(Image: Getty/The Spinoff)

My friend, the conspiracy theorist

When writer Charlotte Muru-Lanning noticed her friend JP sharing conspiracy theories online, she challenged him on it. Here they continue that conversation.

For Māori and Pasifika, using social media at the moment almost always means some type of interaction with conspiracy theories. The phenomenon has created widespread concern in our communities and we’ve seen an incredible amount of swift action in response from Māori and Pasifika media, leaders, activists, academics and everyday people. Personally, it’s been heartbreaking seeing people I care about fall into these worm holes, even putting themselves and others at risk, particularly because as Māori and Pasifika, we’re the most at risk from this virus.

Just one day before the latest outbreak of Covid-19 in Auckland was announced, a friend of mine, JP, a New Zealand-born Tongan creative artist, started posting Covid-19 conspiracy theory content on his Instagram. Concerned that one of my very intelligent friends seemed to be getting into conspiracy theories, I sent him a message. A message so long that if I squint my eyes it looks a lot like the angry texts I’ve sent in the past to boyfriends who have wronged me. But we ended up having a really interesting and respectful chat. JP has changed his views on Covid-19 conspiracy theories, but he doesn’t think the people who believe in them are crazy.

We decided to have a more in-depth discussion over the phone around what drives people, even people like himself, to believe these ideas.

As Dam Native said on their 1996 track ‘The Horified One’: “You can’t expect a system built to destroy you to save you”. What’s clear from our conversation is that justified distrust in the intentions of government, media and science play a huge part in this.

Charlotte:  I’ll start at the beginning with how the two of us began this conversation. You were putting a few conspiracy theory-type posts on your Instagram and then we chatted and, long story short, you’re not into Covid-19 conspiracy theories any more. What drew you to those ideas originally?

JP: I’ve always been interested in conspiracy theories because I’ve always questioned authority. I think for myself, when it comes to conspiracy theories, and everyone seems to be saying: ‘I’m not one to believe in conspiracy theories, but…’. But that’s what happens when there’s a lack of transparency from the government, you allow the public to take things into their own hands. With the power of the internet, you’ve got so many different viewpoints and it gives conspiracy theorists the opportunity to push a narrative. When we’re in a vulnerable position like we are today, you look almost anywhere and you want to believe in something when things don’t make sense. That is partly why religion is so powerful, especially for Pasfika because when we’re struggling, we want to believe that something or someone is gonna pull us out of those difficult situations. I know it’s not the same thing but it’s similar in the sense that we’re in trying times and people need answers.

So that’s why I shared that stuff, as more of a criticism of things that have been happening. I know it’s rich for people to have a go at the current government because they’ve actually done a really good job in terms of stamping out the virus. But people need answers. You also really made me think about the stuff that I was posting and how it was coming across. You forget that people are following you, and that you can actually have a real influence on people’s thoughts.

Where did you originally see the conspiracy theories that you shared?

On social media. There are a lot of pages dedicated to pushing conspiracy theories or what some might call “exposing the truth”. There’s just so many pages out there. There’s a few key ones in our communities. Some seem legit and some absolutely crazy, yet people believe it. I almost wanted to do a post on my social media and make up this whole-ass theory and see who believes it and then be like, “I made that all up, do you see how you guys just believe what I said?”.

Are the pages run by well-known people or are they more anonymous?

I know that there are some people behind them who already have large followings, so “influencers” I guess you could call them. But also just your everyday person is adding to the conversation on social media, of course. That’s where I’m seeing it, all over social media.

What don’t you trust the government on?

For me, it’s definitely the lack of transparency. In the early days I loved the stuff the government was doing, but there were a few signs to me that showed they weren’t as dedicated to Māori and Pasifika issues as they claimed to be. One of the key things for me was Ihumātao. That was going on for quite some time before the prime minister or anyone from the Labour Party even mentioned it. As a politician, when you show up to certain things and don’t show up to others, that makes people question you and your intentions. So that was kind of the first thing for me. And then it’s just the unanswered questions too.

What kind of unanswered questions?

Well for example, this whole conspiracy theory that 5G is connected to Covid-19. And you know, yeah that’s a conspiracy theory, but even if you put that to the side, that doesn’t negate from the fact we see these towers popping up around Māngere and they’re trialling it right here in South Auckland. Why South Auckland? I could be wrong but I haven’t heard our MPs speak on it and it gives room for people to believe these conspiracy theories, you know? All an MP has to do is make a clear statement explaining what 5G is, why you think we need it. If it’s safe, show us the research. Explain it to the ordinary person and let the ordinary person have their voice heard.

