Big Read: Violent talk and fake news – how extremism went mainstream

There is so much violent talk online that our security services are struggling to separate genuine threats from middle New Zealand’s embrace of extreme language. How has this happened? And are we able to fix it?

Smoke was still rising from Parliament’s grounds when Jacinda Ardern told the country action was underway to deal with the falsehoods that led protesters to Wellington.

“One day it will be our job to try to understand how a group of people could succumb to such wild and dangerous mis-and-disinformation,” she said.

A month on, there’s no sign of any great response. The chaos of March 2 is gone but fuel that fed and fired the protest still fills the internet and the minds of those whose catchcry was “freedom”.

Kelvyn Alp’s Counterspin online broadcast continues to push false and misleading information about the pandemic. On Monday, his show opened with a speech from Australian senator Malcolm Roberts, who has consistently pushed known false information about the Covid-19 vaccination.

“Truth bombs galore,” says Alp of Roberts’ false claims. Alp and co-host Spierer run through the latest news.

It includes commentary around the court appearance of Te Puke’s Richard Sivell for allegedly threatening to kill the Prime Minister. Sivell’s comments were made in Counterspin’s Telegram chat room.

Counterspin also covered success in court for Dr Matt Shelton and fellow medic Dr Peter Canaday, who won an appeal against being struck off by the NZ Medical Council for airing views contrary to public health advice.

Shelton was a star turn at the Parliament protest, telling the crowd he had found “microscopic self-assembling electronic components” in the Pfizer vaccine. Canaday is a regular on Voices for Freedom’s online broadcasts, which features interviews with some of New Zealand and the world’s leading lights in the Covid-19 anti-mitigation movements.

Founders Claire Deeks, Alia Bland and Libby Johnson have hosted international misinformation rockstars such as Robert Kennedy jnr, of the famous Kennedy dynasty, and domestic champions, such as Chantelle Baker, who has carved her own niche with engaging reporting through Facebook for and to the activism audience.

The Voices for Freedom broadcasts have attracted hundreds of thousands of views with its guests and ability to move with the anti-vax zeitgeist. It has twice hosted the emerging self-styled expert Dr Guy Hatchard, whose questionable claims are published across a range of self-styled news websites.

These include Daily Telegraph NZ, which runs Russia Today content that has been described as anti-West propaganda, and right-leaning The Daily Examiner, edited by New Conservatives politician Elliot Ikilei. Hatchard also appears on The BFD, the new vehicle for Cameron Slater, the former Dirty Politics Whaleoil blogger, recently discharged bankrupt and a three-time defamation case loser.

It’s a swirling ecosystem of overlapping content producers, diverse ideologies and a few shared bonds. Among the common ground shared is the claim Covid-19 mitigation measures don’t work or are a means of government control. Also shared is an opposition to the Government that introduced those measures.

That opposition is particularly sharp when it comes to Ardern and Bloomfield, the most familiar faces of New Zealand’s Covid-19 response.

In a column last year, Slater wrote that Ardern was “actually evil” and should be “run out of town on a rail”. He linked the term to a definition that described how it was “typically a form of extrajudicial punishment administered by a mob”.

Slater wrote: “Jacinda Ardern is a black-hearted woman … and I will spend every waking moment working to remove her from office. It’s personal now.”

Danger down the rabbit hole

It’s difficult to assess the reach of these distributors and producers of misinformation, but data compiled through the protest showed social media channels carrying falsehoods reached more people than those carrying fact-checked, reliable information.

Baker’s Facebook feed is so popular it featured during the protest as the most-viewed livestream, pulling in tens of thousands of viewers.

Social media statistics show a steady growth in visitors over the past year to the main domestic distributors of misinformation. Over the period of the protest, as with Baker’s content, it grew massively. Data for some of those misinformation channels also shows that interest in their content increased after the protest ended.

Along with the growth of misinformation channels and audience has come an increase in angry and violent rhetoric. It’s an online reflection of what could be seen on those days when Parliament’s grounds were most packed with protesters. Signs bobbing above a sea of people carried false and sometimes irrational claims. They also carried violent imagery and words.

