"New Zealanders deserve a positive election," said PM Jacinda Ardern. But are they getting it?

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.

Listen to the podcast

Pro-Vice-Chancellor of the Wellington Faculties of Humanities and Social Science and Education Professor Jennifer Windsor talks to Professor Jack Vowles and Dr Mona Krewel about the New Zealand Social Media Study.


  1. A post contained a call for interaction when it helped to initiate/encourage direct contact and exchange between political actors and citizens. We distinguished between calls for interactions online and offline. Interactions online included all actions which take place online, like commenting or using SNS reactions. Interactions offline include all actions which take place offline, like building new local relationships or addressing politicians personally or over the phone.

    A post contained a call for mobilisation when it encouraged the user to actively engage with and support the party in different ways and ultimately aims at initiating/generating political participation. We distinguished between calls for mobilisation online and offline. Mobilisation online included all actions which take place online, like sharing a post or participating in an online petition. Mobilisation offline included all actions which take place offline, like going to cast a ballot or knock on doors.

  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.

    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 as negative campaigning.

    A post contained positive campaigning when it included positive statements, pictures, and emotions that were of a supporting, encouraging, affirmative, beneficial, or assertive nature and presented the advantages of a party’s own candidate, their goals, and competencies.

  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.

    When a post did not classify as fake news, coders were additionally asked if it contained some half-truths eg. things that were not completely accurate.