The "What, How and Who" of the Disinformation Project
Part 1 of a 3 Part Commentary
Over the period of the COVID-19 Pandemic the Disinformation Project was one of the agencies responsible for ensuring the acceptance of Government messaging around the Pandemic.
Now that the Pandemic is over the Disinformation Project remains and it appears to have expanded its remit to cover issues that are well beyond the scope of the Pandemic. The Project has a considerable degree of traction. It is often a source of commentary for Mainstream Media when it comes to issues of misinformation, disinformation, mal-information and dangerous speech.
This article is the first part of a proposed three part study of the Disinformation Project. I approach the topic in the form of a commentary All the materials that I have considered are freely available online..
This is not a journalistic exercise. Rather it is an examination of available recorded evidence. I acknowledge from the outset that I have not approached the Disinformation Project or its members for comments or feedback. Rather I have let their papers and pronouncements speak for themselves.
The first part of the study investigates the “What, How and Who” of the Disinformation Project. What is the Disinformation Project, how did it get established and how it is funded. Who are involved, what are their backgrounds.
The second part of the study considers the work that the Disinformation Project has done. This involves a consideration of the papers that the Project has made available in the Resources section of its website. The second part will then go one to look at the Disinformation Project and the Mainstream Media and the way in which spokespeople for the Project manage to bridge the gap between academic study and discourse and the sound bite.
The third and final part of the study will examine the implications arising from particularly the second part of the study and will discuss some of the methodologies (or lack of them) employed by the Project, why some of the conclusions advanced by the Project should be treated with caution because they are based on a limited dataset, the fact that none of the papers available on the Disinformation Project have been subjected to proper peer review and why it is unwise for Mainstream Media to rely uncritically upon pronouncements emanating from the Project.
I immediately offer a caveat. My observations (and they may be limited by the scope of the material I have sourced) lead me to conclude that the Project would like to see some form of limitation placed upon the expression of contrarian opinions. I do not suggest that for a moment that the Project should be prevented or prohibited from expressing its point of view. The Project and its members have a right to express and communicate their findings and their opinions.
But as the Project itself cautions us about the claims advanced by contrarians (which it variously characterizes as misinformation, disinformation and malinformation) so we must be cautious about unreservedly accepting the Project’s view of the world.
The What and How – What is the Disinformation Project? How did it get started?
The Disinformation Project weas founded in 2020 as a part of a collective of academics under the name of Te Punaha Matatini. Te Punaha Matatini describes itself as a Centre of Research Excellence for complex system and embraces a number of academics and researchers from tertiary institutions, government institutes, private sector organisations and marae communities from throughout New Zealand.
The stated strategy of Te Punaha Matatini is to transform the research system in New Zealand by “embedding a strong foundation of values that permeates the work that we do on complex systems. We train ethical, collaborative researchers who work with complex data across diverse sectors.”
The Disinformation Project describes itself as “studying information disorder ecologies” by using mixed methods approaches to analyse and review the seed and spread of information disorders – and their impact on the lives of New Zealanders”
In 2022 the group left Te Punaha Matatini and continued as an independent entity. But it was, and to all intents and purposes still is a small cog initially in the Government’s COVID messaging strategy but has latterly spread its remit to examine mis and disinformation in a wider context of social dislocation and conspiracy theories.
The background to the Government’s approach to messaging during the COVID pandemic is important to understand. The Government’s actions during the pandemic involved significant interferences with New Zealander’s civil liberties. Necessarily there would be resistance and push-back. It was recognized that counter-moves to such pushback should not come directly from the Government itself. The counter-moves would be much more acceptable if they came from other apparently independent sources.
In a briefing papers to the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet (DPMC) in December 2020 it was stated:
Ideally efforts to counter mis/disinformation should be led outside of government by the media, civil society, NGOs, academia and the private sector. Several leading academics, research organisations such as Te Pūnaha Matatini, and other organisations such as Netsafe and InternetNZ have already been very active, and we are exploring how to support them and lift their capacity in this work.
