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Source: Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

In the lead-up to the general election on 14 October, ACT is pipping other parliamentary parties for the number of Facebook posts. However, some of its posts contain “half-truths”, said Dr Mona Krewel, director of the Internet, Social Media and Politics Research Lab (ISPRL) at Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington.

Dr Krewel and her research team analysed 681 Facebook posts by political parties and their leaders that were made in the week from 11 to 17 September 2023. The research follows a similar study ahead of the 2020 election.

“This year, we see fewer posts from parliamentary parties than we saw in the corresponding period leading up the 2020 election. The exception is ACT, which is relying heavily on social media and is very active on Facebook at this point in the campaign. It’s posted nearly three times as much as it did in the first week of the 2020 campaign,” Dr Krewel says.

Researchers spotted several “half-truths” in posts by both ACT and its leader David Seymour.

“Very often a Facebook post is not entirely false and not completely made up. Most of the information presented is accurate apart from one small detail. That’s why we classify those posts as half-truths instead of fake news. In the case of David Seymour, four of his posts contained such half-truths and three posts by the ACT Party contained them,” she said.

Researchers also identified one Facebook post from National Party leader Christopher Luxon that contained a half-truth and two posts from the National Party that did so.

However, the number of half-truths in posts by parliamentary parties was still relatively low when compared with those made by parties outside parliament, Dr Krewel said.

“The NZ Outdoors & Freedom Party had the highest number of posts containing half-truths —14 of its 92 posts were flagged for this reason. The party also stood out for the amount of fake news in its posts. Ten of its Facebook posts contained fake news.”

Fake news was also identified in posts by the Freedoms New Zealand and Vision New Zealand parties.

Audiences targeted by these fake news posts included anti-vaxxers and former “freedom convoy” protesters, she said.

“When the posts explicitly targeted certain groups and tried to appeal to them, the preferred audience was made up of anti-vaxxers, the former ‘freedom convoy’ protesters, and extremely conservative voters.

“The anti-mandate protests at parliament last year were the peak for this movement and it makes sense that it tries to appeal to these crowds again to get them to turn out. However, polls show they have had limited success.”

Dr Krewel said the study’s results so far show disinformation is limited to a small group of extreme fringe parties in Aotearoa. None of the parliamentary parties’ posts contained fake news.

“What we see overall makes me slightly optimistic about the quality of this election campaign. The amount of mis- and disinformation is not high and seems limited to a group of minor parties and their leaders who neither have much outreach nor success in the polls. But we will be monitoring closely how things develop from here.”

The New Zealand Social Media Study will continue to monitor Facebook posts until election day on 14 October. Full results from the first week of monitoring are available here.