Social media posts from Billy Te Kahika, one of the leaders of the the Advance New Zealand party, claim Covid-19 is fake and part of a conspiracy to enslave people

Wellington (AFP) - 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.

The action against a registered political party in the midst of an election campaign is unprecedented in New Zealand and comes as Facebook shows an increased willingness to act against false claims made on the social media giant.

“We don’t allow anyone to share misinformation on our platforms about Covid-19 that could lead to imminent physical harm,” a Facebook spokesperson told AFP, accusing Advance New Zealand of “repeated violations” of that policy.

Advance NZ co-leader Billy Te Kahika said the takedown occurred while he was addressing followers online, accusing Facebook of meddling in Saturday’s vote.

“Facebook have now officially interfered with the New Zealand 2020 elections,” he said after hurriedly posting a live video to his personal Facebook page.

“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.”

Social media posts from Billy Te Kahika, one of the leaders of the the Advance New Zealand party, claim Covid-19 is fake and part of a conspiracy to enslave people

Facebook has been criticised in the past for taking a hands-off approach to dealing with falsehoods published on its platforms.

But in recent weeks, the Mark Zuckerberg-headed company has clamped down on misleading political claims, fake accounts pushing partisan agendas and hate speech such as Holocaust denial.

Facebook 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.

Addressing its move against Advance New Zealand, it said policies on coronavirus misinformation would be enforced “regardless of anyone’s political position or party affiliation”.

- ‘This is war’ -

Te Kahika has amassed a huge following using the online platform, spurring him to enter politics.

The former blues musician’s social media videos claiming the Covid-19 pandemic is fake and part of a conspiracy to enslave people became wildly popular since he began posting them earlier this year.

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.

However, the huge online presence does not appear to have translated into votes, with an opinion poll released Thursday putting Advance NZ’s support at just one percent.

AFP fact-checkers have debunked two of the 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 parliamentary authorities condemning “blatant doctoring” of footage and demanding it be taken down.

On Thursday, New Zealand’s Advertising Standards Authority ordered the party to withdraw fliers making similar claims, calling them “misleading and irresponsible”.

Te Kahika accused 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.

“This is war,” Te Kahika raged, as his supporters vented their anger 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”.