Oversight of mis/disinformation is a sensitive issue, as any public commentary or perceived control of a ‘counter-disinformation effort’ can reinforce conspiracy meta-narratives about state manipulation of information and give legitimacy to those claiming an erosion of free speech. For this reason, we would not recommend formal allocation of disinformation responsibilities or the identification of a government spokesperson. A group of relevant Ministers with whom significant issues can be highlighted and public communications approaches approved will, however, be important to ensure appropriate proactive oversight of official activity in this area.
So early on in 2020 the importance of monitoring social media was recognized and the role of the Disinformation Project in these efforts would be co-ordinated by DPMC. The Disinformation Project’s association with DPMC can be illustrated by the fact that in June of 2021 the Project’s Director Kate Hannah and lead researcher Sanjana Hattotuwa both presented papers to the Conference He Whenua Taurikura – New Zealand’s Hui on Countering Terrorism and Violent Extremism run by the DPMC.
In November 2021 the DPMC highlighted the role of the Disinformation Project in a briefing paper which observed that since August of 2021
“in response to a request from DPMC for insights into the mis/disinformation landscape and its effect on COVID-19 mitigation measures, Te Pūnaha Matatini (TPM) has been providing regular analytical reports on the online COVID-19 mis/disinformation and extremist landscape. TPM researchers have been able to access a wide range of online platforms and networks, and use both data and narrative analysis to show how there has been an increase over time in extremist rhetoric within New Zealand.”
A considerable amount of importance was placed on countering misinformation and disinformation by DPMC. In the December 2020 Briefing Paper the following observations were made:
The mis/disinformation spectrum is a broad one, and while most instances of it will be content that does not stray into illegality, may be somewhat socially acceptable and often will constitute political discourse, there will be instances when disinformation crosses into illegal or dangerous activity. The incitement to attacks against cell towers are a recent example.
Disinformation was seen as an international phenomenon.
The internationalisation of disinformation emanating from the US and/or amplified on US-based platforms is one factor in this. Anti-mask and anti-lockdown narratives, often couched in broad human rights and basic freedoms terms (and often grounded in narratives linked to the US Constitution) found fertile ground amongst followers of a few influencers, political parties and some church congregations.
In April 2023 the Disinformation Project acknowledged that its responsibility was not to monitor far-right extremism which falls within the remit of the security services and the police. Instead, its responsibility is to monitor disinformation in the so-called “gray area” which the government recognises is likely to be legal speech.
However, as will become apparent in Part 2 of this study an examination of the various papers put out by the Project does exactly that, drawing parallels between some of the messaging studied – especially over the time of the Parliamentary protest and earlier in November 2021 – and the Far Right.
During its time with Te Punaha Matatini the Project was commissioned by DPMC to provide monthly reports on levels of disinformation and online vitriol. However those commissions seem to have dried up and the Project is no longer associated with Te Punaha Matatini.
As far as I am aware the project is funded by a “philanthropic organization” but at present no details of that organization or its expectations are available.
In closing this section I should observe that there are Projects called “The Disinformation Project in other countries. Thus a search on “The Disinfomation Project” will turn up a number of hits from similar projects in other countries.
Having considered the What, I shall now pass to the Who – the people who represent the Disinformation Project.
The Who of the Disinformation Project
The Disinformation Project website identifies three individuals who comprise “Our People”. They are Kate Hannah who is identified as the Director of the Project, Sanjana Hattotuwa, Research Fellow and Kayli Taylor, Researcher.
Kate Hannah is described as a cultural historian of science and technology who works within and across cultural history, critical science and technology studies, and public understanding of science and technology. She has extensive experience in research translation, strategic communications, policy development, and community engagement.
She holds an MA from Waikato University conferred in 2004 in 19th Century American Literary Culture. She is currently undertaking a doctorate from Victoria University of Wellington, Faculty of Science researching Hidden Networks: feminist historiographies of the history of science in Aotearoa New Zealand.
She was part of the Te Pūnaha Matatini team that won the 2021 Prime Minister’s Science Prize for their work in supporting Aotearoa New Zealand’s Covid response. Kate Hannah was a 2022 International Visitor Leadership Program alum, participating in a program focused on Disinformation in the Pacific. She was a Principal Investigator with Te Pūnaha Matatini.
We are fortunate that Kate Hannah has provided us with a form of an academic or intellectual credo. On 7 April 2017 she wrote an open letter to the Vide-Chancellor of Waikato University asking that he reconsider his approach to understanding the Faculty of Arts and Social Science.
