Pandemic, New Zealand-Style

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Image: Penu Kiratzov

By Konstantina Vasileva

Konstantina Vasileva is a Bulgarian media analyst with experience in local and foreign companies and research projects. Currently, she’s a PhD candidate in New Zealand and is witnessing first-hand how the country has been tackling the coronavirus pandemic.

Against the backdrop of alarming data showing the growing number of people infected with SARS-CoV-2 recently, New Zealand registered a different type of record: number of days without new cases. After over 100 days without community transmission (apart from isolated cases related to international travel) at the beginning of August, the country reported the lowest Covid-19 death rate in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, OECD. Even though new cases have emerged in the past few weeks, New Zealand has turned into an international role model for dealing with the disease and the Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern – into one of the world’s most popular leaders.

So what is behind this success story? To what extent does trust in media and local institutions contribute to the public consensus on applying pandemic measures? How do New Zealanders view the wave of pandemic-related misinformation and conspiracy theories, which managed to subvert expert opinion and scientific information in other parts of the world?

A combination of factors

The country’s geographic features are of key importance to its successful tackling of the situation. New Zealand is a remote island nation in the Pacific Ocean. In normal circumstances, this location hampers travel to other parts of the world, but during a pandemic, it turns out to be a great advantage. Unlike Europe, where geographic proximity and land borders between states turned into a challenge to properly contain the spread of the virus, New Zealand had a strategic upper hand.

First of all, the country’s remote location provided a time buffer which allowed New Zealand to take note of the broad range of reactions in other countries and use these lessons to craft its own response strategy at the beginning of March. By the second half of the month when there was a surge in new cases, the government had already outlined a list of economic measures and an action plan with a 4-level security protocol for pandemic response (1 being the lowest and 4 denoting the highest level of restrictions for movement and interpersonal contact).

The low population density (just 15 people per km²) made social distancing a more manageable task compared to other countries. The lack of land borders with other countries, combined with a water barrier restricting the crossing between the Northern and the Southern Island, also proved to be natural assets when it comes to pandemic containment. These factors allowed New Zealand to assert precise control over the spread of the disease by applying restrictions which would be physically impossible to implement in most countries around the world.

Early media coverage also played an essential role in shaping public opinion. Using social listening software to look at online coverage shows that until mid-February, the daily mentions of the virus in New Zealand’s traditional and social media outlets hovered below 500 mentions per day. By the beginning of March, the number grew to several thousand mentions per day. The government responded with a coordinated information campaign. With its distinctive yellow branding and simple message (Unite against COVID), the campaign synthesised reliable information about the pandemic and urged citizens to take care of themselves and each other. This positive spin on communicating the pandemic rules got syndicated across TV and online video platforms; information briefs took up ad space online and in newspapers; on billboards, posters and even traffic message boards on the road; as well as targeted messages in the local online platform Neighbourly, which connects people living in the same neighbourhood in bigger cities.

In addition to government efforts, local organisations, private companies, and educational institutions provided regular updates to citizens, employees, and students. In a time of anxiety and uncertainty, this proactive approach aimed to give people a sense of security by keeping them up to date with upcoming security protocols, action plans for the different alert levels, details about financial compensations, and the rules for remote access to work, study, and organisational resources.

Along with communication on macro (national) and micro (local organisations) levels, informing the public was aided by a government strategy to cooperate with the scientific community. Prime Minister Ardern and Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield made a point of including science advisors in the strategic decision-making. Reiterating the existing culture of science communication in the country, they treated members of the scientific community as key mediators, whose role is to “translate” complex scientific findings into a comprehensive message for non-specialists and the general public. A joint project for The Spinoff by microbiologist Siouxsie Wiles and illustrator Toby Morris epitomises this approach in a series of articles, comic-style illustrations, and infographics. The most famous one (#Flattenthecurve) made their work viral across the world, earning their efforts international recognition.

In addition to these efforts, educators and scientists wrote up safety protocols for staff and students, communicating the need for social distancing even before there were official administrative guidelines on how to deal with the virus.

Trust in institutions, fellow citizens, and media

There are two additional defining features of New Zealand society which bind all of these factors together: a high level of security and public trust. The resulting combination is crucial because implementing pandemic measures requires more than a set of restrictions, fines, and top-down rules. Long-term compliance requires a combination of broad public consensus, trust in institutions, and shared values.

New Zealand seems to tick all of these boxes successfully. According to the latest rankings for 2019 and 2020, New Zealand is among the 15 most developed countries in the UNDP Index of Human Development; in the global top 10 in the Press Freedom Index by Reporters Without Borders; it is also the 2nd least corrupt country in the world, according to the Corruption Perceptions Index by Transparency International; and the global leader in The Human Freedom Index by Fraser Institute.

Like any other country, New Zealand has its local issues and political divisions. What is truly important is not that a country ranks first, ninth, or fifteenth in a global index, but that all these rankings reflect a consistent confluence of democratic hallmarks: working institutions, the rule of law, and media freedom.

According to a  University of Wellington research on public trust from 2016 to 2019, the groups most trusted by New Zealanders are medical practitioners, judges, police authorities, schools, universities, and small businesses: all categories ranked above three on a scale from 1 (lowest trust) to 5. Public trust in ministers and MPs is lower (likely affected by mistrust among the Maori community), similar to trust in the media, but it is still close to 2.5 on average.

These numbers reflect the overall trust of New Zealanders and vary across time, demographic groups, and policies. When it comes to COVID-19, even in the aftermath of a nation-wide lockdown and after recent protests against wearing masks in public, the population seems to have a positive attitude and trust government measures. According to a study by Horizon Research in August, 28 percent of the respondents had “complete trust” in the ability of the government to handle the pandemic, 32 percent responded they “mostly trust” and 19 percent — that they “somewhat trust” the state. Only 7 percent of the respondents said they “totally distrust” the government.