In November 2021, the Government’s Combined Threat Assessment Group produced a report into the state of violent extremism in New Zealand. In it, our nation’s security experts described how the pandemic and the restrictions associated with it “almost certainly contributed to an environment that is conducive to the spread of threatening, anti-authority rhetoric”.

It described a series of lockdowns and the resulting social isolation that had led to some spending more time online where they had “greater exposure to disinformation, conspiracy theories and online extremist and violent extremist content regarding the virus, vaccines and government mitigation programmes”.

It wasn’t content people sought out, said CTAG, but material that came through social media. Algorithms then forced-fed those who clicked with more of the same content.

The “vast majority of those opposed to mitigation programmes are overwhelmingly peaceful,” CTAG said, but there was also a dramatic increase in violent talk. This wasn’t likely to lead to a terror attack in the short term but there was so much it was “creating an environment that normalises and justifies violent rhetoric as a legitimate response to public policy”.

There was the possibility “individuals will be radicalised and inspired to mobilise to violence”, CTAG warned. Also, the volume of violent talk made it difficult to identify “legitimate attack plots”.

The problem is not unique to New Zealand. As the pandemic is global, so is the infodemic. The Institute of Strategic Dialogue, based in the UK has provided advice for the New Zealand Government (through the Department of Internal Affairs) on extremism.

In December 2021, it published a paper called “Between conspiracy and extremism: A long Covid threat?”. It pointed to disinformation and conspiracy theories fuelling existing anti-vaccine narratives.

The society-wide discord caused by the pandemic has also provided an opportunity for those with extremist views to “call for action” and “mobilise”.

The Weekend Herald has tracked this coalescing of diverse and incongruous groups. White supremacists, for example, have been seen alongside He Whakaputanga activists with, it seems, their conflicting reasons for existing put aside to target the power structures they hold in common as obstructions to their aims.

The UK institute said it was “broader grievances” such as these that spread “anti-lockdown activism” to new audiences who did not have the single-issue fixation of the constituent groups. It brought them into the “sphere of influence of extremists” where they were “prompted to engage in harmful activity”.

There was “a lack of ideological coherence” but consistent harmful activity “including the amplification of disinformation, harassment, hate speech, and threats of violence”.

NZ Security Intelligence Service director-general Rebecca Kitteridge spoke of the same pattern playing out here. She said violent extremist groups had morphed from the single-purpose ideology.

“They kind of cherry-pick from a range of views that may resonate with them. And sometimes these views are even conflicting with one another.”

Kitteridge says the NZSIS is interested in disinformation when it engages violent extremism or is carried out by a foreign state. “Freedom of speech is a human right,” she says, so the security services step carefully.

However, “there is no doubt that we can all see the environment is changing”. Part of that change is the increased overlap between types of violent extremism – identity-related, political or faith-based. “It creates a very complicated situation.”

It’s a threat that the Institute of Strategic Dialogue says “extends beyond traditional extremist communities”.

“Instead, they represent a hybrid threat where anti-establishment street protests, established extremist movements and conspiracy theories opportunistically align.”

The ISD warned that “the movements themselves transcend extremism”. Treating the problem as one of extremism or potential terrorism could lead to disproportionate responses and accelerate radicalisation.

To deal with the new threat, ISD said it needed new strategies – “a new conceptual framework for dealing with expansive, conspiracy-driven threats”.

There was a need to counter-message “these loose movements” and find ways to bring people out of the remote places they had been led to by misinformation andinto general society.

This begs the question, are we doing that?

So what is being done?

Jacinda Ardern was asked by the Herald if misinformation was a national security issue. She did not respond to that specific question.

It was a global issue, she said, exacerbated by Covid-19 and “the Ukraine situation”. She said she had asked for options on how to address it locally “but this will take time”.

“Government agencies are working together to look at how we can better combat the spread of mis- and disinformation and it’s very clear that it’s a whole of society approach that’s needed.”

Work to deal with the problem began after the March 15, 2019, attacks that left 51 people dead. The Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet as the central hub of government set up an interagency group to share experiences and discuss strategies.

It means no single agency “owns” the response to misinformation. Individual departments fight their own battles and report the outcome to DPMC, which briefs ministers and tells other government departments what worked and what didn’t.

