Online expert sounds warning on Covid conspiracy theories

Nat Torkington

A former government technical advisor is warning social media users of the potential harm of conspiracy theories which are proliferating in the wake of Covid-19.

Nat Torkington was among Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s hand-picked team, who gave technical advice to the Government on the terrorist use of social media, following the Christchurch mosque shootings.

Now he is warning that conspiracy-based content related to Covid-19 could cause people to ditch health guidelines such as wearing masks, washing hands or observing lockdowns. He is urging people to be more critical of what they read online.

His sentiments are echoed by Dr M Dentith, a conspiracy researcher at the University of Waikato. Dr Dentith is involved with the Disinformation Project at the cross-university research centre, Te Punaha Matatini.

Both say that conspiracy theories doing the rounds on social media are not new but are now coalescing around Covid-19.

One such conspiracy theory is that 5G telecommunication signals are causing Covid-19, while another links it to 1080 pest control. A strangely popular theory is that governments are using Covid-19 as a method to allow tech billionaire Bill Gates to inject microchips into their people through vaccines.

Others believe that the World Health Organisation is using Covid-19 to enact control around the world to establish a new global order.

Dr Dentith says what is most surprising is that the theories, commonly referred to as ‘plandemic’ have entered the political discourse through the likes of Billy Te Kahika and the Advance NZ party.

Last month, the party hit international headlines after it posted a video carefully edited to make it appear as if the Government was planning forced vaccination of all New Zealand citizens. The video was viewed more than 146,000 times.

Protests against lockdown in Whangarei and Auckland in recent weeks have featured picket signs with conspiracy-related content.

Mr Torkington says a reader’s own bias will typically make them sympathetic towards conspiracy theories.

“If you have reason to be frustrated by the lockdown or government, then an article suggesting Covid-19 is a plandemic designed to usher in a new world order might start as an interesting read,” he says.

“But if you begin to research the keywords or topics found in conspiracy content, it can send you down a rabbit hole and have you hooked.”

Mr Torkington says social media users who receive sensationalist content regarding Covid-19 need to verify the source of information. He says a good rule of thumb is to match the emotional outrage or excitement that a claim elicits with proportionally the same amount of effort into fact checking it.

“The most powerful thing we can do is break the chain by checking the facts and not sharing. I am personally getting better at not just reacting and sharing, but I understand it is a journey.

“Conspiracy content is like a mental virus, and it is best to avoid being contaminated.”

His advice is to check claims against what a favoured news source is reporting.

“New Zealand news organisations have financial and legal repercussions if they print inaccurate things. Facebook posters and fake news bloggers do not.”

Both experts acknowledge that it is legitimate to criticise the Government online and genuine conspiracies have been known to happen, but it’s important to work from verifiable sources of information.

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