New blog post: Negative campaigning, fake news, and half-truths among the minor parties. And the question: is Advance New Zealand really ‘populist’?

Repost from Te Herenga Waka Victoria University’s Website

The leaders of the smaller parties in the 2020 New Zealand general election faced off in last week’s minor parties’ debate on TV. But how well are the campaigns of the minor parties and their leaders going on social media? What political topics are they campaigning on? Are they and their leaders ‘going dirty’? And is yesterday’s shutdown of Advance New Zealand’s Facebook page justified?

In their content analysis study of social media, Professor Jack Vowles and Dr Mona Krewel from Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington’s Political Science and International Relations programme have now coded and analysed 1,936 Facebook posts placed by political parties and their leaders for the time period of 17 September–8 October, and will continue to code new posts until election day. The parties covered are Labour, National, the Greens, New Zealand First, ACT, The Opportunities Party (TOP), the Māori Party, the New Conservatives, and Advance New Zealand, as well as their leaders.

This week, they shine light on the Facebook campaigns of the minor parties and their leaders, including some of those left out of the multi-leader debate.

“The major parties are focusing their campaigns on the economy, because more voters tend to identify the economy as important,” says Professor Vowles. “Among the minor parties, some identify other issues. ACT, New Zealand First, and TOP focus their campaigns on the economy; Advance New Zealand, the Greens, the Māori Party, and the New Conservatives emphasise other issues.”

The Green Party focuses on the environment, he says, “which is not surprising, given their ‘reason for being’, and voters who identify the environment as their highest priority also tend to see the Greens as the party most committed to dealing with environmental issues. They are simply emphasising their main strength in their social media communication.

“The issues the Māori Party chooses to highlight are also consistent with what they stand for: they campaign on social issues in order to achieve better outcomes for Māori, who tend to be more concentrated among those on lower incomes. And, of course, the Māori Party also has the strongest focus on the Treaty of Waitangi.”

The story is a little different for Advance New Zealand, which also includes the New Zealand Public Party, says Dr Krewel. “Their agenda consists of seeking to convince voters the Government’s lockdown policies have unnecessarily limited New Zealanders’ freedom. Besides that, they have declared themselves an anti-corruption party—despite one of their leaders being investigated for corruption himself. This adds up to a strong focus on what we classify as domestic policies. The coronavirus also looms large in Advance New Zealand’s social media communications, as they are attempting to exploit the pandemic by spreading coronavirus conspiracy fears. Campaigning on economic insecurity and health is intended to attract people into their extreme ideology who under different circumstances would not have identified themselves with such polices. They hope spreading COVID-19 conspiracy theories and misinformation will be an effective strategy for them to radicalise anxious voters.”

However, adds Dr Krewel: “Opinion polling indicates only a few people are likely to vote for them, so their efforts have not been very effective, despite their social media impact. And on social media they have now also taken it too far by posting anti-vaccination adverts that yesterday led to Facebook’s decision to take their page down. However, they will surely use this as an opportunity to make a point against the global elites and the media trying to silence them, claiming to be the last party that is telling people the truth.”

Professor Vowles notes that some commentators and political scientists describe such tactics and appeals as ‘populist’. “The New Zealand Public Party in particular campaigns against a global elite they claim has hidden objectives that lie behind governments’ responses to the coronavirus. The New Zealand Government and mainstream politicians are accused of being in thrall to global interests. This is an approach like that of the European radical right parties that border on fascism and are often described as ‘populist’. Indeed, nearly 10 per cent of Advance New Zealand—and also the New Conservatives—used a communication strategy of generalised elite criticism that is often labelled as populist. Such criticism is an obvious strategy for parties that have never been in power and therefore can campaign against the ‘establishment’ in general.”

But Professor Vowles adds that “while Advance New Zealand occasionally uses populist language centred on ‘the people’, by far its strongest language lies in the protection of individual freedom, not usually the territory occupied by a populist party. Like New Zealand First, its appeal is also nationalist, seeking to defend national sovereignty, and it has a strong Māori dimension.

“If we think of populism in two senses—as a campaign strategy based on the use of language and as a set of democratic norms—then Advance New Zealand uses some populist language, but also other language not usually defined in those terms. And in its claims to promote and defend the populist democratic norm that governments should be representative of ‘the people’, and thus majority public opinion, Advance New Zealand is no different from almost all New Zealand’s other political parties.