In this letter she traces her intellectual development at Waikato University in particular from the departments of History and English. She details those who influcenced her in her writing, her work with archival material, her interviewing for research, jobs, meetings with colleagues. Her ability to listen, her manner of engagement with written and read material, the inspiration that she took from her own mentors and guides and which she applies in her own work with students and colleagues.
Importantly she states
“When I use theoretical approaches to understand the world, it is my graduate class in theory, taught across the faculty, in which we explored the critical theoretical advances of the twentieth and early twenty-first century; where I first really understood Marxism, feminism, postcolonial theory. These are tools I use everyday in my work, and in the construction of my identity.”
This gives us an helpful insight in understanding Kat Hannah’s theoretical approach to understanding the world and to the interpretation of information. It is important to keep this in mind as we explore the work of the Disinformation Project in the second part of this study.
Dr Hattotuwa is described as a Research Fellow. His biography as recorded on the Disinformation Project website states a TED, Rotary World Peace and Ashoka Fellow, Dr. Sanjana Hattotuwa’s doctoral research at the University of Otago examined the intersection of social media, political communication, propaganda and information disorders in Sri Lanka, as well as how the Christchurch massacre in March 2019 was represented on Twitter.
The research on Christchurch was based on Aotearoa New Zealand’s first ever Data for Good grant by Twitter, with the National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies (NCPACS). He has written extensively about the nurture and nature of information disorders in Aotearoa New Zealand, and in March 2021 organised a conference on social media’s role in democracy, embracing a wide range of perspectives and speakers, including Nobel Peace Laureate Maria Ressa.
Since 2002, Dr. Hattotuwa has used, studied and advocated Information and Communications Technologies (ICTs) to strengthen peace, human rights & democratic governance. He pioneered the use of social media for activism and citizen journalism in Sri Lanka, and started South Asia’s first Twitter and Facebook accounts for civic media and election monitoring, in 2007.
Specialising in and advising on social media communications strategy, digital security for journalists and human rights defenders, social media activism, online advocacy and grounded, mixed-methods social media research, Dr. Hattotuwa’s experience in studying, negotiating and developing policies against information disorders spans two-decades, and work in South Asia, South East Asia, North Africa, the United States, Europe and the Balkans. Since 2006, he has been a Special Advisor at the ICT4Peace Foundation, leading the work around technology for peacebuilding, humanitarian aid and peacekeeping.
He regularly gives input to leading social media companies on how they can strengthen platform integrity, better identify inauthentic behaviours, malevolent constellations, and prevent the abuse of products. After disturbing developments in Myanmar, Afghanistan and Ukraine, he also advises leading social companies on how to best deal with wartime ground conditions, do no harm, and navigate predominantly militarised contexts.
Although Dr Hattoruwa has been active in New Zealand he came from Sri Lanka and grew up in a country at war, near an airport in Sri Lanka which was a key conduit between the capital of Colombo and the front in the north. Each day government-controlled press delivered good news about how well the war was progressing; each night he was kept awake by the sound of turbo-prop planes transporting casualties back to hospitals in the city.
When he walked home from school during the “pogrom” in 1983, he often witnessed scenes of savage death and destruction unfold before his very eyes. Growing up next to the military air base near Colombo, he woke up night after night to the endless wails of ambulances rushing to wounded soldiers whenever the government launched an offensive against the LTTE. Come morning he would see headlines heralding victories by government troops and reporting few or no losses, and though he was young, he could recognize a distortion of the truth when he saw it.
This dissonance between reality and the official narrative shaped around it became an abiding obsession and then a life’s work.
Dr Hattotuwa set up Groundviews, an initially controversial civic media site for Sri Lanka, and has worked alongside giants of this era’s battle for truth including Maria Ressa, the Filipino journalist who last year won the Nobel peace prize.
The birth of Dr. Hattotuwa’s son in 2006 inspired in him a sense of urgency to address the current political climate and culture of impunity in Sri Lanka. When asked about the subject, he responded: “When my son grows up and asks me ‘what did you do, Dad, to stop the war mongering politics of the South?’ I want to be able to tell him what I did.” Many ask him whether he is afraid for his life and for the security of his family, but Sanjana maintains that silence is not an option, and that for change to take place, those who stand opposed to it must be challenged head-on. According to him, he would rather die for something than live for nothing.
