Politicians and police have been remarkably tolerant of those spreading threats and misinformation in ways that cost lives and livelihoods. But now they have to act, argues Bernard Hickey.
This is an edited version of a post first published on Bernard Hickey’s Substack newsletter, The Kākā. It was published this morning, before the arrests began in earnest.
Yesterday I watched protesters threaten to kill politicians and journalists as they spat at onlookers. Others reported they threw eggs and bullied a student wearing a face mask who was walking past on her way to school.
Then they tried to break into parliament to lynch a prime minister they accuse of murdering children. As I write this, they are still camped in parliament’s grounds, although police have started pulling them away one by one into detention.
Why have the great and the good, the politicians and the police, all been so tolerant and relaxed about a phenomenon of hyper-amplified and hysterical misinformation that is now an existential threat to our national security and health? We should act now and I have a few suggestions about how to do so below.
This phenomenon is a threat to our national security
I’ve covered all sorts of street protests in my 35 years of journalism and none of them have been as ugly, vituperative and just plain bonkers as the ones that crawled and blockaded their way to parliament over the last two days.
They flew Trump flags, spouted QAnon conspiracy theories about global elites running child trafficking rings and demanded “freedom” to spread a deadly disease and paralyse a health system that is barely able to deal with the illnesses of the 96% of their fellow adult citizens who got vaccinated and wear masks in public. They threw eggs at students for wearing masks.
They demanded their “right” to opt out of the social contract to try to look after those around us in exchange for protection from bigger threats, under democratically agreed laws, to get on with our lives in peace, health and safety. We pay taxes and vote for governments and laws with the understanding we’ll be protected from external and internal threats to life and liberty.
That’s the deal, and for the past three days these protesters have broken it repeatedly, aggressively, violently and without any sense of empathy for those trying to go about their daily lives and jobs. And without consequence. Protestors happily sat and blocked traffic and pedestrians for hours on end. They harassed and abused others without a police officer in sight on Tuesday. By Wednesday, the police in their high vis vests were there, but only after loud and repeated threats of a plan to “storm” parliament. Even yesterday, the police were playing rock, paper, scissors with protesters on the front line. Some kind soul even arranged for portaloos for the protesters to do their own personal business in peace.
Why are politicians and police so chilled?
So why are politicians and the police so tolerant and accepting of what I believe is a movement (albeit a chaotic and incoherent one) that has become an existential threat to our national security and health?
This may seem a strange thing to say, and it’s certainly not in step with the sort of tired and resigned frustration that our government, opposition, police and civil society are displaying at the moment.
There seems to be a feeling that cracking down is not the “Kiwi” way to deal with protesters. Police were barely visible on Tuesday. No MP left parliament or the Beehive to meet them or accept any petitions, which is almost unheard of, given the regular and peaceful gatherings on the lawns out the front. The collective sigh was one of “ignore them and they’ll go away”.
From the top down, the protesters have been handled with the lightest touch possible. Restraint and repeated attempts to “engage” are current modus operandi across government and most of the media. No one has called them “deplorables” and few anywhere near power demanded any sort of crackdown with mass arrests or punishments. Until this morning, “they’ll just go away in their own time” seemed to be the thinking.
‘This too will pass.’ Really?
PM Jacinda Ardern is the target of the most egregious, vituperative and frankly insane accusations in placards, chants and across Facebook, Twitter and comment sections. Yet she has turned the other cheek again and again in an admirable display of restraint and tolerance. She regularly exposes herself to torrents of hatred in her Facebook Live sessions in a way that no other PM would (and has) done.
Only once has the torrent overwhelmed her. In early December, a clearly exhausted Ardern couldn’t let yet another comment pass from someone saying they were ‘over you, over your mandates’ without a pained rebuttal:
“Um, Amanda. Sorry you’re over me. But you don’t have to stay on my Facebook Live if I’m bothering you. I’m sure there are many other things you could do with your time if you find this irritating,” she said during a Facebook Live on December 9.
Asked for yet another message to the protesters and the rest of us on Tuesday, she said (bolding mine):
“The first thing I’d say to the vast majority of New Zealanders who have made sacrifices, who have gone out and been vaccinated, is thank you, and that this too will pass.”
The problem with the high road
Taking the high road is admirable in most cases and something any successful mainstream politician learns to do with grace and forbearance. But sometimes it’s actually dangerous to let it slide. Not responding encourages some to test the boundaries even more, and for the most extreme to act on the wildest accusations and threats.
Turning the other cheek was what British civil society did during and after Brexit, and what US civil society did before and during Trump’s nomination, presidency and attempted coup on January 6, 2021. It was as if no one thought the worst could happen. That this rag-tag bunch of incoherent grievances would go away once it was clear they couldn’t get their hands on the usual levers of political power. After all, it worked with the Occupy and Arab Spring sit-ins and protest movements. Once the initial enthusiasm was spent and there were new things filling our Facebook and Twitter feeds, these groups faded away.
It’s only now dawning on many that this was a mistake that has cost both countries millions of lives, years of economic growth and, in one case, could potentially destroy one of the oldest democracies in the world. British MPs have been murdered. The Capitol was stormed. Trump’s supporters tried to mount a coup, and were not that far away from achieving it. The United States is far from out of the woods, and neither is Britain.
But we’re different. Aren’t we?
Aotearoa’s modern history of political protest and democratic activity has been largely peaceful and eventually progressive. Aside from the Springbok tour clashes and the riots on waterfronts before and after the world wars, our political movements have not disrupted national security in any immediate or existential sense.
