Facebook shut down the page of conspiracy-embracing political party Advance New Zealand on Thursday just two days out from a general election, accusing it of spreading misinformation about the coronavirus.
“We don’t allow anyone to share misinformation on our platforms about Covid-19 that could lead to imminent physical harm,” a spokesperson for the social media giant told AFP.
The action prompted the party’s co-leader Billy Te Kahika — who has amassed a huge following using the online platform — to accuse Facebook of meddling in the upcoming vote.
“Facebook have now officially interfered with the New Zealand 2020 elections,” Te Kahika claimed in a live video posted to his personal Facebook page shortly after the takedown.
“They did it in the middle of a broadcast and it’s unbelievable, guys. This is amazing… they’ve actually carried through with the threat.”
Facebook’s action against a registered political party in the midst of an election campaign is unprecedented in New Zealand.
It comes as the company shows an increased willingness to act against misleading political claims, fake accounts pushing partisan agendas and hate speech such as Holocaust denial.
The company recently banned a politician from India’s ruling Hindu nationalist BJP for hate speech, and on Thursday blocked links to a New York Post article purporting to expose corrupt dealings by US Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden.
Facebook said it would enforce its policies on coronavirus misinformation “regardless of anyone’s political position or party affiliation”.
“We removed Advance New Zealand/New Zealand Public Party’s Facebook Page for repeated violations” of misinformation policies, it said.
Te Kahika, a former blues musician, is standing for parliament after his social media posts claiming Covid-19 is fake and part of a conspiracy to enslave people became wildly popular in New Zealand.
Between late June and early October, the Advance NZ Facebook page generated more than 5.3 million views, according to data from social media tracker CrowdTangle.
They are stunning figures for a new political entrant in a nation of just five million people.
Advance NZ’s page views exceed the 2.8 million for New Zealand’s main opposition National Party and 5.2 million for Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s Labour Party over the same period.
Advance NZ’s Facebook posts have also generated far more activity than those of the two mainstream parties.
Advance NZ’s posts have been shared 148,000 times, compared with fewer than 110,000 combined for the mainstream parties, according to the CrowdTangle data.
AFP fact-checkers have debunked two of his party’s most popular claims: that the government was authorising the military to enter private residences and planning forced vaccinations.
The latter claim was made in a campaign video that selectively edited statements from lawmakers, resulting in parliament’s privileges committee condemning “blatant doctoring” of footage and demanding it be taken down.
On Thursday, New Zealand’s Advertising Standards Authority order the party to withdraw fliers making similar claims, calling them “misleading and irresponsible”.
Te Kahika accused Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who is expected to win Saturday’s election due largely to her government’s success containing coronavirus, of being behind Facebook’s decision to remove the page.
“This is not North Korea, this is not China, but the way this government’s behaving you’d think it is,” he said.
Te Kahika’s supporters expressed outrage online.
“They did this to Trump, you’re both a threat to the establishment,” commented one, while another said “the more they fight you, the more credible they make you”.
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