For decades, the internet has been hailed as a groundbreaking interactive marketplace of ideas, where anyone with access to data and a device can set up a stall.

Online tools have made it possible to communicate easily with friends and whānau around the world, sell and purchase goods and services, enrol to vote, raise billions for charitable causes or start-up businesses, and even hail a ride or meal to your front door.  

Right now, a child in Whangārei with a smartphone and WiFi has access to more information and better mobile communication than the US President did just 15 years ago.

The internet has helped give people who have historically been locked out of democracy by discrimination or poverty a way to voice the needs of their communities and organise at scale.

Over the past four years, ActionStation members have used digital tools and platforms to connect and collaborate with hundreds of thousands of other New Zealanders who share their vision and values to engage powerfully in our democracy.

Massive crowdsourced submissions to Select Committees have been drafted in Google Docs, and custom-built websites have enabled hundreds of people to contribute their stories to participatory research like the People’s Mental Health Report, the People’s Review of Renting and the They’re Our Whānau report. Using online surveys and discussion forums, around 10,000 New Zealanders contributed to a crowdsourced vision for the future of our country, Te Ira Tāngata. All of this work is funded by donations made largely online, and the ActionStation community has grown to 240,000 as word has spread about these projects through social media and email.

Facebook says 3.5 million New Zealanders had an active account in 2018 with over 2.3 million people logging in everyday. For those aged 25 and under, the primary source of entertainment and news is online. 94% of New Zealanders check the Internet at least once a day with social media being the main use for most people:

 
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In the 21st century, social media has become the new public square.

The downside to this unparalleled information exchange and connectedness is that the internet also provides a powerful and relatively cheap way for groups and individuals to spread hate, fear, abuse and mis/dis/mal-information across time and space, and without transparency.

The term ‘fake news’ has been widely used to refer to a range of different kinds of false and harmful information. Clarity about those different types is important for policy making, so we will describe the differences between these three types of information using the following framework:

 
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Source: Information Disorder: Toward an interdisciplinary framework for research and policy making

While ActionStation has been at the forefront of exploring and facilitating digitally-enhanced democratic participation in New Zealand, we have also been exposed to these downsides.

It is that exposure that has prompted this report.

In 2015, the National-led government passed the Harmful Digital Communications Act (HDCA). It states that a digital communication should not:

“...denigrate a person’s colour, race, ethnic or national origins, religion, gender, sexual orientation or disability.”

In 2019 we ask: has the Act worked? Is the internet free from prejudice and harm? Do people feel safe to participate freely in conversations online? Or is there more work to do?

This research seeks to better understand the impact of online hate, harassment and abuse on everyday New Zealanders.  We put it into the world to add to the growing body of evidence demonstrating that the New Zealand government and the tech corporations, which now permeate so much of our lives, urgently need to do more to protect us online.