What doesn’t work is that system, says academic Sanjana Hattotuwa, a researcher at Te Pūnaha Matatini, the academic Centre of Research Excellence that is home to infodemic mappers, The Disinformation Project.

The approach, he says, resembles the “entropy of a Jackson Pollock painting with none of the aesthetic pleasure of viewing one”. It’s an analogy that evokes the disordered splatter of colour Jackson Pollock created with his abstract expressionist drip-and-splash method of painting.

Hattotuwa says the agencies dealing with misinformation don’t have the capability or legislative framework to grapple with a rapidly growing problem. It’s an environment unlikely to change at a stage in the political term when the Government will be looking to the next election.

Since 2019, when work began, the change from dealing with right-wing extremism alone has been dramatic. “It’s very sad. The problem as they have defined it is very different from the problem that exists,” he said.

New features include the increase in threats against those who don’t traditionally have security capacity. That includes names and home addresses of prospective victims highlighted, along with photographs of faces and locations.

Another feature is hyper-masculinity and misogyny, which Hattotuwa says has the potential to further rape culture and have an exponential effect on women’s lives across the country.Gender-driven violence has been identified by Five Eyes partners as a growing risk. Security agencies here have explored the growth of such movements.

“It shouldn’t take another offline encounter to jolt the system into some sort of self-awareness as seen in March 2019. This is a cancer.”

And now, Hattotuwa says, there appears to be a jockeying for position among government departments as the Department of Internal Affairs angles to take the lead on the issue.

It’s an observation the Weekend Herald has confirmed among other people close to the issue. There’s concern at the department’s ability to make enough space inside the Beltway for the issue to be taken seriously but also an attraction to the idea that an agency with a track record in digital safety would take the problem and make it their own.

The Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet’s deputy chief executive and national security lead, Tony Lynch, said the Government was “extremely concerned about the growth and effect of misinformation and disinformation on the public and susceptible communities”.

He said the department was advising on a long-term response that would have a role for government, civil society, tech companies, media, academia, business and the public while protecting freedom of expression and an open online environment.

The department’s interagency group was gathering insights on how broad trends and narratives were changing. He said social media platforms had improved the removal of disinformation breaching terms and conditions, which had seen a shift to less regulated channels and “greater co-ordination of activity across these groups and individuals”.

Kate Hannah, who leads The Disinformation Project, says the lockdown that came with Delta and the protest at Parliament “irrevocably changed the information landscape”.

There was a belief, she said, that the anger would dissipate when the protest outside Parliament broke up and the mandates were largely lifted. “But it was linked to bigger subjects. It was never just about mandates.”

Hannah, like Hattotuwa, is frustrated public service agencies haven’t grasped the seriousness of the problem or how to tackle it. “Government is there for all people and there is a concern about not exacerbating a sense of fragmentation.” Hannah isn’t sure the fragmentation – that breaking away from society – has actually occurred but the feelings of it are genuine.

“The reluctance seems to be they are not quite sure it’s a national security issue yet. But it is.”

All that false information sends people spiralling away from reality. Increasingly there is violent talk – the sort that the security services worry might mask a real threat. That violent talk has led to lists being created of those guilty of crimes against humanity.

The names on that list include academics, business owners, editors, health workers, teachers. The person next door to you could be on a list.

Hannah: “Eventually all those names on lists will result in someone turning up someone’s home.”

• Counterspin, The Daily Examiner and Daily Telegraph NZ responded to requests for comment about the misinformation identified on their sites. Counterspin’s Kelvyn Alp said the spread of Covid-19 didn’t qualify as a pandemic. He said Counterspin “carries fact-based information from credible sources”. The Daily Examiner’s Elliot Ikilei rejected the “misinformation” label and said Guy Hatchard’s columns were fine because they were footnoted. Ikilei said the Herald printed misinformation. DTNZ editor Malcolm Dreaneen said he did not want to comment. Guy Hatchard also emailed, saying he did not produce misinformation. He said the Pfizer vaccine was “experimental”. Health authorities and regulatory bodies across the world have taken a different view.

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