Protest over, but the flames of disinformation keep burning

Source: 1News

The protest at Parliament ended in violence and flames, but the issue of disinformation keeps burning. 1News spoke to Josie*, an immunocompromised academic, whose mother was at the protest.

it began as another normal day and ended in violence.

Josie's mum shares claims about Covid-19 from unverified sources. She sends links to articles, and pastes lists of talking points she wants her daughter to research.

Josie wasn't initially able to convince her mum to leave the protest. She's spent the past few weeks alarmed her mum could be exposed to the virus at Parliament grounds

"I have conditions that put me at high risk. Now my mum has isolated herself from us and our kids, but she desperately shares information in the hopes that we will 'wake up'."

READ MORE: Misinformation victims are often vulnerable - anti-conspiracist

Josie said her mum started following what was happening in the United States on YouTube after Donald Trump was elected President in 2016.

They’ve been ordered to answer questions under oath about the Trump Organisation’s business practices.

"During the 2020 lockdown she got a bit obsessed with watching political videos on Facebook. It seems that the mix of the two topics led to this algorithmic assault where her Facebook feed slowly turned into conspiracy theories that were really targeted."

Josie has been concerned about the health risks Māori have faced throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, and for whānau who do not trust information from verified sources.

"Basically our whānau have experienced a lot of medical trauma and mistreatment, and have worked in Māori development, so are aware of the ways the Government and medical system have been untrustworthy."

Josie is worried about those who have been targeted by misinformation.

"She is just despairing thinking that we don't know the danger we are putting ourselves and our babies in by getting vaccinated and wearing masks. So, she was protesting to try and save us.

"We can't reach her because the usual approach of sharing knowledge from the Ministry [of Health] doesn't work because she doesn't trust the Government."

Misinformation and disinformation

Misinformation and disinformation about Covid-19 have been highlighted as a contributing factor to the Parliament protest, where a range of ideas were put forward, despite claims it was solely about vaccine mandates.

A disinformation researcher says it's hard to communicate just how obscene some of the messages are.

Misinformation is content that is false or misleading, but is not shared for an ideological end purpose. Disinformation is false or misleading information, or the omission of content, designed to influence the reader or viewer's perception.

While there was an over-arching desire for an end to the mandates, there were also anti-1080 signs, tino rangatiratanga flags, pro-Trump signs, anti-vax sentiment, belief the Nuremberg Trials had begun again and that electromagnetic radiation was causing illness at the camp.

Research conducted in 2020 by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) showed links between the QAnon conspiracy theory that began in the US and anti-lockdown protests in New Zealand.

The report found "such rallies have attracted not only opponents of Government lockdowns, but also people calling for a ban of the 1080 poison and referencing QAnon-related conspiracy theories about child trafficking".

While the Prime Minister called it an "imported" protest, Australian researcher Elise Thomas from ISD said it is "more of a trans-national movement" given the local elements and local people involved.

Thomas, who researches online dynamics of political movements, said the past decade of social media has fundamentally changed communication and the effects are just now being felt. The speed in which information can travel has meant content can jump between countries with ease.

It comes as the mayor of Canada's capital declared a state of emergency on Monday.

Thomas said pandemics cause an uptick in conspiracy theories.

"The context is perfect, with fear, uncertainty, and distrust. But the social media age changes this. Qualitatively the content is not new. but the quantity of what is shared, and how fast it is shared, is different."

READ MORE: Young Māori vax rates affected by 'intense' disinformation - PM

Thomas said there is no easy answer in combating mis and disinformation, and a lot of work needs to be done on regaining trust with marginalised communities.

Josie agrees.

"When the vaccine rollout came along, we were asking people to place full trust into a system that has harmed them and brushed their pain aside.

"My family has taken medical professionals to court for abuse and for neglect and everyone has stories of direct discrimination at the hands of medical staff, or broader harm from the scientific community onto our communities."

She said there should be public acknowledgement of the harm that has been done in the past to marginalised communities in New Zealand, a discussion of why it happened, and how the system plans to be more accountable and more transparent.

Far-right influences and fighting disinformation

Byron C Clark has monitored far-right groups in New Zealand for several years, and says they've weaponised vaccine hesitancy.

It comes as police sweep through Parliament grounds.

"The far-right see the anti-vaccine movement as fertile ground for influence, because it's a group of people who already distrust the establishment."

