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The Disinformation Project

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The Disinformation Project
ProductsPublicly available research, disinformation resources
CountryNew Zealand
Key peopleKate Hannah (Director)
Sanjana Hattotuwa (Research Director)
Nicole Skews-Poole (Director of Communications)
EstablishedFebruary 2020

The Disinformation Project is a research group studying the effects of disinformation in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic in New Zealand.


The Disinformation Project is an independent, interdisciplinary and non-governmental New Zealand research team that has been collecting and analysing data on the causes and impact of mis- and disinformation within the country's society from the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 through to, and beyond, the 2022 Wellington protest when the grounds of Parliament House and surrounding streets were occupied by anti-vaccine and anti-mandate groups.[1] It is led by social historian Kate Hannah.[2][3]

The project claims its research identifies how the digital world, shaped by social media platforms globally, has the potential to make elements of a society more vulnerable to disinformation and social exclusion.[1] Hannah has acknowledged the importance of showing empathy toward people who are "hoodwinked into extremist beliefs."[2][3]

Methodology and positions[edit]

The Disinformation Project's research makes use of mixed methods combining open and quantitative data from social media platforms, social and mainstream media and other forms of information-sharing, looking for patterns and meaning in super-spreader events and qualitative research and discourse analysis to identify shifts over time.[4]

Key to the project's approach is to research and assess how scientific uncertainty, due to the presentation and distribution of unreliable information within the context of an infodemic, can manifest as narratives that link to conspiracy theories.[5] The project holds that while some people might have genuine reasons to be wary of the state and mainstream media, they can be influenced by those holding conspiracy theories or extremist beliefs in social media spaces that appear to offer support, but are often driven by groups with different agendas.[2] The position is therefore taken that "those most marginalised by or disaffected within contemporary society, are more likely to have lived experiences that might make them more susceptible to unreliable sources and untrustworthy stories."[5]

Exploring what Hannah has described as a "shared information landscape",[6] underpins the research of the project into how New Zealand society understands and manages the infodemic that has come to the fore as a result of COVID-19. The project's work emphasizes the impact of colonisation on the health and wellbeing of individuals and communities, increasing their vulnerability to mis- and disinformation.[7]

The researchers take the position that the lack of a shared narrative can shape how a country understands and builds its "historical memory", with the storming of the Capitol in the United States in January 2021 as an example of how contemporary myths such as conspiracy theories can cause different groups to interpret events in different ways.[6] As events such as these begin to influence the international information landscape, the researchers contend that their work is to support New Zealand to develop values that are "democratic, inclusive, and progressive" to consolidate social cohesion built on trust and cooperation. The potential of the Treaty of Waitangi to enable a partnership is cited as a "necessary starting point for any discussion or development of a strategy which seeks to address and make redress for the impacts of online harm, hateful and violent extremism, and disinformation for New Zealand...[and]...it is from a position of the partnership that Te Tiriti provides that Aotearoa can make a global contribution to these pressing and immediate issues."[6]

Hannah warns against increasing censorship as a way to manage disinformation, expressing the importance of people being "self-regulating...[talking to each other]...at an interpersonal community-based level."[8]

In September 2023, political activist Julian Batchelor indicated he filed a defamation suit against Research Director Sanjana Hattotuwa, for asserting that Batchelor was inciting racism against Māori people in an interview with TVNZ.[9][10]

Distrust in authority and disinformation[edit]

During the first six months of the project, researchers observed disinformation fueled a growing distrust in government and health officials in New Zealand.[5] Disconnected from their local communities, some people relied more often on online spaces where they might feel informed and respected, but were also more exposed to disinformation and extremist views.[2]

Starting in August 2020, the group took a wider approach of studying mis- and disinformation ecosystems in New Zealand, focusing on "dangerous speech, hateful expression, and criminal behaviour" and how these aligned with "global trends, themes, narratives, and actors who influence online harms in Aotearoa."[11]: p.1  They observed a shift from vaccine hesitancy to vaccine resistance, as well as the normalisation of online and offline harassment.[12]: p.139 

Reports published by the project in 2021 and 2022 observe an acceleration of the trend toward normalization of hate the criminal behaviour on a variety of social media platforms[11][13], especially against minority groups, notably Māori, other ethnic minorities, women and gender minorities, LGBTQ+ people, and those with disabilities.[14] Common far-right disinformation about COVID-19 and public health was becoming more popular, opening the way for to influence public opinion on issues such as gun control, Māori sovereignty land rights, free speech, abortion, euthanasia and cannabis law reform.[13][11]: p.1  Hannah suggested that "minimization of Covid-19 has been like a Trojan horse...it has become a really significant recruitment tool and then has created an ability to coalesce around a set of ideas that are against the state."[15]

