A strange rumour circulating around fringe online groups managed to break into wider social media over the weekend, which got people asking: ‘Are the Italian military in New Zealand? And why?’ Dylan Reeve got to the bottom of the claims for IRL.
“DO NOTHING AND NZ WILL CONTINUE TO FAST BECOME A FASCIST STATE OF AUTHORITARIAN TYRANNY BY ARDERN”.
So claimed a long message copied over the weekend into a bunch of groups on Telegram, an instant messaging system with heavily encrypted, self-destructing messages where Covid-adjacent conspiracies have been festering all pandemic. According to the screed, Jacinda Ardern is going to delay elections, make New Zealand a republic, nullify all private land titles and imprison all unvaccinated people in camps created on reopened New Zealand Army bases.
The claims made in the semi-viral post were entirely unverified, lacked any evidence and were, to put it bluntly, ridiculous – business as usual in conspiracy theory world. However, two specific claims caught the attention of many New Zealanders on Twitter: that UN troops were coming to New Zealand, presumably at Ardern’s direction, to take control of our population; and that members of the Italian military were already deployed here for the same purpose.
“UN troops are due into NZ on the 28th of November 2021,” read one claim, adding that this has been “confirmed by the National Party” (more on that later). “Italian troops are already here,” asserted another urgent bullet point.
Screenshots of the message circulated on Twitter and were roundly mocked. “Are they here because they heard of our deep affection for pineapple on pizza?” wondered one user, while others saw potential upsides: “With the Italian invasion of New Zealand underway, we’ll finally have some good food and better fashion sense in this country!”
So, are UN troops and Italian soldiers here to oppress us? And did the National Party confirm this?
“No – this is the first I’m hearing of it,” laughed the National Party’s chief press secretary, John Mitchell, when reached by phone to answer questions about the impending UN invasion.
Mitchell promised to ask around and get back to me if he found any evidence of a blue-helmeted landing force on its way, but nothing has been forthcoming.
Where on earth did these claims come from, then? And do they have any basis whatsoever in reality?
Possibly the first mention was on a local Telegram channel on October 18, when a user named “Based Maka” reported that they had seen “three Italian military men in a [Christchurch] supermarket”. The same day, user “Based Don” was warning people of impending doom, telling users that “bad shit is coming” and that they should “just get fucking ready”.
When asked for more details by another user, “Based Don” simply replied: “Italian soldiers are in NZ”.
A few days later, an influential British conspiracy theorist likely boosted the claims when he posted a video “confirming” that a large number of Italian troops were present in New Zealand.
But in his account, the troops aren’t here to support Jacinda’s subjugation of the populace. The British conspiracy theorist subscribed to a more traditional QAnon narrative which sees the military working with secret global “white hats” – a reference to the good guys in Western films – against the deep state. In his scenario, the heroic Italian soldiers are here, as part of the white hat operation, to arrest government officials and rescue imprisoned children.
Adherents of the QAnon ideas were obviously delighted to hear this news. Now all they needed was “confirmation” of the operation described in the video; an operation Q believers have been waiting for.
Soon enough, a local Telegram user arrived with “evidence” it was happening. On October 24, “Ruth” reported an operation to rescue trafficked children in New Zealand: “1,000 just removed from under Te Anau by the Italian Military. They specialise in Tunnels, building them as well.”
The same day, a local conspiracy influencer who calls himself “The Nelson Knight” had even more details to share. He spoke of Italian special forces doing a “mopping up operation” in New Zealand, arresting global elites here. In his telling, this is an “exciting new trajectory” that will see New Zealand’s government removed from power in 2022, along with judges and others who’ve enabled them.
Rousing stuff! Except, back here, in reality, there’s a much simpler explanation. The United States, Italy, Germany and South Korea all operate parts of their Antarctic programmes out of Christchurch. So it’s not at all unusual, in the summer months, to see military aircraft like the massive US C-17 Globemaster at Christchurch airport. Along with those military aircraft come military personnel.
In July, Stuff reported that hundreds of Antarctic staff were expected to arrive in, and transit through, Christchurch this year, including 150 from Italy during October and November.
“We have an Italian Air Force plane here that transports our Antarctic staff down to the ice,” explained Bruce, a local employee who answered the phone at the Italian Antarctic Programme’s Christchurch Base when The Spinoff called. “In total about 30 [military staff], they finished MIQ about two weeks ago.”
It would be entirely likely that Christchurch locals could bump into uniformed Italian Air Force staff in local supermarkets, Bruce suggested.
This simple explanation won’t deter conspiracy theorists, though. As with all the claims made in these groups, the events they predict won’t come to pass — there’ll be no mass arrests, no underground children, no UN invasion. Still, new claims will crop up in their place like whack-a-mole, and the unshakable faith in some mysterious evil will remain.
One thing’s for sure: the next bizarre, panicked warning message won’t be far away.