“In its opposition to the current coronavirus policy settings, Advance New Zealand rejects majority public opinion in favour of a defence of individual freedoms, fatally undermining its populist democratic credentials. Most New Zealanders continue to support a policy of collective action to protect society from the coronavirus, a preference far more consistent with the norms of democratic populism. If Advance New Zealand were a true populist party, we might expect them to be attracting more votes.”

For most of the campaign, like the major parties, the minor parties have been communicating with much more positive than negative language and their campaigns have become more positive over the course of the campaign, says Dr Krewel. “It is not surprising they become more positive as the campaign goes on. The closer we get to election day, the more the parties need to bring the focus of their campaigns back to themselves. You can attack your political opponents during the campaign, but on the ballot paper voters need to vote for you, not against the target of your negative messaging. Especially in a multi-party system where voters have a lot of options, you need to ensure they not only know for whom not to vote but also where to make their tick.”

Dr Krewel notes that of the small parties in Parliament ACT has gone through much more of a roller-coaster of positive and negative campaigning over the course of the campaign than other parties. “This does not speak for a very coherent campaign strategy,” she says. “Or as campaigners say: you have to stay ‘on message’ in a campaign. You have to stick to the prearranged script or ideas you want to communicate and repeat those messages persistently: for example, the decision to run an attack campaign rather than emphasising your own advantages. But ACT has changed its messaging erratically from positive to negative campaigning back and forth over the entire campaign.”

David Seymour might have won the multi-leader debate according to Vote Compass respondents, she says, “but his party most likely has not won the Facebook campaign battle. Their unsteady campaign communication has probably confused voters more than it has benefited ACT.”

As mentioned in last week’s post , the minor parties engage more in the spreading of misinformation than the major parties, says Professor Vowles. “But it seems the minor party leaders have mostly avoided being associated with the dissemination of fake news or lending their faces to posts that contain half-truths. They post much less fake news and half-truths than their parties. To give some examples, only 3.7 per cent of Billy Te Kahika’s posts have contained fake news and 5.6 per cent half-truths, while already in week two of our study Advance New Zealand/NZPP’s posts contained 6 percent fake news and 31 percent half-truths. It is therefore not surprising Facebook yesterday took the party’s page down, but so far has not yet taken any action against Billy Te Kahika’s page. Similarly, only 1.3 percent of David Seymour’s posts contain half-truths, while 9 percent of his party’s posts contained information that was not fully accurate. There is an overlap in who posts misinformation. It is the same ‘usual suspects’. Where the parties engage in spreading false information, the leaders do too. It is simply not as much.”

For Dr Krewel, this bears some resemblance to the findings of research on negative campaigning in television advertisements in the United States: “Some of the most negative TV advertisements in the US tend to come from third-party actors, such as the so-called PACs (political action committees). These are organisations that pool campaign contributions and fund campaigns. The candidates they support leave it up to the PACs to attack their opponents to minimise a possible backlash and keep their own record clean. It seems that in a similar way the party leaders tend not to spread fake news or promote half-truths and try to keep a clean slate, letting their parties take the blame instead.”

CrowdTangle, a public insights tool owned and operated by Facebook, has been used to collect the data on which this commentary is based. This sample has then been coded by five human coders on the basis of CamforS/DigiWorld’s codebook.

