Misinformation is a threat and affects New Zealand, says Jacinda Ardern ahead of NATO speech

As NATO member states finalize their strategy to address security risks in their region, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has stressed the importance of fiction disguised as reality – an issue she sees as a major threat for the safety.

Ardern is in Madrid, Spain, for the NATO Leaders’ Summit, where member states will release their 10-year predictions of security threats and how they should be addressed.

NATO is above all a military alliance between North America and a selection of European countries. New Zealand is not a member but has been invited to attend and speak at the summit as one of its Pacific allies, and Ardern will address leaders on Wednesday local time.

With European leaders in town, Ardern spent Tuesday chatting with the Spanish and French presidents. The topic of online misinformation was reportedly raised at both meetings.

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She also spoke at a conference, co-hosted by IE International University and the US State Department, on the risks disinformation poses to peace and security.

Ardern said misinformation, often stemming from propaganda from foreign actors such as Russia, harms New Zealand’s social cohesion and has been proven to fuel terrorism.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern speaks with Emmanuel Macron, President of France, during a meeting at the NATO Leaders' Summit in Madrid, Spain.

Glenn McConnell / Stuff

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern speaks with Emmanuel Macron, President of France, during a meeting at the NATO Leaders’ Summit in Madrid, Spain.

She described it as a threat that could fuel anything from war and terrorism to public health risks.

The response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the riot on the grounds of Parliament in Wellington and the March 15 terror attack were all expressions of disinformation, she said.

Russian propaganda about the war in Ukraine was spreading beyond its borders, she said, showing how false information could be used to fuel the war.

After the March 15 terror attack, Ardern launched the Christchurch Call with French President Emmanuel Macron. The Christchurch Call is a commitment by governments and tech giants to eliminate the dissemination of terrorist and violent extremist content online.

Ardern said the next focus of the Christchurch call is to analyze how algorithms on social media and search platforms contribute to the radicalization of users and the spread of misinformation.

Its first objective had been to establish a crisis protocol for technology companies, when terrorist and other traumatic events were propagated or broadcast online.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern spoke about the fight against misinformation in meetings with other heads of state and at a conference in Madrid, Spain.

Tips/Glenn McConnell

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern spoke about the fight against misinformation in meetings with other heads of state and at a conference in Madrid, Spain.

Speaking at the Tech 4 Democracy conference in Madrid, Ardern quoted former German Chancellor Angela Merkel as saying, “Before, you would hear about an issue on the news and the next day you would go discuss it in a water cooler.

“Now you hear something or read something on the internet, and at the water cooler you have a debate about whether it was real or not.

“If people are fiercely of the opinion that fiction is fact or fact is fiction, it is incredibly difficult as leaders to achieve consensus in this environment.

“So I see that as a starting point for how to deal with polarization.”

Ardern referred to this year’s riot on the grounds of Parliament and the three-week occupation that led to it as one of the greatest examples of polarization in New Zealand, saying misinformation had gathered hundreds of protesters.

She said this misinformation appeared to be well organized and often part of a concerted information war.

RNZ

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“Recent research, for example, from Microsoft revealed a sudden and pronounced increase in consumption of Russian misinformation by New Zealanders, which increased by 30% compared to our Australian or American neighbors after December 2021,” says- she.

“I can’t tell you yet why this is happening. But I can tell you that it is important that this is the case.

Ardern said digital platforms need to make sure people are heard, but they should also protect people from harmful content.

The tech giants couldn’t ignore their responsibility, she said. “It’s just not enough to say ‘we are the postmen’ and not the publisher.”

After his speech at the conference, Ardern met with Macron. She said she wanted to discuss the Christchurch appeal with him and had also discussed it with Spanish President Pedro Sánchez earlier on Tuesday.

She said New Zealand was in a position, alongside France and Spain, to lead the world in downplaying the use of digital technology as a weapon of disinformation.

Ardern is due to speak at the NATO leaders’ summit on Wednesday (local time), before leaving Spain for free trade talks with EU leaders in Brussels, Belgium.

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