New research details just how dramatic the shift of focus in online disinformation groups was when the anti-trans activist came to New Zealand.
Anti-trans rhetoric became a focal point for far-right and conspiracy theory online groups around the time of Posie Parker’s visit to New Zealand in March, a new study has found. Focusing on the period between March 18 to mid-April 2023, The Disinformation Project, an interdisciplinary research group dedicated to studying online hate, found “a measurable increase in hate and harm directed towards trans people”, said Kate Hannah, one of the study’s lead authors.
Posie Parker, whose real name is Kellie-Jay Keen-Minshull, is a British anti-trans activist who travelled to New Zealand to hold two speaking events in Auckland and Wellington. The first event, on March 25 at Auckland’s Albert Park, was abandoned after Parker faced significant opposition from counter-protesters, one of whom doused her in tomato juice. She then cancelled the Wellington event and left the country.
The Disinformation Project’s report, which has not been peer reviewed, describes anti-trans rhetoric becoming the “motivational narrative” of online groups that had initially formed to share and perpetuate false beliefs about Covid-19 and the Covid vaccine in 2020. It labels this the “Parker effect”.
The researchers downloaded publicly available posts about Parker on the Facebook, Instagram and Telegram platforms, and analysed their content and intent.
“To put it in media terms, it was a really good week for them – their numbers were up,” Hannah, director of The Disinformation Project, told The Spinoff. Two aspects stood out particularly: the solidifying and intensifying of hate towards trans people and the use of specific tactics, such as sharing gifs and images or utilising certain features of online communities, that Hannah said may indicate overseas interference or influence.
Technical capabilities on digital platforms used by these groups also inform how ideas spread. On Telegram, the ability to create and share animated gifs and stickers normalised and meme-ified violent intent towards trans people, as well as making it easier to share between groups.
The report includes examples of many of the stickers and images created by online extremist groups, as well as written messages and posts which The Disinformation Project analysed. Some were not included as the content was too violent to share.
Concerningly, online groups’ discussion of trans people and Posie Parker had a much longer tail than the mainstream media coverage; online extremist groups wrote more about the events overall, and some of their content had far greater engagement than that produced by traditional media outlets. These groups continued to post about anti-trans ideas when mainstream media had stopped covering the protests.
The impact of overseas disinformation about trans people could also be traced, Hannah said. For several months, The Disinformation Project has seen an increase in content about trans people, often in the form of videos, from the US and the UK. When Keen-Minshull arrived in Australia in mid-March, the conversation in New Zealand groups intensified. “The type of imagery used was more overtly violent, and included overt references to far-right and neo-Nazi ideology.”
One example of the dramatic spike in anti-trans ideas is in the digital activity of white nationalist group Action Zealandia. Between March 26 and 31, the time of Keen-Minshull’s visit, Action Zealandia published 42 posts in their Telegram channel. In contrast, at the height of the parliament protest in February 2022, the group posted 52 times – across an entire week.
Action Zealandia also targeted Greens co-leader Marama Davidson, whose comments about the role of cis white men in perpetuating violence, made at the counter-protest after she was hit by a motorbike, were widely publicised. The level of hatred directed towards Davidson was comparable to the level of hatred aimed at former prime minister Jacinda Ardern at the time of her resignation in January, said the researchers.
The research describes the rapid shift to focusing on trans people as an example of “community bridging”, where members of a community formed around one set of ideas, such as neo-Nazi ideology or anti-vaccine rhetoric, incorporate a new set of ideas into their shared identity. Hannah emphasises that many of the members and audience within these channels are “quite ordinary people” who have become involved in a narrative that has drastically changed from initial Covid denial in 2020. “They may not be living lives that are part of any kind of extremist group, but the ideas of the spaces they’re in online advocate extremist hate.”
The study’s authors note different behaviours on each platform. On Telegram, where groups are closed and unmoderated, gifs, images and videos were shared freely. Initially a messaging app, Telegram’s transition to having social features like open channels made it a platform of choice for discussion that moderation on Facebook, YouTube and Instagram doesn’t allow, said Hannah. Meanwhile, on these more mainstream platforms, closed groups and the normalisation of hearing from strangers made slightly toned-down versions of the ideology accessible to a wider audience.
Responding to the report in comments provided to the Science Media Centre, Kyle Tan, a research fellow at the University of Waikato, said it “speaks directly to how trans people are made a scapegoat amidst the disinformation campaign to reproduce and reinforce white supremacy”. He emphasised that trans people are statistically much more vulnerable to incidents of sexual violence, and that there is no evidence to show trans people perpetrate violence against cisgender women or children.
The report is deeply concerning, John Fenaughty, senior lecturer in counselling and social work at the University of Auckland, said. “Now is the time to redouble our efforts to understand and reduce the discrimination that trans people face. More resourcing to support trans people and communities in the face of this transphobia is vital.”
The data shows a vivid and measurable example of how online communities share ideas. But while it’s academically interesting, Hannah says she keeps in mind the people who are really affected. While anti-mandate protests targeted politicians and the media, groups who have some power, influence and therefore protection, anti-trans words online target a much more vulnerable group. “This is extreme levels of hate directed towards people who just want to exist and get on with their lives.”