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MediaOctober 13, 2022

The ‘toxic’ Facebook page that claims to be Southland’s biggest news source

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What’s On Invers purports to be ‘the largest media organisation in the far South’. But it’s attracted criticism for sharing ‘racist’ cartoons and ‘anti-vax’ propaganda. Stewart Sowman-Lund investigates.


An influential Facebook page that started as an events directory for Southland has been labelled “unethical” and “anti-vax” by people concerned about its growing reach.

What’s On Invers boasts over 34,000 likes on Facebook – and nearly 40,000 followers – and has since expanded to include an associated website. It started as a typical community page, a place where local goings on could be easily publicised. Now, the lefthand side of the Facebook page includes a call for readers to get in touch with possible scoops. “Got a news story or tip?” it asks, directing people to an email address. 

But while it’s listed as a “news and media” website, its detractors say it’s anything but. The Spinoff’s been in contact with current and former Southlanders worried about the promotion of conspiracy theories and offensive cartoons by the What’s On Invers page and website. They say that many in the region look to the page as a trusted news source. But, while they say it should be a positive thing for the region to have a popular community page, they’re instead concerned about what damage its growing influence may cause.

From funeral notices to freedom marches

What’s On Invers was founded by Mike Sanford, who is now listed as the site’s editor-in-chief. He’s responsible for much of the Facebook page’s content and his byline can often be found on articles and livestreams as well. Most recently, he ran in this year’s local elections for a seat on the Invercargill Licensing Trust, though was not elected, coming in with the second lowest number of votes. He described himself during the campaign as a “free thinker and visionary”. What’s On Invers, at times, was used to promote his licensing trust campaign. 

Since launching almost a decade ago, What’s On Invers has grown beyond just Sanford. There are now others – including two additional reporters – involved in running the website, though Sanford still appears largely responsible for driving the readership of the page. 

Image: Facebook

On Facebook, What’s On Invers posts several times a day, which is several times more than the mainstream outlets the page purports to compete with, such as the Stuff-owned Southland Times. While the Southland Times has a bigger Facebook audience, it’s voluntarily chosen not to use the platform for content distribution. Stuff withdrew from the social media network in 2020 for ethical reasons. As a result, Southland Times lost a significant chunk of its online presence in the deep south, creating a space for both existing publications like the Otago Daily Times to grow and for new players, like What’s On Invers, to make a splash.

Across both its Facebook page and website (most content is shared to both, while some is posted exclusively for its Facebook audience), What’s On Invers publishes a range of content. That includes funeral notices, opinion pieces, news reports, cartoons, livestreams and more. Select reports are listed as being “republished” from RNZ “by arrangement” (The Spinoff asked RNZ to clarify this relationship, but received no response).

But the page has attracted attention for other reasons beyond its headlines. It regularly republishes cartoons by Garrick Tremain, the cartoonist banished from the pages of the Otago Daily Times after dozens of readers complained about his race-based cartoons. Facebook comments are routinely limited or switched off on these posts. What’s On Invers came close to achieving mainstream coverage for its cartoon selections earlier this year after it republished a Tremain piece that centred on the use of te reo Māori in schools. The cartoon depicted a school teacher saying “this term we’re going to learn to say ‘I failed English, maths and science’ in te reo”, which was broadly condemned when picked up on Twitter. Another cartoon, this time targeting local government minister Nanaia Mahuta with an unflattering likeness depicting her as a “bully”, was also labelled racist by social media users. “That’s a pretty loathsome cartoon,” wrote Newsroom’s Jonathan Milne, one of the many online critics, in a Twitter thread.

What’s On Invers has also shared, and at times appeared to sympathise with, fringe views. An article published on the page late last year reported on a doctor who presented “scientific research” showing that the “Covid-19 vaccine does not prevent transmission”. The local GP referenced in the article had “lost faith in the vaccine as a solution to the pandemic”. They also believed “Ivermectin was one of the most safest drugs in the world”. (Ivermectin was widely discredited as a Covid treatment.) That’s one of many vaccine or Covid-sceptical posts shared by the page.

During the occupation of the parliamentary precinct earlier this year, What’s On Invers quickly aligned with those responsible. That included sharing details of when the convoy heading to parliament would be passing through Southland and reposting videos from prominent protest attendees. “Matt King interviews a plumber from Christchurch on why he is there in support of the Mandates Festival. (Not the type our mainstream media describe),” a caption read in February. King, a former National Party MP, flirted with anti-vax misinformation during the pandemic and later launched a political party, Democracy NZ, built out of the protest movement.

When Russell Coutts, the America’s Cup winning sailor, revealed he would be attending the occupation, What’s On Invers shared the news with the caption: “Go Russell.”

In the months since, What’s On Invers has on several occasions attended – and livestreamed from – rallies associated with conspiracy theory groups like Voices for Freedom. 