Sanjana’s work on the ground with local and international partners involved in the 2002 peace process in Sri Lanka was strengthened by an Advanced Masters in International Relations and Conflict Resolution from the University of Queensland, Australia in 2005. Sanjana finished his graduate studies in Delhi and during this period he also served as the secretary of the Sri Lanka Students Association. In that capacity he worked closely with the then Sri Lankan Ambassador to India on many student welfare programs. Currently he is working at the Center for Policy Alternatives in Colombo as a Senior Researcher and heads the ICT and peace-building unit of InfoShare.
Kayli Taylor is described as a researcher on the Disinformation Project website. Her Masters thesis examined a history of student activism in response to the issue of sexual violence on university campuses in Aotearoa New Zealand from 1980-2020. Using archival materials, oral history interviews, and policy analysis; Kayli explored these historic shifts and the institutional responses from universities.
Her work with the Disinformation Project continues these analyses of power – interrogating the way systems of power influence society. She has written and spoken on Disinformation Project topics.
Conclusion to Part 1
In this part I have outlined how the Disinformation Project was established, its association with Te Punaha Matatini at the University of Auckland and its initial sources of funding. All this information is freely available online and where necessary I have referenced sources. I acknowledge that with the exception of the material from DPMC I have not had access to internal papers, Memoranda of Understanding or other official material. I acknowledge the Substack Space name “Cranmer” which contains material under the pseudonym Thomas Cranmer. In particular I am indebted to acknowledge the assistance from the article “ From Academic Research to News Headlines: The Disinformation Project's Influence on New Zealand Media”
In the next part of this study I shall discuss the papers that the Project has made available in the Resources section of its website. I will then go one to look at the Disinformation Project and the Mainstream Media and the way in which spokespeople for the Project manage to bridge the gap between academic study and discourse and the sound bite.
 “About Te Punaha Matatini” https://www.tepunahamatatini.ac.nz/about-us/ (Last accessed 20 April 2023)
 Referred to in Cranmer’s Substack “From Academic Research to News Headlines: The Disinformation Project's Influence on New Zealand Media” 11 April 2023
(Last accessed 3 May 2023)
 When worlds collide: addressing harm, hateful and violent extremism, and disinformation in Aotearoa New Zealand – Kate Hannah
https://www.dpmc.govt.nz/sites/default/files/2021-10/Panel%204%20-%20Sanjana%20Hattotuwa.pdf ; Reimagining responses to extremism: The importance of context culture and community – Sanjana Hattotuwa
Both papers last accessed 20 April 2023
These papers will be discussed in detail below
 Referred to in Cranmer’s Substack “From Academic Research to News Headlines: The Disinformation Project's Influence on New Zealand Media” 11 April 2023
(Last accessed 3 May 2023)
 https://thedisinfoproject.org/about-us/ (Last accessed 20 April 2023)
 https://www.wgtn.ac.nz/science/schools/science-in-society/study/phd-candidates/kate-hannah (Last accessed 20 April 2023)
Open Letter to Vice-Chancellor University of Waikato from Kate Hannah dated 7 April 2017 http://thingsweholddear.blogspot.com/2017/04/an-open-letter-to-vice-chancellor.html (Last accessed 20 April 2023)
 Duncan Grieve “The protest lost at parliament – but it unequivocally won the social media war” The Spinoff 7 March 2022 https://thespinoff.co.nz/media/07-03-2022/the-protest-lost-at-parliament-but-it-unequivocally-won-the-social-media-war (Last accessed 22 April 2023)
 Ashoka “Sanjana Hattotuwa Ashoka Fellow since 2008” https://www.ashoka.org/en-us/fellow/sanjana-hattotuwa#accordion (Last Accessed 22 April 2023)
 https://ourarchive.otago.ac.nz/handle/10523/12925 (Last accessed 21 April 2023
 Cranmer’s Substack “From Academic Research to News Headlines: The Disinformation Project's Influence on New Zealand Media” 11 April 2023
(Last Accessed 22 April 2023)