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Voters warned to prepare for dirty politics as battle steps up online a year out from election


A year out from the General Election, political observers are warning voters to prepare for some dirty politics, with the battle for votes increasingly being fought online.

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Political observers say with the election a year away voters are being targeted with less-than-transparent tactics seen overseas. Source: Q+A

TVNZ1's Q+A has discovered New Zealanders are already being targeted with some of the less-than-transparent tactics seen overseas.

Like never before, National is churning out the attack ads on social media, it's campaign machine already in full throttle.

"They've probably made the calculation they're not going to win by going positive," said Thomas Pryor, government relations advisor. 

Mr Pryor worked with the Brexit remain camp in London and has observed first hand a new style of campaigning in the digital age.

"I think what we're going to see is parties here modelling themselves in some way on what we first saw in the EU referendum - where you get out a bold claim that may not necessarily be 100 per cent true, and be confident in the fact it's a strong enough claim that it will stick in voters' minds. 

"And even if down the track it's disproven or you have to correct it slightly or it's challenged by your competitors, it's almost too late," he said.

Cabinet minister Megan Woods is Labour's campaign chair for the election. And her party has already accused National of misleading New Zealanders over a bill reviewing the whitebait fishery. 

Is calling the Government's plan a "ban" in a petition the truth or a lie, or just a little misleading? 

"It's not not wholly untrue. It's simply not true," Ms Woods said.

Facts and impressions are now equal. It doesn't really matter what the truth is - Peter Dunne, former United Future leader

Former United Future leader Peter Dunne said "the fake news scenario is not just in the United States, it's not just Trump, is not just Fox News".

"You've got it here in New Zealand. Simon Bridges a couple of weeks ago said, 'one person's facts are another person's misinformation'."

The National Party leader said recently: "One person's misinformation is another person's fact."

Mr Dunne said: "In other words, facts and impressions are now equal. It doesn't really matter what the truth is. It's what you think the truth is, and what the person hearing your message thinks the truth is that counts."

National's campaign chair, Paula Bennett, says her party is condensing information for voters.

"People don't have a lot of time in their lives to sit down and wade their way through a 40-page document like this Government sometimes puts out, that literally says nothing. So we are able to take that, condense it down to what matters," she said. 

Asked is the party over-simplifying information and fuzzing the truth a bit, she replied "Oh not at all."

Big data, and the misuse of it, has been linked to some surprise election outcomes. But is there potential here for voters to be manipulated through micro-targeting? After all, marketers consensually mine our data and target us everyday.

"I think what we can expect in 2020 is that politicians will do the same," Thomas Pryor said. 

"So as an example which appears to have recently happened here in New Zealand for instance, if I 'liked' the Toyota Facebook page - the National Party were recently doing some Facebook ads around the car tax - it seemed I was more likely to see the Toyota model and that particular advert than if I hadn't have 'liked' the Toyota Facebook page." 

That ad is one of two National Party ads being investigated by the Advertising Standards Authority for being potentially misleading.

Ms Bennett said: "I think it's quite healthy that we have got an Advertising Standards Authority. They can look at what they like, but we'll stand next to it." 

Mr Pryor says online political advertising is hard to regulate.

"There's obviously clear regulations and laws around political advertising through conventional media. It's nowhere near as clear online."

Jacinda is an absolute natural when it comes to social media - Megan Woods, Labour's campaign chair

Data gold for any party is the swinging voter - the persuadables. Parties appeal to their fears, and if they sign a party petition their email can then be matched to their social media profiles, and they can be micro-targeted. 

Ms Woods said social media does offer some targeting tools and there are really positive ways in which you can target messages.

"Will it be the same divisive and negative and attacking style? No. That's simply not the way in which Jacinda communicates with the electorate. Jacinda is an absolute natural when it comes to social media. And you see the way the country responds," she said.

So why in the last five weeks has National suddenly got more fight? 

Peter Dunne cites Mr Bridges' visit to Australia, saying, "Whatever went on there there's been a certain change."

Mr Pryor said: "So we're really seeing, it seems, a kind of a copying or a modelling of what the Libs [Liberal Party] did which was hyper quick, it was online, it used humour and it used video. And it was incredibly effective. I mean Scott Morrison won an election which many people thought he couldn't win." 

He had the help of some Kiwi digital whizzes - Young Nats Sean Topham and Sam Guerin, and social media strategist Kelly Boxall, another Kiwi who has recently been working in Simon Bridges' office.

There's even a move away from memes and things like that to really short, sharp video clips - Thomas Pryor, government relations advisor

National has adapted one of the Liberals' winning tactics, and all parties are climbing in - short, sharp video.

"The key difference from this election and the last one is a lot of the online content we're going to see," Mr Pryor said. 

"There's even a move away from memes and things like that to really short, sharp video clips, probably under a minute, generally quite humourous if we go off what went on it the Liberal's campaign in Australia, sort of targeting and almost kind of mocking the Labor Party, mocking Bill Shorten. We're seeing a similar thing here." 

We've been talking to the Liberals about their campaign. It was incredibly effective - Paula Bennett, National's campaign chair

A National Party ad about Labour's so-called car tax is a good example of how National is borrowing from the Liberals' winning formula.

"As people know, we've been talking to the Liberals about their campaign. It was incredibly effective. Not everything is original in politics," Ms Bennett said.

Now New Zealand Labour is accused of copying National who has been copying the Liberals. 

"I think they should come up with something a little more original than just kind of copying and pasting from ours and trying to put their own spin on it," Ms Bennett said.

Megan Woods is worried about how dirty this is going to get.

"I'm worried that we are seeing these green shoots of a reasonably desperate and negative campaign that's coming through already," she said. "It's not the message we're going to run."

Thomas Pryor says if he was the Government, "their biggest asset is the prime minister. If I was them I would be speaking and featuring the prime minister a lot and not even talking or mentioning Simon Bridges".

And how about the voters? What should our election strategy be in the digital era?

Peter Dunne says he thinks the voters have really got to do the work the politicians used to do. 

"They've got to be the ones concentrating on trying to get to the fact, trying to pin people down to what this actually means.

"Because you've got this carelessness between fact and impression on the one hand.  And on the other side, which I think you see the current Government demonstrate, it's all about what you feel. You know, 'I share your concern, I'm with you. I'm not actually going to do anything, or I'm capable of doing nothing'."

Thomas Pryor's advice: approach with care.

"It's really contingent on all of us as voters to be cautious actually and to realise that information we see online cannot necessarily be trusted. This election in particular it's going to be at the forefront and we're all going to have to approach with care," he said.