Case Number: 3382

Council Meeting: 27 MARCH 2023

Decision: No Grounds to Proceed

Principle: Accuracy, Fairness and Balance
Comment and Fact

Ruling Categories: Conspiracy Theories
Disinformation, Misinformation
Local Body Elections

  1. Stuff published a story on October 8, 2022, under the headline Around 3000 people are running for council, more than 200 have promoted false information or conspiracies. It reported that Voices for Freedom (VFF) had encouraged and supported its members to run for local body elections. The story said that Stuff had collaborated with FACT Aotearoa (a group committed to fighting misinformation and conspiracy theories). They had identified at least 159 elections in which at least one candidate had publicly advanced falsehoods or conspiracy theories. Not all of those identified were affiliated with VFF, but many were. The article noted that this did not include people who expressed unpopular opinions or opposed Government policy, including vaccine mandates. Those identified had shared information that was false (for example that Covid-19 did not exist) or had alleged a sweeping conspiracy theory without evidence (the most common being that “non-binding sustainability goals from the United Nations are being forced through councils to create a tyrannical world Government”).
  2. The story said the number of candidates had been broadly confirmed by VFF, who said there were many more VFF-aligned candidates than the media knew about. A spokesman for FACT Aotearoa, Stephen Judd, said the number of “disinformation candidates” was disproportionately high. FACT began work on local elections because it was concerned candidates were not being upfront about their views. A spokesperson for the Disinformation Project said VFF represented a threat to democracy “the likes of which this country has not seen”.
  3. Ms S. George complained under Principle (1) Accuracy, Fairness and Balance and Principle (4) Comment and Fact that the tone of the article was one-sided and misleading. The story implied that groups were lying and spreading conspiracy theories, which she said was definitely not true in relation to the paragraphs that said: “Over two years, people who once were just concerned about the impact of movement restrictions are now freaked out by the World Economic Forum. People who didn't seem to have any particular animus against Three Waters have now gone full noise about that because they perceive it to be associated with Agenda 2030 [sustainability goals] and have bought into [that] conspiracy. That transformation, the way one thing leads to another, and [how] bridges are being built between organisations that otherwise wouldn't have talked to each other, is very worrying".
  4. Ms George said the story mixed Three Waters with Agenda 2030, saying they were a conspiracy. Neither item on its own was a conspiracy, she said. Three Waters was a fact and Agenda 2030 and its 17 Sustainable Development Goals were being implemented by Government and councils. It was a lie to say that groups that spoke about Agenda 2030 were spreading conspiracy theories. People running for office were entitled to speak out against these two matters. “That is free speech,” Ms George said.
  5. Stuff replied that FACT was a group of health professionals, academics, lawyers, teachers and students who worked to minimise the impact of misinformation in Aotearoa. Mr Judd, who was quoted in the paragraphs that were complained about, “is part of that group and is simply commenting on his interpretation of the landscape. This is perfectly reasonable journalistic practice".
  6. Stuff and Mr Judd were not suggesting that opposition to Three Waters or the World Economic Forum Sustainability Goals were conspiracies in themselves. Mr Judd was commenting on a matter clearly outlined earlier in the story, that people were saying “non-binding sustainability goals from the United Nations are being forced through councils to create a tyrannical world Government".
  7. The Media Council has thoroughly considered matters raised in this article in other decisions (3347 Fire and Fury; 3307 Godinet v Stuff; 3374 Riley v Stuff; 3375 Decio v RNZ) so this decision may be read alongside those. As context, it should be noted that in Ruling 3347 Fire & Fury, which was not upheld, the Council said: “We have above set out a number of statements and actions of the three founders of VFF which appear to state or promote disinformation in interviews or references on their websites.” In the Decio ruling, which dealt with a story about the number of “disinformation” candidates elected (a follow-on piece from the story Ms George complained about), the Council ruled that it was acceptable to use the term “disinformation candidates” as shorthand for candidates who had shared disinformation or had links to organisations that had. Stuff had presented enough evidence to back up its contention in that article. In contrast, the Riley decision was upheld in part as the Council believed that Stuff had not provided enough evidence that all eight named candidates who were part of the Sovereign group espoused conspiracy theories or Covid-19 disinformation.
  8. The Council presents the above information as context, but believes the matters raised by this specific complaint are more straightforward. Ms George complains about a particular paragraph, but this is clearly shown to be the opinion of Stephen Judd, a spokesperson for the group which has collaborated with Stuff on its campaign to identify candidates in the local government elections who they said were spreading disinformation. Ms George may not agree with Mr Judd, but Mr Judd has the right to express his opinion and Stuff is entitled to rely on it as part of their investigation into an important matter of public interest. 
  9. The complainant is correct to say both Three Waters and Agenda 2030 are facts, are being promoted by the Government and that any person standing for election in New Zealand is entitled to agree or disagree with either. But the story does not say what the complainant alleges. It does not say that opposition to either policy is a conspiracy; it says the claims that Agenda 2030 is designed to install a tyrannical world government and that the two policies are secretly connected are conspiracy theories.
  10. In this particular article, in contrast to the Riley decision, no individual candidates were identified, so there was no need to provide proof about the views of individual candidates. The story is general in tone and backs up its argument with expert opinion as well as the statement from VFF that there were more candidates aligned to its point of view than had been reported in the media. No factual errors have been identified. No principles have been breached.
  11. The Council apologises to Ms George about the longer than normal time taken to consider this complaint, due to a number of factors, including an administrative delay and the large volume of complex complaints on related matters that the Council was considering. 
  12.  Decision: There were insufficient grounds to proceed.


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