Young people are criticised for not engaging in politics but experts say adults today are less likely to be able to tell fact from fake news. Katie Kenny and Tommy Livingston report on the risks of a post-truth political landscape.

The most exciting card Azaria Howell received for her birthday last year was from the Electoral Commission, inviting her to enrol to vote.

The 17-year-old Cashmere High School student and Youth Member of Parliament is looking forward to having her say in the 2020 general election. However, she thinks 16- and 17-year-olds should have the same opportunity.

"I'm really looking forward to voting but think the age should be lowered."

Those against lowering the voting age cite teenagers' lack of maturity and critical thinking skills, and the country's already low rates of youth voter turnout. But others point out that an older voter isn't necessarily equipped to navigate the political battles being fought on social media in a post-truth landscape.

Issues relating to mis- and disinformation, foreign interference, and fake news are challenging democracies throughout the world. Overseas, political operatives are no longer people, but bots. Disinformation campaigns contributed to the rise of President Donald Trump in the United States and to Brexit in the United Kingdom. Studies have shown false news on Twitter spreads farther and faster than truth. As our political parties prepare for next year's election, experts warn that New Zealand isn't immune. But are we underestimating the challenge?

The Electoral Commission is "keenly aware" of how disinformation and fake news campaigns have marred overseas elections, a spokesman says. The commission aims to protect New Zealand "as much as possible against such attacks". 

It's been liaising with counterparts overseas and plans to speak with social media platforms about how disinformation can be handled. (While misinformation often arises out of genuine political debate, disinformation is typically a covert attempt by a maligned state or interest group to distort public views.)

"It will also discuss concerns about fake social media content (as opposed to genuine political debate) and the tools these platforms use to identify and remove such content."

Focusing on the structures and systems which help spread falsehoods is a good place to start, says public policy analyst Dr Jess Berentson-Shaw. But solutions need to fit the size of the problem.

Asking people – especially young people – to just turn off Facebook, or think more critically, doesn't go far enough. "Putting the onus on young people seems unethical, if I am honest. 

"If we are saying, 'You did not create the problem but you are individually responsible for fixing it' – how does that work?" 

Changing entire power structures is hard but there are some easier solutions. Myth busting – a common tool used by mainstream media and political parties during election campaigns – is not always useful, she says. Rather, "amplifying" the myth can lead to it becoming embedded in people's minds. Less time should be spent trying to stamp out the lie, and more spent spreading accurate information. 

The Electoral Commission has been liaising with counterparts overseas about the challenges faced during recent elections.

"You get a fragmentation where everyone's attention is drawn to the misinformation. That gets very loud, it gets repeated, and it gets amplified.

"There is an obligation and responsibility on experts to stop jumping into those misinformation stories." 

Repeating misinformation also fuels disengagement, she adds. When a topic becomes polarising, evidence shows people tend to disengage owing to its complexity. That's not to say there can't be opposing views on an issue, provided those views source accurate information. But that becomes difficult when debate is boiled down to memes and viral videos. Both National and Labour have accused each other of spreading "fake news" and over-simplifying nuanced issues. 

On the surface, fake news appears to be a technology-driven crisis, writes Melanie Bunce in The Broken Estate: Journalism and Democracy in a Post-Truth World, to be published on September 6.

Bunce, a New Zealander who researches and teaches on the international news media at City, University of London, notes it's "incredibly easy" to share fabricated articles on social media and the technology that enables such deception improves every day. 

But the "fake news" crisis is not, she continues, at its core a technological problem. It's a crisis of trust. 

Azaria Howell, a Christchurch school student and Youth Member of Parliament 2019, would like to see the voting age lowered.

"When we have reliable sources that we trust to convey information and correct and challenge falsehoods, then fabricated content does not cause the same damage."

It's unfortunate, then, that recent polls show increasing political division and decreasing trust in politicians, the media and experts here and overseas. 

lmost two-thirds of people, including New Zealanders, don't know how to discern good journalism from rumour or falsehood, the 2018 Acumen Edelman Trust Barometer international survey found. And the problem is only getting worse. 

"In the future, rather than reading a fake story stating that the Pope has endorsed Donald Trump for president, we will watch it with our own eyes," according to Bunce. 

Tom Barraclough agrees. The co-director and researcher at Brainbox –  recently awarded Netsafe funding to research deep fake detection in New Zealand –  adds that there's no reason to think New Zealand is immune. 

"I have not seen any commitment by political parties to refrain from using manipulated imagery or video.

"All parties and candidates will be using Photoshop, I'm sure. That doesn't make the content misleading."

His main concerns are microtargeting and deceptive political ads. (Facebook and other tech giants such as Google and Twitter offer data-mining services to try to influence consumer behaviour. These tools have been described as "weaponised advertising technology".)

"It's not clear who is responsible in government for anticipating these issues."

Almost two out of three American adults reported false news stories caused a great deal of confusion about the basic facts of current issues and events, Mel Bunce writes in her new book.

The United States and Britain have demonstrated the repercussions of mis- and disinformation campaigns, says technology commentator Paul Brislen.

While awareness has increased since then, largely owing to stories about the Cambridge Analytica data scandal, "we're moving quite slowly in an era where the antagonists are moving quickly".

Facebook, in particular, remains a "dangerous" platform for its "rich content delivery". Compared to Twitter and Instagram, for example, Facebook simply hosts more information, he says. 

He's not as concerned about young people imbibing falsehoods as he is about "the oldies". 

"There are growing trends among older people to just use Facebook as a source of news and that alarms me," Brislen says. "It isn't a news platform. It's one-eyed, to put it politely, on many big issues. When it comes to reasonable views, they're few and far between."

Today's students are being taught critical thinking skills in the classroom and know not to believe everything they read online, he says.  

The rise of Brexit has been blamed partly on the spread of disinformation about the cost of immigration in the United Kingdom.

Plus, figures show teens and young adults are ditching Facebook as its popularity among the over-55s surges. (It's worth pointing out Facebook owns Instagram which remains popular with younger users.)

After Australia's 2019 federal election, Facebook released informationshowing Bill Shorten and the Labor Party dominated election-related conversation on the platform during the campaign period. Toppling the adage there's no such thing as bad publicity, Scott Morrison and the Liberal-National Coalition claimed victory. 

Shorten later said: "Powerful vested interests campaigned against us, through sections of the media itself, and they got what they wanted."

Next year New Zealand will vote on who should run the next government. Experts warn that voters should be aware of mis- and disinformation.

When talking about separating fact from fake news online, Howell references Trump and Brexit. They're big topics of discussion among her classmates, she says. So is climate change and New Zealand's housing crisis.

She watches the 6pm news and follows local and international media organisations on social networks. She emphasises the importance of studying social sciences and learning to look with a critical eye at information sources. 

She admits she's considered "media-savvy" among her peers, but they all study digital literacy from year 9. Many of them have participated in climate change marches and other protests. They engage in debates about gun control on Instagram and Facebook. They share political memes in private chat groups. 

"We live in an online era where information can be shared so easily. We talk about these issues on social media and in class."

It's unfair the age of medical consent and marriage is 16, but for voting it's 18, she says. "I believe young people are interested and engaged and able to distinguish fact from fiction in the media."

Even if some can't, she says, "that doesn't mean voters over the age of 18 can". 

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