Footnotes

  • (1) A post contained populist elite criticism when it a) blamed the elite (from any sector) as a group/the system in general for problems and grievances the people suffer or when elites are held responsible for anything undesirable from the people’s perspective; when it b) questioned the elite’s legitimacy to take decisions; when it c) called for resistance against the elite and their ideas and for direct popular decisions; and when it d) accused the elite of betraying the people or acting against the people’s interest or being corrupt.
  • (2) A post could include both negative and positive statements. Based on the valence and strength of the used statements, pictures or emotions, the post could be of a negative or positive but also balanced nature. This tendency could be derived from the overall impression of the statements, pictures and emotions included in the post. The decisive factor for coding was the impression about the valence of the statements, pictures and emotions an average reader would get after looking at the post.
  • (2) A post contained negative campaigning when it aimed at critically presenting the political opponent. This involved all forms of attack on the political opponent (party, politician, coalition, institution). Negative campaigning criticises socially relevant topics, uses stereotypical traits, highlights shortcomings as well as criticises and attacks qualities and behaviour of parties, politicians and related issues. Moreover, exaggerations and negative emotions such as fear, envy, blame and anger have also been considered negative campaigning.
  • (2) A post contained positive campaigning when it included positive statements, pictures and emotions of a supporting, encouraging, affirmative, beneficial or assertive nature and presented the advantages of a party’s own candidate, their goals and competencies. The graph shows the positive less the negative news.
  • (2) A five-day moving average has been used to smooth out short-term fluctuations and highlight the trend of the campaign period.
  • (3) A post contained fake news when it was completely or for the most part made up and intentionally and verifiably false to mislead voters. The usual disagreements and accusations between political actors were not coded as fake news here. If a coder assumed a post could include fake news, but was not fully sure, they were asked to do some fact-checking and visit news websites of reliable sources to see if something had already been identified as fake news. In case of doubt, coders were asked to take a conservative approach and code the absence of fake news. Therefore, the graphs presented here under- rather than overestimate the extent of fake news in the campaigns.
  • (3) When a post did not classify as fake news, coders were additionally asked if it contained half-truths—eg. things that were not completely accurate.

New blog post: “New Zealanders deserve a positive election,” said PM Jacinda Ardern. But are they getting it?

Repost from Te Herenga Waka Victoria University’s Website

During an election campaign, one observes frequent insults, mudslinging and distortion. From the standpoint of political campaigners, the beauty of negative campaigning consists of its ability to affect everyone. Even convinced supporters of a party under attack strongly remember negative information about their party. Campaigns in the United States have a reputation for making frequent use of dirty campaign techniques. The 2016 presidential election is one of the best-known examples of negative campaigning and the spread of fake news on social media. But how nasty are New Zealand’s social media campaigns when compared with others? Do we have to be seriously concerned?

There are some grounds for disquiet. During the 2017 general election campaign, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) received only 16 complaints about advertising with false content. With 10 days to go before the 2020 election, it had received 80, with more likely to come. Most of these complaints have been about newspaper advertising, which is not usually repeated after a ruling. But compliance to ASA rulings is voluntary, and the advertisements are continuing online.

In their content analysis study of social media, Professor Jack Vowles and Dr Mona Krewel from Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington’s Political Science and International Relations programme have coded and analysed 1,181 Facebook posts placed by political parties and their leaders for 17 September–1 October, and will continue to do so over the coming weeks until election day on 17 October. The parties covered are Labour, National, the Greens, New Zealand First, ACT, The Opportunities Party, the Māori Party, the New Conservatives, and Advance New Zealand, as well as their leaders. Their data confirms the extent of ‘fake news’ so far distributed but puts it into a wider perspective.

Based on this data, Professor Vowles and Dr Krewel look at mobilising versus demobilising campaign techniques and the incidence of fake news and ‘half-truths’. “Negative techniques are very important,” says Dr Krewel, “as negative posts psychologically stick with our brains. And once negative information is planted, it is hard to forget. It is more ‘sticky’ than positive information and we unfortunately remember it much better than positive information and give it more weight.”

Professor Vowles points out most people share a common normative ideal about election campaigns: a campaign should activate and mobilise voters to cast their votes. “Studies have shown that as long as the volume of negative and positive political communication in a political campaign is about the same, campaigns can increase turnout. But as the volume of negative political advertising increases, turnout tends to be adversely affected. Fair election campaigns in which the competing parties engage in constructive criticism instead of mudslinging can motivate people to vote. Otherwise, they can alienate citizens from politics.”

But are the Facebook campaigns of New Zealand parties mobilising us to engage in the campaign and cast our vote? Do the parties actively interact with voters in their Facebook campaigns?

“Looking at the results, New Zealand’s parties are not running a very engaging campaign so far,” says Dr Krewel. “For a long time, scholars of political communication thought social media would contribute to more direct and more real interpersonal communication between politicians and voters. But more and more studies have shown this was a false hope. Most social media communication by parties is top-down. Parties seldomly really interact with voters on Facebook and other social media. New Zealand is another example to confirm this behaviour, as only a small number of party posts call for voters to interact with the parties.

“The parties are doing better at mobilising voters, as of course they want their votes. Among the established parties, it is not hard to identify those currently working hardest to mobilise their voters: the Green Party and New Zealand First. Based on recent polls, New Zealand First fears it will not get back into Parliament. While most recent polling puts the Green Party above the 5 percent party vote threshold, the Green level of support is still too close to the threshold for comfort, and consequently the Green Party is also working hard to mobilise its supporters.”