International media rightfully pointed out that New Zealand’s success in containing the pandemic has been positively influenced by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s leadership style, based on a unique combination of clear political vision and disarming empathy. However, the roots of this success story go deeper than her personal qualities as a leader, they also involve the existing social cohesion among New Zealanders, based on a sense of community, support, and overall trust in medical experts, scientists, and institutions. When Ardern announced the lockdown in a televised speech to the nation, it was not merely a rhetorical device when she said: “We will get through this together, but only if we stick together. Be strong and be kind”. It was a message of hope, unity, and civic responsibility.

A “team of 5 million” against the global attack of conspiracy theories

As Ardern put it: New Zealand faced the pandemic as “a team of five million”. But was this team able to fend off the effects of the global infodemic?

Public perceptions of any topic of national importance are now heavily mediated by social media interactions. Social media provides access to an unprecedented volume of information but lacks the fact verification mechanisms established by traditional media outlets. This environment is the perfect breeding ground for the spread of unchecked, misleading, or downright fake news, and research shows it attracts audiences who are more likely to believe in conspiracy theories. Those who believe conspiracy theories are more likely to get their information primarily from social media, shows a study by King’s College London and the marketing research giant Ipsos Mori from May this year. For example, 60 percent of the respondents who believed there was a link between the COVID-19 symptoms and 5G also reported getting most of their information about the virus from YouTube. A massive survey by the YouGov-Cambridge Globalism Project in 23 countries also found a tendency among people with strongly populist attitudes to believe conspiracy theories and to use social media like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and WhatsApp to get their news.

How does New Zealand fit in these global trends? A survey of over 71,000 respondents, done by the local media outlet Stuff and Massey University, shows that 88.4 percent of the population uses mainstream/traditional media (TV, radio, newspapers) as a primary source of news, only 10 percent get their information primarily from social media, and 1.6 percent via word of mouth. Why is this important? In line with the hypothesis that the news source people prefer affects their susceptibility to conspiracy theories, 87.8 percent of the New Zealanders who get their information from mainstream media believe the virus has a natural source, compared to 73.7 percent of those who use primarily social media. What is more, 20 percent of those who use social media and 30 percent of those who rely on word of mouth think the virus was purposefully created as a biological weapon, and 13.5 percent of the word-of-mouth group also believe the pandemic is an “invention of shadowy forces that want to control us”.

New Zealand strikes back

Even though many New Zealanders are sceptical of conspiracy theories, the main conspiracy narratives in local media mimic the global trends: calls to burn 5G towers, a mistrust of Bill Gates’ intentions, and claims that the virus was created in a lab with malicious intent. The crusade against this wave of misinformation is a joint battle by both the media and the audience.

Research done using software for tracking media content shows that the online coverage in New Zealand echoed the global interest in these three major conspiracy narratives. It is encouraging that over time there is no rise in the online mentions of these topics (at least in public conversations, it is not possible to estimate the scope of these topics in private profiles and closed online groups). There is also a counterwave with growing volumes of media content actively trying to debunk myths and expose conspiracy theories.

Jacinda Ardern is spearheading government efforts against misinformation and local media are always quick to cover official press conferences in which the prime minister criticises conspiracy theories and calls for New Zealanders who do not trust politicians to at least listen to “doctors and scientists…the source of advice that we lean on”. The most prominent media outlets in the country support this position and are proactive in publishing information about the infodemic and the way it is affected by interactions in online platforms and information sharing.

A popular explanation for the propensity to believe conspiracy theories is that they stem from lacking a sense of control over a situation. No matter how ludicrous it is, if a conspiracy theory helps with explaining a complex issue and the uncertainty which surrounds it, this provides people with an artificial sense of psychological comfort and confidence. Even if they are far from reality, myths and conspiracy theories trick us into a safe space devoid of anxiety and uncertainty. We “know” precisely what is going on and how things are connected (even if they are not) so we can regain control.

For a long time, the conversation surrounding conspiracy theories remained on the fringe of public attention and within small bubbles. Unfortunately, the combination of new cases of community transmission, anti-mask propaganda, and upcoming elections in the country have provided an incentive to revive this conversation, especially among bad actors who seek to influence public opinion, opportunistic politicians, and gullible influencers in New Zealand and Australia. So far, these attempts are being met with an overall public reluctance to buy into the conspirative rhetoric. Online comments, tweets, and conversations in Facebook groups capturing the views of citizens in the capital of Wellington actively oppose anti-mask and 5G narratives with hundreds of comments in support of the health measures recommended by the government.

The backlash against conspiracy theories is a joint effort by citizens, politicians from across the political spectrum, writers, scientists, and celebrities. Media outlets like RNZ & Newshub also publish guidelines on how to talk with relatives and friends caught up in conspiracy theories which does not offend them and prevents them from spreading misinformation. There is a strong emphasis on the Maori population because, due to colonial history, they are more likely to mistrust authorities and information released by the government. According to the latest data of Statistics NZ from June 2020, the Maori population is the demographic group with the lowest rate of trust in traditional media. Recent research by Te Pūnaha Matatini also indicates their mistrust in authorities makes them more likely to believe and share conspiracy theories.

So far, the local audience has mostly steered clear of conspirative narratives, but as time goes by new waves of misinformation attempts are flooding the media. As long as trust in health experts and the government manages to frame pandemic measures as a common goal for “a team of 5 million” rather than a set of restrictions, it seems we can keep the infodemic at bay. In the long term, in New Zealand and countries across the globe, there is a growing need for a broad public debate on the trustworthiness of media sources, the methods we can use to verify data, and the way we can mitigate the threat of spreading conspiracy theories and misleading content.