Occupation of the New Zealand parliament grounds 2022[edit]

Occupation, 13 February 2022

After the initial occupation in February 2022, the Disinformation Project monitored social media and identified a small group of people responsible for the spreading of the majority of false information during and after the event.[16] The researchers claimed that during the occupation a great number of New Zealanders were exposed through social media to a "splintered reality...[and pushed toward]...racist and violent ideologies." After a clash between police and protestors on 2 March, the data showed a strong increase of engagement with disinformation content, with 73 percent of Facebook interactions over misinformation and disinformation originating with twelve accounts.[17]

Hannah concluded that for a large number of New Zealanders, their vision of key events was constructed from disinformation, including "extreme misogyny and racism, (...) anti-Māori, Islamophobic and antisemitic sentiment". [18][17] In May 2022, the project's Kayli Taylor expressed concerns, based on data, that "the Parliament Protest [had] entrenched violent expression...toxic masculinities, and other hallmarks of dangerous speech as the norm within anti-mandate and anti-vaccine social media ecologies", effectively undermining "civic life, political culture, and inclusion – pillars of social cohesion."[14] Journalist Toby Manhire in a comprehensive coverage of the project's research, insisted super-spreaders of misinformation and conspiracy theory outstripped mainstream outlets in reaching online audiences.[19]

The Project's work showed propagation of foreign propaganda using anti-vaccine activist networks. As Russian-linked propaganda and disinformation was being reported at the occupation site,[17], Disinformation Project Research Fellow Sanjana Hattotuwa,[20] used monitoring of more than 100 Telegram channels and dozens of Facebook, YouTube, Instagram and Twitter accounts" to show that the Russian invasion of Ukraine was one of the two dominant topics in New Zealand anti-vaccination forums and the discussion was pro-Putin.[21][21] Anti-government rhetoric from protest leaders was also strongly present.[22]

A two-day event where project researchers and independent academics were scheduled to present information sessions on political disinformation in November 2022 was initially canceled when protestors were seen organizing online to disrupt it. Hannah had already received death threats and believed she, with other experts, was on a list of people to be executed for supporting public health measures.[23][24]

Threat to local democracy[edit]

In August 2022, Disinformation Project researcher Sanjana Hattotuwa said peddlers of disinformation were organizing to hide their affiliations and stand for councils and school Boards of Trustees.[25] The number of candidates running for public office, discouraged by the racism and other forms of harassment experienced by elected council members, appeared to present an opportunity for fringe candidates who could hide their affiliations.[26][27][22] Hattotuwa worried that "new foundations" for disinformation had now been laid in New Zealand and would change how the country engaged with elections in the future.[17]

While only two candidates with connections to conspiracy theories or misinformation were elected in the Southern region of the country, Hattotuwa warned that this new possible threat should not be underestimated.[28]


