Fishing for truth in a time of Facebook


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    Allan Burgess

    Fishing for truth in a time of Facebook
    Four out of the six species that make up the whitebait fishery are in danger.

    9 August 2019 EDITORIAL: If you got all your news from Facebook, and significant numbers of people do, you would be forgiven for thinking that the New Zealand Government is on the verge of banning whitebaiting. And not just the Government either, but the po-faced, fun-spoiling Green Party.

    It seems like an assault on the Kiwi way of life. What will they ban next? Pikelets? Meat pies? Pavlova?

    It is a hot-button issue that would once have lit up talkback radio. In 2019, the outraged public would also be adding email signatures to a petition or sharing a post or meme on social media.

    But there is just one problem. The Government is not actually banning whitebaiting.

    The National Party is active in an online campaign that is more than a little slippery with the truth. The party’s media team has posted that the Government is “planning a sneaky ban on whitebaiting, a Kiwi tradition that puts food on the table and creates livelihoods for many New Zealanders”. The claim was even attached to a TVNZ news video that clarified no ban is imminent.

    What is happening is that whitebait management is being reconsidered within a wider review of native fish species, nearly three quarters of which are threatened or at risk of extinction. That grim status applies to four of the six species that make up the whitebait fishery – giant kōkopu, shortjaw kōkopu, inanga and kōaro​. New regulations look likely.

    But despite that, the Department of Conservation (DOC) explains “it is not DOC’s intent to stop whitebait fishing altogether, and no changes will be made for the 2019 whitebait fishing season”. No ban, in other words.

    A generous reading is that the nuance was lost in National’s political messaging. A less generous reading is that National hoped to tap a vein of indignation about a centre-left government controlling more and more areas of ordinary life. Guns, cars and now this – as one National supporter joked on Facebook, will the Government be running a whitebait net buyback scheme?

    All joking aside, the whitebait messaging hints at a wider, deeper problem. As more and more people get versions of news directly from political parties rather than interpreted and explained by a responsible news media, they become less informed and more open to manipulation. This is not new, and Labour in opposition was skilled at harvesting the email addresses of potential supporters, but social media campaigns and the direct targeting of voters have become increasingly sophisticated.

    National has run a “car tax” campaign that is virtually identical to a campaign run by the Liberal Party in Australia. In both countries, Facebook ads were tailored to suit different car brands and types to increase their impact on the viewer.

    Facebook has been touted as central to Scott Morrison’s recent victory in Australia, just as it was for the “leave” side of the Brexit debate in the UK and Donald Trump in 2016. In both the US and New Zealand, the less transparent tactics of social media may play an even greater role in 2020.

    It has become common to say we live in a post-truth age where feelings matter more than facts, but political strategists have always known that voters have emotional buttons that can be pushed. It could even be said that the new National slogan that emerged from the recent party conference describes this process of finding and responding to an individual’s hopes and fears. Our bottom line, the party says, is you. Read the full story on – in particular, be sure to read the comments at the bottom which are often very enlightening!

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