MediaMarch 19, 2019

The quiet deletion of the Islamophobic archives


How New Zealand and international organisations are dealing with inflammatory and racist moments in their pasts. UPDATED to include apparent false information from the National Party, and the National party’s subsequent response.

In the wake of the Christchurch terror attack, organisations around New Zealand have removed content which might be seen as part of the culture which mainstreamed and enabled Islamophobia and anti-immigrant sentiment. These range from promoters to media outlets to political parties, though few are drawing attention to what they have removed or publicly stating their motivations. However others which have long-harboured or propagated Islamophobic views have opted to leave them on their platforms.

Newstalk ZB have deleted an opinion column by its Christchurch-based host Chris Lynch, who in 2017 asked “Does Islam have any place in public swimming pools?” When asked what prompted the removal, Jason Winstanley, head of talk at NZME, said “we removed the article as it was upsetting people”. When Listener journalist Donna Chisholm pointed to the column after Lynch appeared on CNN, Lynch replied: “Being critical of religion is part of democracy. However, these awful events has certainly given me pause for thought.”

Similarly an image of Newstalk ZB’s Mike Hosking holding up an image of a t-shirt with a white supremacist symbol on it has now been taken down, largely due to customer pressure on his show’s sponsor at BNZ. Hosking’s employer, NZME, had “assured us that neither Mike Hosking or his team were aware the symbol used held an alternative meaning”, said a BNZ spokesperson in a tweet.

OMG VIP, promoters of Jordan Peterson’s recent New Zealand tour, have removed an image of the rightwing author hugging a fan wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with the slogan “I’m a proud ISLAMAPHOBE” from their site. They have not yet responded to a request for an explanation. 

Simple Host, which had been hosting the NZ National Front’s site on its servers, took the site down in “less than a minute”, after a complaint was made. Simple Host’s Patrick Power said that he bought the company two years ago, and was unaware that the National Front were among the “hundreds” of hosted sites he inherited upon purchase. “I don’t want to cause anyone aggravation or grief,” he said. The Dominion Movement, another alt-right movement, had made its site private not long after.

In a tangent to the deletion stories, Sean Plunket, ex RNZ Morning Report host and former communications manager for The Opportunities Party, turned right leaning provocateur for Magic Talk, claimed to have deactivated his Twitter account.

As of Monday evening, however, it had not been deactivated – “just had a break for a few hours…felt good”. In a widely criticised recent tweet he said, “the neo nationalist right are the result of the virtue signalling exclusionary left”. 

Following the publication of this story, Plunket contacted the Spinoff objecting to the deactivation of his Twitter account being reported alongside other deletions. He said he has never expressed any Islamophobic or anti-immigrant views.

At a corporate level Twitter’s response to the tragedy has been as haphazard as that of Facebook. The Spinoff editor Toby Manhire flagged a flagrantly Islamophobic and anti-semitic account on Friday which posted images of the gunman’s weapons and still-live links to copies of the video of the atrocity which first circulated on Facebook. 

As of writing, more than three days later, and despite numerous others also officially reporting the account, it remains live.

Another example of deletion that was linked to Friday’s attacks was the disappearance of the National Party page pointing to a petition to stop the UN migration pact. The National party told the Spinoff it was wrong that the page had been removed following Friday’s terrorist attack. “As part of our normal web maintenance, pages on our website are routinely archived after the completion of a petition,” said a spokesperson on Sunday. “This petition was started in December 2018 and was archived some weeks ago, well before any of the recent tragic events in Christchurch.”

(UPDATE 9:38AM: Multiple sources on Twitter have contested National’s version of events, noting that Google caches of the page as live on the afternoon of the 15th. The Spinoff has placed calls and emails to National party HQ seeking an urgent explanation why we were apparently given false information, and will update the story as soon as we hear back from them. UPDATE 10:37AM: Newsroom’s Thomas Coughlan reports that Simon Bridges has suggested the page was deleted by an “emotional junior staffer” on Friday night.)

UPDATE: 12:44pm: The National party has provided the below statement regarding the misinformation provided on Sunday.

National party statement, issued 12.20pm

While there has been significant purging of content, much remains live, and many of those who have been or hosted prominent critics of Islam have yet to issue repudiations of their past statements. Whale Oil is still running “This is how New Zealand will turn into a muslim state”. Kiwiblog still hosts “A case for immediate cessation of all Muslim immigration”.

When I asked that site’s editor David Farrar whether he had contemplated deleting the post, he said that he had, but decided against it. “I think you do more harm when you don’t allow it to be debated,” he said. “Then you drive it to 4Chan [an extremist site Spark blocked on Friday] where people will see far worse.”

Both the comments on that story and the general debate immediately after the shooting were rife with abhorrent statements about Muslims. Farrar says this did give him pause, and he made the decision to temporarily turn on manual comment moderation. When asked why the slaughter of Muslims would drive his commenters toward Islamophobia, he replied “I think the problem is that people see [the massacre] as part of a global political battle, and they [commenters] haven’t shown enough empathy.”

Another individual criticised for historic statements holds one of the highest offices in the land: the deputy prime minister. Winston Peters has made multiple statements equating mainstream Muslims with extremists. He also harboured in his caucus Richard Prosser, who wrote an infamous column calling for banning Muslim people from flying on western airlines, and referred to their homeland as “Wogistan”. Peters said it was “an extreme view which we don’t share as a party”, but rejected the suggestion his MP was inciting hatred.

In 2005 Peters gave a speech which described Islam as “like the mythical Hydra – a serpent underbelly with multiple heads capable of striking at any time and in any direction.” The Spinoff has asked his office whether he intends to issue a statement about his past rhetoric involving Muslims, but has yet to receive a response.

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