He said the Parliament protest "is just the offline manifestation of what's been happening online".

"We still have a way of thinking about the online world as somehow less real than the offline world. We don't take a thousand people in a Telegram or Facebook group seriously until they turn up outside Parliament and set up camp."

The cluster of concerns saw an incredibly diverse group of people, with varying end goals, come together on Parliament's lawn.

"As it's become more widely known that there is a far-right presence at the protest, protesters who themselves are not on the far-right have shown they don't have a problem protesting alongside those groups," Clark said.

Te Rangikaiwhiria Kemara had been monitoring the protests closely, providing informative updates via Twitter. His name, alongside other academics and prominent Māori leaders, is on an execution list posted by social media accounts that have been linked to the protest. He too is concerned at the kaleidoscope of ideas that were represented at the protest.

Kemara told 1News said there are now people on both the left and right who feel they have been ignored by the Government for decades.

"In their view, it is no longer about left or right, but rather about opposing what they believe - real or contrived - are 'elites'."

Kemara said they are rejecting the traditional meta-narratives in favour of micro-narratives - many of which are conspiracy-based.

He said the movement has manufactured the false perception of giving people agency. That has led to calls for violence and overthrowing the Government.

He believes, this is how you end up with some Māori "opting for the false agency that this uprising pretends to provide, standing alongside people that want us to become homogenised or worse, want to wipe us out".

The tino rangatiratanga flag flying on day 10 of the protest

Kemara said as the occupation went on and more protesters began to leave, those left behind were more likely to be Māori, who "have more staying power when it comes to things we deeply believe in".

The Disinformation Project, a part of University of Auckland research unit Te Pūnaha Matatini, has been monitoring the growth of this content online.

A spokesperson for the group said "the splintered individuals and groups are characterised by a shared set of beliefs about the Government, media, public service, and other aspects of public society in which they buy into a discourse that all these groups care nothing for their problems and concerns".

There are people whose "personal grievances, real and imagined, are now politicised beyond a right/left divide into a set of ideas about the state and other aspects of public discourse (media/academia) who are conceived of as an 'elite'."

The future of disinformation

The Prime Minister addressed the nation as the protest that had previously chanted "love and peace" turned into a riot.

The PM says foreign influence has been a major factor in the Parliament protest.

Jacinda Ardern referenced disinformation specifically as a cause for the violent underpinnings of the protest, but admitted the Government cannot tackle it alone. Advice they received in early 2021 about strengthening New Zealand's resilience to mis/disinformation showed this was already a problem.

One of the difficulties the report highlighted was how delicate the process of countering disinformation is, given that any attempts to do so could reinforce ideas around state manipulation of information, thus legitimising the claims of an erosion of 'free speech'.

Clark said that "while the protest has ended, the online disinformation networks that led to it remain".

"That's the world we've living in now, and I think we have been for some time, it's just burst into mainstream conversation in recent weeks. What should be clear now though is that ignoring conspiracy theories and extreme ideologies on the fringe will cause them to disappear is the wrong approach, and we need to tackle this problem head-on."

Rawiri Waititi, Te Pāti Māori co-leader

Just hours before the flames started on March 2, Te Pāti Māori co-leader Rawiri Waititi said while the mandates may be lifted soon, health inequality and distrust from Māori won't go away.

"We will still be faced with those inequities. We will still be faced with a racist system that continues to denigrate the mana of tangata whenua."

Green Party co-leader Marama Davidson has been calling for more to be done to stop people being exploited by a movement with "quite hateful underpinnings".

She told 1News this protest was not about changing society for the better.

"Physical, spiritual, and social violence against Māori is a common thread that runs throughout our history," Davidson said.

"Healing nearly two centuries of harm was never going to happen on the front lawn of Parliament, with far-right grifters seeking to exploit genuine grievances for their own violent ends. That is why we called for people to go home. Because home is where the healing needs to happen. It needs to happen back in our communities, back with whānau."

"A sense of belonging will always be stronger than a conspiracy theory."

Greens co-leader Marama Davidson.

Josie, who continues to try and reach her mum through a wall of misinformation, said the historical distrust was not addressed for some whānau in the initial stages of the pandemic.

She said the Government "needed to actually listen to the voices of those who were hesitant right from the start, rather than dismissing these views as ignorant".

"This could have been an opportunity to lead us into a new trusting relationship between each other."

*Real name withheld at her request.