307, 308, section 21 of the Summary Offences Act and section 22 of the Harmful Digital Communications Act which could all occupy intermediate points on the spectrum based on the elements of the offence and the consequences that may attend upon a conviction.
There are some common themes to sections 306, 307, 308 of the Crimes Act and section 21 of the Summary Offences Act.
First, there is the element of fear that may be caused by the behavior. Even although the issue of intimidation is not specifically an element of the offences under sections 306 and 307, there is a fear that the threat may be carried out.
Secondly there is a specific consequence prescribed – grievous bodily harm or damage to or destruction of property.
Thirdly there is the element of communication or communicative behavior that has the effect of “sending a message”.
These themes assist in the formulation of a speech-based offence that is a justifiable limitation on free speech, that recognizes that there should be some objectively measurable and identifiable harm that flows from the speech, but that does not stifle robust debate in a free and democratic society.
Democracy vs Cohesion
The concerns about the effects of disinformation other than those effects which may cause harm relate more to issues of what are described as social cohesiveness. This is a phrase that seems to have been gaining in traction since the Royal Commission Report on the March 15 Christchurch tragedy. It is emphasised in both the “Mumuration” paper and in Fisher’s analysis. The problem with social cohesiveness is that, taken to its ultimate result, we have a society based on silent conformity without any room for dissent, opposition or contrary or contentious opinions.
These elements are essential to a functioning democracy which is cacophonous by nature and which often involves strongly held and differing opinions. Much of the debate surrounding differing opinions can get quite heated and result in what the Disinformation Project claims are angry, anxious and antagonistic arguments. These have been with us for centuries. One need only look at the arguments that have taken place withing the Christian faith over the centuries to understand the passion with which people often approach matters of belief. And, indeed, conflicting opinions within that context would, at the very least be termed “misinformation” or, at worst “disinformation”.
Although the printing press was responsible for the wide dissemination of the contentious arguments surrounding the Reformation and, later in England, the constitutional debates that led to the English Civil War, the dissemination of information afforded by social media platforms is exponentially greater. It is perhaps the delivery of the message, rather than the message itself, that seems to be the root of the problem.
Coupled with this is the fact that the perceived disinformation problem is accompanied by a sense of threat to established institutions which in turn generates a sense of fear and foreboding if the problem is allowed to continue or at least to go unrecognised.
Fear seems to be a widely distributed currency these days. Perhaps older generations have had more experience of the reality of fear having lived through events like various outbreaks of war – Korean, Viet-Nam, Gulf 1 and 2, Afghanistan as a few examples – along with the continuing threat of nuclear conflict which seemed to dissipate in the 1990’s but has now once again loomed and the spectre of terrorism which preceded 9/11 – which was its most egregious example – and which has also been exemplified not only by jihadis but by extremists such as Timothy McVeigh, Anders Breivik and Brenton Tarrant.
But fear is used to market other products. The response to the Covid Pandemic in New Zealand was underpinned by fear, with concerns about potentially high numbers of deaths from the disease if strong measures were not taken. That fear of death and of the consequences of the pandemic underpinned most of the steps taken by the Government and was probably responsible for the complacent response by the populace at least in the first year or 18 months of the pandemic.
Fear can be a strong motivator and often drives extreme responses. Senator Joseph McCarthy played on the fear of a Communist conspiracy in post-World War II USA the reverberations of which were still present in the early 1960’s. The end of the Cold War meant that the fear of the Communist threat was ephemeral but it was shortly replaced by fear of terrorism in the US.
What concerns me is that the fears that are being expressed around misinformation and disinformation suggest that the phenomenon is a new one. It isn’t but has been exacerbated by the exponential dissemination quality of online platforms.
It is also suggested that there are no remedies to deal with particularly disinformation.
There are and in certain cases the provisions of s. 307A of the Crimes Act 1961 could be deployed along with other remedies discussed if they fit the circumstances.
There are some remedies along with critical analysis of posts that may contain disinformation. To engender a climate of fear is unhelpful, especially when there are existing tools to deal with the issues.
The problem can be summed up by the remark by Franklin D. Roosevelt at his 1933 inauguration – “the only thing we have to fear is…fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”
Misinformation occupies a different space and in my view poses no threat. The views expressed may be contentious or contrarian perspectives. Often the information contained in these views will be opinions based on certain facts which may or may not be valid. Statements of opinion appear regularly in mainstream media and are labelled as such. Often they are the subject of debate and discussion in online comments sections or in letters to the editor. This is part and parcel of life in a liberal democracy that places a high value upon the right to impart and receive information – no matter how wrongheaded it might be.
In fact the way to deal with misinformation was referred to in the NZ Herald for 18 May 2020 entitled “’Tectonic shift’: How Parliament protest supercharged NZ’s misinfodemic” which contained commentary on the “Mumuration” paper. The Prime Minister’s Chief Science adviser Dame Juliette Gerrard is quotes as saying:
“New Zealand needs to play its part in the global effort to foster social cohesion and to empower our children to learn skills which make the next generation strong critical thinkers who are as resilient as possible to an increasingly polluted online environment.”
Whilst I would take issue with the “social cohesion” comment I strongly endorse the suggestion that we need to engage in critical analysis and evaluation of the information that we receive. This is something that needs to be done not only by our children but by ourselves.
Social cohesion is a vague and ephemeral concept for defining acceptable behaviour in society. As I have said in an earlier post:
Without the Rule of Law what is being proposed is some form of “understood” code of behaviour based on the concept of a resilient society that has its foundation in social cohesiveness. I would have thought that a clearly communicated and understood Rule system would establish the metes and bounds of acceptable behaviour.
In my view although a peaceable society is an objective that is the goal of the Rule of Law which allows for a variety of behaviours but provides consequences for unacceptable behaviours – either by civil remedies or criminal sanctions. It is far better to have a clearly defined approach rather than a vague and ephemeral one.
Conclusion – Vested Interests.
Finally it is of interest to observe how vexed the mainstream news media get with the issue of mis/disinformation. Because the warnings emanating from the Disinformation Project, the Chief Censor’s Office and the University of Auckland Centre for Informed Futures, the news media are quick to fan the flames of fear and perhaps overdramatise the significance of the message. But perhaps there is an unstated interest that the news media might have in campaigning against mis/disinformation. In the past they have been the organs of reliable information and their editing and checking systems ensure this.
The Disinformation Project study indicates that on 10 February 2022 misinformation (as they define it) overtook NZ Media for the first time. Perhaps mainstream media has some territory to protect in the contest for the information audience and in fact what they are doing is campaigning strongly against the purveyors of mis/disinformation not to alert the public or perform some altruistic public interest goal but to do whatever they can to protect their own turf, their position as the purveyors of “truth” (despite significant column inches dedicated to “opinion”) and, not least, their advertising revenues and income streams.
 It is important to note that the Disinformation Project referred to is based at Victoria University, Wellington and is separate and distinct from the Disinformation Project – a American organization based in Fairfax, Virginia. The website of the NZ organization is https://thedisinfoproject.org. That of the American group is https://thedisinformationproject.org