New Zealand PM commits to ‘positive’ election campaign, warns of fake news

WELLINGTON (Reuters) – New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said on Thursday she would wage a “positive” 2020 election campaign, announcing her party had signed up to Facebook’s advertising transparency tool to fight misinformation.

Ardern’s 2017 campaign focusing on positive messaging and connecting directly with voters unexpectedly brought her Labour Party-led coalition to power, and transformed her into a national and global icon, generating the phrase “Jacinda-mania”.

“New Zealanders deserve a positive election,” Ardern said in a statement released after a meeting with her Labour Party colleagues in Auckland on Thursday.

“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,” she added.

Facebook’s ad transparency tools, set to motion after the 2016 U.S. election, allows voters to see who is behind paid advertising on Facebook and how much was spent on it.

“If an ad appears in your Facebook feed you should know who it’s from and why you were targeted. By being transparent about who is behind ads there is likely to be a flow-on effect of parties ensuring they are accurate too,” Ardern said.

Facebook’s ad transparency tool is already compulsory in countries like Canada, the European Union, India, the U.K. and the U.S. but is currently opt-in in New Zealand.

Political commentators are predicting a tight election and have warned of misinformation campaigns like those seen in recent polls in the United States, Britain and Australia.

New Zealand ‘s Green Party, which is in coalition with Labour, is the only other party that has signed up for Facebook’s transparency tools, while the opposition National Party is yet to comment on its position.

Green Party co-leader James Shaw told Reuters in an interview on Thursday that he expects it to be a “nasty election”.

“I think New Zealand is not immune to what we have seen overseas with the influence of troll farms and putting out misinformation on social media….that really worries me,” Shaw said. “I am worried about the health of our democracy and the risks we are exposed to.”

New Zealand’s election will be held in the second half of the year with an announcement on the poll dates expected in the coming weeks.

Ardern has been widely praised for tightening gun laws following a mass shooting in two Christchurch mosques last year, but has grappled with issues like housing, urban poverty and economic growth, which are expected to be key election topics.

The government announced infrastructure projects worth NZ$12 billion ($7.90 billion) last month, boosting capital spending to its highest in 20 years, as it seeks to fire up the economy.

Ardern told her party members in a speech earlier that the “tone and value” of her party’s campaign in 2020 should be factual, honest and robust.

Costings of her party’s major election policies would be independently verified, she said.

“One that is free from misinformation, where people can make honest reflections for themselves about what they want for the future of New Zealand,” Ardern said.

(Reporting by Praveen Menon; Editing by Michael Perry)