But that was before we all had smart phones in our hands.
Now, a significant portion of the population get most of their information and have most of their public debates in online landscapes of misinformation, disinformation and hyper-emotion. These debates are often purely performative demonstrations of tribal fealty and rarely become genuine attempts to understand and come to some new joint position.
This is no accident. The algorithms developed by Facebook and Google’s YouTube are designed to amplify the most engaging comments, news and videos. The ones that attract the most likes and shares. The most hate and love. The most extreme positions. Since the widespread distribution and adoption of smart phones, public debate has become ever more extreme.
Apparently normal, functional people who would seem rational colleagues and family members appear to slide down holes into plainly wrong views about politics, health, technology and science. It is a collective descent into madness, that often goes in tandem with, and can worsen, mental illness.
So why do we tolerate and enable these algorithmic amplifiers of poison?
New Zealand’s civic society has made no serious attempt to understand or regulate these rivers of hatred and misinformation. Other democratic countries are stumbling around trying to regulate and control the social media platforms and the algorithms. We have done nothing.
If anything, the problem has been enabled by both sides of politics here. They have enthusiastically adopted Facebook’s ability to communicate directly with voters, free of the usual gatekeepers in the mainstream media. The government has made Facebook Live a semi-official tool to distribute official information and engage with the public. Government departments employ hundreds of social media specialists and spend tens of millions of dollars on Facebook and Google advertising. On occasion, the government has even partnered with them on technology investment projects. There has been no serious attempt to try to control the spread of this misinformation and the use of these platforms to organise threats to our national security.
Even after the Christchurch attacks, little was done to protect our national security and health from these sources of disinformation. Initially, the PM rightly condemned Facebook and Google for enabling and allowing a domestic terrorist to amplify the terror attack on their platforms. But that was as far as it went. The Christchurch Call has dissolved into a Davos-style talkfest for world leaders and tech execs to avoid regulation or any meaningful change whatsoever.
We are not immune. At all.
I have watched dumbstruck over the last five years as extremists have harassed and attacked journalists and public figures, including those I work with. I’ve seen death threats delivered to homes by mail. I’ve watched camera operators being spat at and shoved. I’ve seen nooses paraded in front of parliament.
This has to stop and we have to take it seriously. Others are starting to.
The Department of Internal Affairs commissioned a report last year on the online activities of extremists with a demonstrable link to New Zealand, as well as the digital platforms connecting New Zealand to an international extremist ecosystem.
Here’s what it found (bolding mine):
“Overall, our research shows that New Zealand is not an exception to broader international extremism trends. A concentrated but engaged core of online activists in New Zealand are intimately plugged into international extremist subcultures which draw New Zealanders away from the protective factors around them – such as a long history of liberal values and strong institutions – and surround them with the polarising grievances raging on the other side of the world. To a lesser extent, international extremist subcultures are also plugged into New Zealand and discuss the people, places and issues of the country at some volume, especially the Christchurch attack itself.”
There are real world consequences happening right now
I have sat on my hands too for the last two years, expecting the temperature to cool naturally and for the “Kiwi” way to resume. I was jolted out of my complacency for the final time on Tuesday in the middle of the post-cabinet news conference when it dawned on me the government had decided not to use schools as mass vaccination sites because of the danger of violent attacks on teachers, students and vaccinators. This has not been reported widely and I don’t understand why.
Here’s education and Covid-19 minister Chris Hipkins in that news conference when asked why schools weren’t being used as mass vaccination sites to accelerate the vaccine rollout (bolding mine):
“There is no question there are strong levels of support for tamariki to be vaccinate, but there is also some concern that schools can and have become the targets of some pretty aggressive and, in some cases, very nasty anti-vax sentiment. And so we have to just tread that line very carefully, and that has been a recurring theme in that conversation. So I think schools will want to be involved. They want to be supported but they don’t want to find themselves targeted.”
So these protesters who have regularly harassed vaccinators and in some cases falsely booked appointments to stop others being vaccinated, have now forced the government to abandon a plan that could have accelerated the vaccination programme, saved lives and helped avoid more of the damaging lockdowns and restrictions we have endured for two years.
No more. This has to stop. This type of “protest” is actually a threat to our national security and health and should be treated as such. It is not just an inconvenience or even a tragic case of mass hysteria. It is costing us lives. It could threaten our democracy, as it has in other countries. That may seem extreme, but that’s what people said in Britain and America in 2016 before Brexit and the election of Trump. Now look at the results.
In the US, more than 900,000 people are dead because of Covid. The world’s biggest democracy almost collapsed into a mad dictatorship. Meanwhile, the parliamentary democracy from which ours is directly descended is run by a man who refuses to resign in the face of public contempt, even though he is a serial liar who treated lockdown laws as rules for him to announce and ignore, and for other people to strictly obey. Boris Johnson announced overnight that he plans to end public mask wearing rules because his back bench MPs thought it would be a good idea.
So what should we do?
We should regulate the algorithms that transmit and amplify misinformation into the news feeds of the millions of New Zealanders who spend hours a day scrolling through social media.
We should take threats of violence aimed at journalists, politicians, vaccinators and scientists seriously. It is illegal to make those threats. People should be prosecuted and imprisoned.
We should not let protesters attack, bully, abuse, spit at and shove bystanders. We should not let them block off roads for days on end. An awful lot of parking tickets should be issued and vehicles towed away.
This has to stop.