The Spinoff asked Sanford for an interview to discuss What’s On Invers and its influence, but he declined, instead requesting questions be provided via email. In responses provided to The Spinoff, Sanford rejected claims that he was a member of Voices for Freedom, though said that “99% of them are everyday people with valid concerns about the government’s overreach on medical freedom of choice”.

On his decision to cover events aligned with fringe protest groups, Sanford said “a majority” of his readership were against mandates and suggested the mainstream media should do “their job” and get out “amongst the Voices for Freedom protesters without an agenda to clearly defame”.

‘Totally unethical’

Kerry may no longer live in Invercargill, but he’s still concerned about the growing influence of What’s On Invers. “It’s become two distinct platforms,” the former resident told The Spinoff. “The website has retained the image of an event directory and a news source [and] is often touted as being more popular than the local newspaper, the Southland Times. The Facebook page has become much more wild and extreme in what it posts.” 

This isn’t the first time Kerry has raised concerns about the page. In fact, he often shares – and criticises – posts from What’s On Invers on his own social media. He’s worried that anyone in Invercargill with anti-government, anti-mandate or anti-vaccine views could “jump on” What’s On Invers and feel part of a community. “Because 34,000 people already follow it on Facebook, [people] will see it in their feed and take it as a fact that if they need to know what’s happening locally, What’s On Invers would be the source to do that,” he said. “But if [the page is] sharing opinion-based content, the public may feel that’s representative of what the province is feeling – which isn’t always the case.”

Kerry was one of several people spoken to by The Spinoff who raised concerns about the personal conduct of Sanford. In 2016, after publishing Sanford’s name on a Facebook comment thread, Kerry received a message calling him a “sad little turd” and threatening him with “a shit kicking”.

(Image: Supplied)

“I don’t want to come across as anti-Sanford,” Kerry told The Spinoff after providing the screenshot. “I don’t know him personally and yes it is certainly a good thing to promote the province online. But there’s a certain amount of journalistic expectation that a reader should have when viewing a site promoting itself as a news source.”

A former journalist, who requested anonymity, agreed with Kerry’s assertion and described the page as “toxic”. What’s On Invers had become “totally unethical” in its approach to being a media outlet, they told The Spinoff. “Running racist and sexist cartoons that have been discredited in pretty much any other media field… they’re appalling, there’s no place for those. 

“[What’s On Invers] claims to be a news source but I don’t see a lot of fair, balanced or accurate reporting going on.” Throughout the pandemic, the page was “pretty much an anti-vax platform,” they added.

Concerns were also raised to The Spinoff about the influence wielded by the page during the recent local elections campaign. What’s On Invers regularly promoted the campaign of then-candidate, now mayor Nobby Clark, and it’s understood that Sanford was responsible for creating a campaign website for Clark’s ticket of council candidates. Those spoken to by The Spinoff claimed that What’s On Invers was effectively running a PR campaign for the new mayor. At a recent mayoral debate in Invercargill, the team from What’s On Invers, Sanford included, were seen socialising with Clark.

Sanford confirmed to The Spinoff that Clark’s group ran advertising on What’s On Invers, but said this was paid content “just like any other client” and denied any potential conflict of interest.

‘The largest media organisation in the far South bar none’

Sanford said he viewed his outlet as more than just a news source – it was a “media company”. It was also about keeping locals connected and up to date, he explained, and provided a useful place to promote local events and businesses. 

What’s On Invers’ online presence goes far beyond the 34,000 who like the page. According to Sanford, the website received more than 600,000 page views in August and over 3.3 million post impressions on Facebook. “It may not seem like much on a national level but we punch well above our weight and can confidently say that we are the largest media organisation in the far South bar none,” Sanford said.

The Southland Times did not respond to a request for comment regarding this claim.

Many of Sanford’s comments to The Spinoff were tinged with criticism of mainstream media. What’s On Invers’ independence, for example, had been a major drawcard for its readership, adding that “old local media” had enjoyed a “good run”. At the same time as calling out mainstream news outlets for giving up on “media 101” – to report on both sides of the story – Sanford said What’s On Invers was not like other media and did not have to behave in the same way. “We don’t have to play by their rules so with some of our content that isn’t news we do have the ability to have an opinion, attitude which our large and diverse audience seems to connect with.” 

The former journalist spoken to by The Spinoff called that a “bullshit” argument. “The tenets of journalism don’t change just because you consider yourself out of the mainstream,” they said. 

It started as a community Facebook page but it’s clear that Sanford, and many of his devoted readers, now see What’s On Invers as a growing and competitive independent media outlet. And as fledgling, anti-establishment news outlets such as The Platform and The Common Room continue to pop-up in the face of plans to amalgamate the media landscape, it’s possible What’s On Invers could see its influence and popularity grow even further. 

Update: Following publication of this story, an RNZ spokesperson has confirmed to The Spinoff that RNZ ceased its content sharing agreement with What’s On Invers in October last year and will be contacting the site administrators”. Read more here.

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