  1. ^ a b Corlett, Eva (2 March 2022). "Fires and clashes break out at New Zealand parliament as police move in to clear protest". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved 25 October 2023.
  2. ^ a b c d Bohny, Skara (18 June 2022). "Battle on fringes as alternative media operator calls out far right influences". Nelson Mail. Stuff. Archived from the original on 18 August 2022. Retrieved 19 November 2022.
  3. ^ a b "Our people". The Disinformation Project. 14 June 2023. Retrieved 25 October 2023.
  4. ^ "The Disinformation Project". New Zealand International Science Festival. July 2022. Archived from the original (Notes for a presentation: Hutton Theatre, Otago Museum 14 July 2022) on 29 August 2022. Retrieved 17 November 2022.
  5. ^ a b c Hannah, Kate (7 September 2020). "Counting and Countering the infodemic: a deep dive into Covid-19 disinformation". The Spinoff. Archived from the original on 27 January 2022. Retrieved 20 November 2022.
  6. ^ a b c Hannah, Kate (14 July 2022). Eroded information ecologies: Social cohesion, trust, and the impact of misinformation (Speech delivered at New Zealand International Science Festival NanoFest 2022). Archived from the original on 19 July 2022. Retrieved 20 November 2022.
  7. ^ "Speaker's Science Forum – Trust, misinformation and social in(ex)clusion" (Abbreviated versions of speeches). Royal Society Te Apārangi. July 2022. Archived from the original on 13 June 2022. Retrieved 17 November 2022.
  8. ^ Jackson, Oscar (1 November 2022). "Government censorship 'completely inappropriate' in face of mis/disinformation". todayfm. Archived from the original (Kate Hannah with Tova O'Brien) on 31 October 2022. Retrieved 17 November 2022.
  9. ^ Mitchell, Charlie (9 September 2023). "Anti co-governance activist's legal threats against TVNZ". Stuff. Archived from the original on 2 October 2023. Retrieved 13 November 2023.
  10. ^ "Julian Batchelor on his legal action against the Disinformation Project". The Platform. Retrieved 13 November 2023.
  11. ^ a b c Hannah, Kate; Hattotuwa, Sanjana; Taylor, Kayli (November 2021). "Working Paper: Mis-and disinformation in Aotearoa New Zealand from 17 August to 5 November 2021" (PDF). Archived (PDF) from the original on 7 May 2022. Retrieved 17 November 2022 – via The Disinformation Project.
  12. ^ Hannah, Kate; Hattotuwa, Sanjana; Taylor, Kayli (2022). "The murmuration of information disorders Aotearoa New Zealand' mis- and disinformation ecologies and the Parliament Protest". Pacific Journalism Review. 28 (1 & 2): 138–161. doi:10.24135/pjr.v28i1and2.1266. S2CID 251166447. Archived from the original on 20 November 2022. Retrieved 21 November 2022 – via ojs.aut.ac.nz.
  13. ^ a b Broughton, Cate (9 November 2021). "Covid-19: Disinformation in Aotearoa has escalated since Delta outbreak". Stuff. Archived from the original on 16 October 2022. Retrieved 20 November 2022.
  14. ^ a b Taylor, Kayli (18 June 2022). "Hate speech in Aotearoa New Zealand: Reflecting and resisting" (Research paper). thedisinformationproject.org. Archived from the original on 20 November 2022. Retrieved 22 November 2022.
  15. ^ Frost, Natasha (22 August 2022). "The Long Tail of Covid-19 Disinformation". The New York Times. Archived from the original on 27 August 2022.
  16. ^ Hendry-Tennent, Ireland; Speedy, Juliet (18 May 2022). "NZ's 'disinformation dozen' drove three-quarters of fake news chatter on final day of Parliament protest". Newshub. Archived from the original on 17 May 2022. Retrieved 17 November 2022.
  17. ^ a b c d "'Tectonic shift': How the Parliament protest supercharged NZ's misinfodemic". Otago Daily Times. 18 May 2022. Archived from the original on 17 May 2022. Retrieved 24 November 2022.
  18. ^ Ryan, Kathryn (18 May 2022). "NZ's 'disinformation dozen'" (Nine To Noon programme). RNZ. Archived from the original on 17 May 2022. Retrieved 23 November 2022.
  19. ^ Manhire, Toby (18 May 2022). "Parliament occupation sparked 'tectonic shift' in NZ disinformation landscape". The Spinoff. Archived from the original on 17 May 2022. Retrieved 24 November 2022.
  20. ^ "About us". The Disinformation Project. 13 April 2022. Archived from the original on 10 May 2022. Retrieved 18 November 2022.
  21. ^ a b Daalder, Marc (12 March 2022). "NZ anti-vaxxers fall for 'tsunami' of Russian disinformation". Newsroom NZ. Archived from the original on 8 March 2022. Retrieved 25 November 2022.
  22. ^ a b Venuto, Damien (23 August 2022). "The Front Page: Parliament protest – Dangerous conspiracy theories motivating protesters". NZ Herald. NZME. Archived from the original on 22 August 2022. Retrieved 17 November 2022.
  23. ^ Nealon, Sarah (20 October 2022). "Local documentary Web of Chaos looks at the internet's dark side". Stuff. Archived from the original on 30 October 2022. Retrieved 26 November 2022.
  24. ^ Daalder, Marc (6 November 2022). "Disinformation seminar cancelled amid threats, harassment". Newsroom NZ. Archived from the original on 18 November 2022. Retrieved 25 November 2022.
  25. ^ "Lack of council nominees opens way for disinformation: Researcher". 1 News. 12 August 2022. Archived from the original on 19 July 2022. Retrieved 20 November 2022.
  26. ^ "Not enough candidates contesting local government roles". 1 News. 9 August 2022. Archived from the original on 19 November 2022. Retrieved 20 November 2022.
  27. ^ "Elected Member Experiences Survey: Bad behaviour threatens progress, must be called out". Ko Tātou NGNZ. 18 July 2022. Archived from the original on 19 July 2022. Retrieved 20 November 2022.
  28. ^ Hudson, Daisy (9 October 2022). "'Disinformation' candidates elected in South". Otago Daily Times. Archived from the original on 20 October 2022. Retrieved 20 November 2022 – via NZ On Air.

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