New Zealand Election Mandates Social Media Blackout

EDITOR’s NOTE: This post should have been on top of TMV yesterday. So we’re displaying it on top today.

On Saturday (Friday in most of the U.S.), New Zealanders head to the polls to vote in a general election (#nzelection) and on a referendum on New Zealand’s voting system.

And there is a media blackout — social media as well as traditional media — from from midnight until 7pm on election day. From the Electoral Commission:

  • News items must not include any words or images likely to influence voters.
  • Restrictions apply to photographing or filming voters or candidates at or near polling places on election day.

Moreover, all websites — including social media sites — must disable commenting “until after 7pm on election day to avoid readers posting statements that could influence voters.”

This is a challenge for news organizations that have incorporated Facebook into their social outreach. It’s possible to turn off comments from this time forward, but, per discussion on a Facebook journalism group, it’s not possible to do so retroactively. In other words, any stories about the election that once allowed comments will continue to allow comments.

According to Wendy Schollum:

The current New Zealand Electoral Act (which prohibits any form of campaigning on polling day) means that if you type, text, televise or tweet your support for a party or person, on any public online platform (be it a blog, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, or any of the other thousands of social media platforms available), before 7pm on Saturday 26th November, you could face a fine of up to $20,000.

[...]

Twitter is already riddled with chirps of discontent – some Twitter users, going as far as to publically declare a virtual war on the Act, by tweeting about the election on the 26th and establishing hash tags (e.g. #SpartacusVotes, #nzelection11, etc.) that other Twitter users can add to their tweets, to take part in the online rebellion against the NZ Electoral Commission.

Facebook users are even more defiant, perhaps feeling more secure in the thought that their profiles can be secured against anyone, other than their friends (who they hope won’t dob them into the Electoral Commission), seeing their Election Day posts.

NZ Newswire published a warning to bloggers.

Twitter-savvy Green MP Gareth Hughes believes this year will be a “trial election”, as far as the use of social media goes.

He says he wants to be able to tweet “I party voted Green today” online, but it’s not clear if that’s within the rules.

“There’s a great deal of confusion out there amongst the public over what they can and can’t do and essentially with new technology like Twitter there’s some big questions,” he told NZ Newswire.

Mr Hughes will be playing it safe by disabling Facebook and blog comments, and not tweeting till after 7pm.

You can bet that Twitter streams will be missing from news organization webpages.

The New Zealand Electoral Commission has a Facebook page; currently there is no chatter about the blackout.

The Electoral Commission is also charged with ensuring that advertisements and claims are factually correct. That’s a duty that I wouldn’t mind seeing mirrored in the U.S., given that news media rarely walk down the fact-checking road (too much he said/she said journalism). However, there are only 4.4 million people in NZ, versus 307 million in the U.S., so it’s unlikely to happen here for lots of reasons (scale and the challenge of achieving consensus being among them).