Advance New Zealand is the only party that currently works harder to mobilise support than the Greens and New Zealand First. “But their high mobilisation score does not result from calls to vote; it originates from their attempts to get people to rally against the Government’s COVID-19 policies,” says Dr Krewel.

Are New Zealand’s parties also actively demobilising voters by using more negative than positive language and arguments?

“We are fortunate this is not generally the case,” says Professor Vowles.

“Posting by most of the established parties in Parliament contains less than 20 percent negative information. But the stand-out exception here is ACT. Around half their posts contain negative campaigning language. In contrast, only 6 percent of Labour’s Facebook campaigning is negative. It seems Labour leader Jacinda Ardern is keeping her pledge of being a ‘relentlessly positive’ leader. But, of course, incumbents generally tend to run more positive campaigns than challenger candidates. With the exception of ACT, all the parties elected to Parliament at the last election in 2017 are running on much more positive than negative messaging.”

“Turning to other smaller parties, with the exception of the Māori Party they are choosing a more negative strategy. This makes sense, as having formed recently, or not having been represented in the current Parliament, they have to attract more attention,” says Dr Krewel.

“Negative campaigning can take a variety of forms,” she says. “Many people assume political memes are responsible for a lot of the negativity they see in campaigns. Memes are pictures that have been altered to become humorous by incorporating new elements or comments into the original picture. The intent is to make fun of something or someone. Effective memes tend to spread quickly. They have become prominent in politics and campaigns all around the world.”

However, in New Zealand memes do not feature strongly as an instrument of negative campaigning. Only a small number of negative posts in the election campaign so far have included memes.

“I don’t want New Zealand to fall into the trap of the negative fake news style campaigns that have taken place overseas in recent years,” Jacinda Ardern said in January this year, long before the campaign. More than eight months later, it seems most parties have heard her and agree with her sentiments.

Over the first two weeks of the study, most political parties did not spread fake stories on Facebook. This is good news for the quality of democratic political discourse in New Zealand, says Professor Vowles.

“As we pointed out in our first post, the exception is National Leader Judith Collins, who posted a selectively edited section from the first leaders’ debate to make it appear Jacinda Ardern had made a negative comment about farmers that she did not say and denied saying.”

He observes that Judith Collins has made a few other questionable ‘off the cuff’ statements on the campaign trail, but these have not been repeated on social media.

“The only parties spreading fake news on Facebook are Advance New Zealand and the New Conservative Party. This is not surprising. Advance New Zealand—which also incorporates the New Zealand Public Party—is a new party that needs a lot of media attention to have a chance of success. Negativity or conflict increases the ‘newsworthiness’ of stories.

“Already before the start of the election campaign, the New Zealand Public Party was spreading conspiracy stories, including the claim the COVID-19 pandemic was planned by the United Nations. It is disturbing most of their misinformation is about COVID-19. If widely believed, it has the potential to become life-threatening.”

Much of the misinformation propagated by the New Conservatives is about abortion, says Professor Vowles. “They are very much against abortion and tend to share content and pictures that originate from religious right-wing groups in the US.”

However, even if the established parties are not engaging in fake news on Facebook, their posts contain some ‘half-truths’, says Dr Krewel.

“We define these posts as containing information that is not completely made up but still contains questionable content that is not fully accurate. These are the statements that can fly under the radar of fake news. In particular, ACT stands out again, and as a party in parliament it should definitely do better. As their campaign is also the most negative, they are another case to monitor closely. This kind of campaigning behaviour can lead to increased disaffection with democratic politics.”

“New Zealanders deserve a positive election,” said Jacinda Ardern. But are they getting it? “For the most part our answer is yes,” says Professor Vowles.

According to Dr Krewel, New Zealand campaigning is not replicating the experience of the US yet, but the quality of information political parties provide New Zealanders could still be higher. “We can always do better. As our research shows, parties could interact more with voters instead of communicating with them top-downward. They should also be more careful and refrain from spreading half-truths.”

CrowdTangle, a public insights tool owned and operated by Facebook, has been used to collect the data on which this commentary is based. This sample has then been coded by five human coders on the basis of CamforS/DigiWorld’s codebook.