So many people don’t have answers and not everyone has the resources to research and critically analyse what’s out there, or question the sources they’re getting the information from. So that’s kind of where I sit on these things now – it’s not that I believe in these conspiracy theories themselves, it’s more about highlighting the failure to communicate what’s going on.

One of the many Facebook comments under a 5G article on Facebook. 5G is the 5th generation mobile network. It is a new global wireless standard after 1G, 2G, 3G, and 4G networks.

Something you made me think about when you mentioned Ihumātao is that you don’t see people from these parties, other than perhaps the Greens, at things that really matter for young people in our communities. At Ihumātao, the Temperzone protest, the Black Lives Matter march. Is that a space for improvement?

Exactly! It’s like, when we need them the most, they’re not there. We are the most vulnerable communities and when we have protests like Temperzone or Ihumātao or when we support the Black Lives Matter movement, these are crucial events that you assume that the Labour Party is for because they’re meant to be acting in the best interests of the community. You’d expect them to at least show up for the Temperzone protests. They’re literally called the Labour Party; they’re meant to be for working people. They’re meant to be for the working class, which just so happens to be, of course, majority Pasifika and Māori. But they don’t have a presence and it’s not only that they’re not there, they don’t speak on it. We get frustrated because it’s us who vote you in – we put you into power, we trust you. But then you don’t show up.

Among my family and friends, it’s mostly been Māori and Pasifika getting into these conspiracies. Do you think there are some failures from politicians and government that has meant Māori and Pasifika seem to have disproportionately bought into these ideas?

Yeah man. I was thinking about it the other day, the only people I see sharing these conspiracy theories is Pasifika and Māori, and of course that’s my circle, that’s my network. But I don’t really see any other ethnicities getting caught up in it. Maybe it’s because we know if these theories are true we’ll suffer the most. And maybe these conspiracy theories; one, give us something to believe in, but two, we already know that the government has a history of not having our best interests at heart. That’s governments all over the world for indigenous people. So I guess it’s easier for our people to believe these conspiracy theories when we’re not getting answers, because they align with the narrative that we are and always have been disadvantaged by the system.

I feel like another part of this is that there’s this whole feeling that people don’t trust the media. New Zealand’s mainstream media can be really racist when it comes to our communities – there’s not a great relationship there. Do you think there could be any link between this and people not trusting the information coming out of the media?

Yes. There’s a new generation, a new wave of Pasifika and Māori, who are openly speaking out against the media, whether it’s on social media, in creative art, academic writing or in opinion pieces. We’re tired of the media painting our people in a negative light. The most recent example was how they’ve named that family who initially had Covid-19 as being a Pasifika family. The reason for them doing so has been explained but our people’s reaction to the call-out is completely understandable. They didn’t mention the ethnicity of Pākehā who had Covid-19 and that wasn’t because of how Pākehā communities interact with one another. It’s because race is always irrelevant until it involves the minority.

I’d say when it comes to the government and the media, people look at those two things as going hand in hand, because both are extremely powerful and neither have a good history when it comes to dealing with Māori and Pasifika, we don’t trust them. So of course we end up looking outside mainstream media.

When I see my own Māori whānau posting on conspiracy theories, they seem to present these theories as if they fit within Māori ways of being, but I think that they’re actually quite at odds with our tikanga. I don’t know enough about broader Pasifika beliefs, but do you think that this concern with individual freedoms above what’s best for us as a community conflicts with Pasifika culture?

I’m not too sure, but people’s concerns are mostly focused on the importance of individual freedoms being limited and yeah, these things are really important. But in the greater scheme of things, when we’re in a pandemic, we do have to think and act as a collective and think collectively about what aligns with our Māori and Pasifika tikanga. What is best for my community right now? It’s important to fight for what is right but in a situation where lives are at risk, it shouldn’t be just about my individual rights.

I assume you’re like me and still have friends and family who are into conspiracy theories. How do you deal with that?

I just try to encourage them to remember that regardless of everything that’s going on, there are facts. The fact is that there’s a virus and that it can kill people. And it’s also a fact that Māori and Pasifika generally have poorer health than the rest of the population so we are more likely to suffer as a result of this pandemic. So the question is, what are the things that are within our control? We should go get tested, we stay at home, wear masks when we go out and encourage our friends and family to do the same. Our people have been through worse, so we can get through this if we work together. And if you’re not going to do it for yourself, do it for your loved ones. I don’t want to bring anything back to my family. I have a 93-year-old grandma and an 83-year-old grandma. Those are the things that we all have to take into consideration.




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