As the Islamic Women’s Council asks the coroner to look at links between online extremism and real-world consequences, a NZ conspiracy group active at the occupation in Wellington has been promoting ‘false flag’ disinformation about the 2019 terror attack. The quasi-official protest leaders are facing calls to distance themselves from the extremists in their midst.
On Tuesday, the Islamic Women’s Council appeared before the coronial inquiry into the 2019 Christchurch attacks. It called for the coroner’s scope to include the role played by digital platforms in the lead-up to, and livestreaming of, the massacre.
The same day, Counterspin Media paused from its rolling coverage of the occupation at parliament – spread across a livestream and Telegram channel with a combined audience in the tens of thousands – to spruik a foreign-made conspiracy video that postulates the absurd falsehood that the murder of 51 people at two mosques in Christchurch was a “false flag”.
The video was assessed the following day by the New Zealand chief censor, who has previously banned the livestream of the atrocity, as well as the terrorist’s “manifesto”. Approached yesterday by The Spinoff, David Shanks said “the online publication purporting to be a ‘documentary’” had been called in and classified as objectionable. It is now a criminal offence to download, share or view the video, which includes extensive footage of the footage he has already prohibited.
“This is an abhorrent publication that appears to use the pretext of a ‘false flag’ conspiracy theory to republish a vile video produced by a terrorist killer,” said Shanks. “Its maker does not seem to care about the pain and distress this will inflict on victims and their whānau, or its impact on New Zealanders generally.”
He continued: “This exploitative film presents the same harm to the public as the March 15 livestream, while adding a layer of toxic disinformation. We have classified it as objectionable, just as the original livestream was. New Zealanders should not engage with this content, and they should report it if they see it. Downloading, sharing and viewing it is an offence, and we have let enforcement agencies including the Police and Department of Internal Affairs know about our decision.”
Police confirmed the Classification Office had referred the situation to them. A Department of Internal Affairs spokesperson told The Spinoff they had been made aware of a video being circulated “across a number of platforms” which “is harmful and further victimises those who have already suffered greatly”. DIA would not comment on any investigation under way but encouraged such material to be reported, saying: “Anybody found knowingly in possession of objectionable material or distributing can receive a significant penalty, including imprisonment.”
When hate steps out of the computer
Counterspin’s decision to share such inflammatory disinformation on the day a hearing to assess the scope of a coronial inquiry into the Christchurch terror attack opened was “probably not a coincidence”, said Aliya Danzeisen, who represented the Islamic Women’s Council. It also underscored just how critical it was that the coroner, Brigitte Windley, included the online world in her inquiries, she said. “We want her to look at the role digital platforms had in radicalising the terrorist, so that we can learn from that, either to motivate the platforms themselves to do a better job of moderating, or so we as a community can set societal expectations for these companies,” Danzeisen told The Spinoff.
Since 2019, there had been “a growing emboldenment online”, she said. “With Covid, the way people engage, the way their thoughts are expressed, have been increasingly driven online. That’s just augmented what was already here, and now, as I told the coronial hearing, it’s leaving the computer and coming onto the streets.”
The Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Christchurch terror attacks did note the role of online radicalisation in forming the man’s “extreme right-wing views”, as well as the “limited” and “fragile” online capabilities of police and intelligence services.
What it had omitted to was examine “what social media did to engage these people, to promote where they were going and facilitate their communications”, she said. “They only looked at what the terrorist himself did. We want the lens to be focused now also on the people who are building these ecosystems and promoting this information … We need to look at what can be done to ensure hate is not created on these platforms, inducing people to a space they would not normally go.”
She said: “It should have shocked all of our government not just to think about it, but to actually move on it. They are doing a lot of thinking and it appears there’s not a lot of action.”
Countering digital toxins
Kris Faafoi, whose ministerial portfolios include digital media and justice, was unavailable for interview yesterday, but via a spokesperson pointed The Spinoff to the ongoing work on hate speech and incitement laws, as well as a misinformation and disinformation inter-agency group coordinated by the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet.
“In recent times the online environment has been a primary method of spreading misinformation and disinformation to galvanise momentum about particular topics. Misinformation and disinformation have also increasingly been used as a medium or inspiration for online threatening,” said the spokesperson.
He added: “The minister condemns violent, racist and anti-semitic messages that have been associated with the protest at parliament and which have no place in legitimate peaceful protest.”
The government-funded online safety organisation Netsafe is currently consulting on a draft Code of Practice for Online Safety and Harms, but it has been sharply criticised by a range of groups. Internet NZ said the process lacked legitimacy because it failed to build from “the concerns of communities who have suffered severe and continued harms from online systems and behaviours” and called for the exercise to be scrapped and started afresh.
Counterspin, conspiracy and the occupation
Helmed by Kelvyn Alp, who reportedly spoke in the early 2000s of assembling a private army to overthrow the government, Counterspin has styled itself as a proxy host broadcaster for the protest. The messages it promulgates, however, go a long way further than the views espoused by most of those involved in the protest, and way beyond anyone whose demands are limited to the lifting of vaccination mandates.
Alp’s bizarre claims, which appear in large part imported from the US far right, include that Covid does not exist, that the government is running a network of paedophiles, and that the moon landing was a hoax. He and his supporters seek the total overthrow of the system of government and the trial and execution of politicians, journalists, police, judges, scientists and more, as part of “opposing demonic forces of democidal intent”.
Counterspin, Alp and several other prominent figures in his orbit who retain a high-profile presence at the occupation routinely castigate other groups and individuals – such as Chantelle and Leighton Baker – who have been seeking negotiations with police and parliamentarians.
Fight Against Conspiracy Theories Aotearoa (Fact) yesterday called on leaders at the occupation to distance themselves from Counterspin. Describing itself as “a grassroots group of doctors, nurses, scientists and educators fighting against conspiracy theories”, Fact urged them to “dissociate yourselves from all calls to arrest and detain politicians, civil servants, health professionals, members of the media and general public. We ask you to condemn threats of violence and public executions.” They added: “We ask that you do not legitimise or promote Kelvyn Alp and Counterspin Media or other violent groups by welcoming their continued presence on site.”
The now banned conspiracy video has not been shared in any of the other main protest groups’ channels.
On Monday The Spinoff emailed the “End the Mandates” group of quasi-official leaders that have issued several statements which they say represent “the agreed position of groups representing the majority people at parliament”, seeking their view on the place of Counterspin within the protest. We emailed again yesterday in light of the Fact open letter, asking if they would disavow any factions calling for violence or executions. The group, which comprises Convoy 2022 NZ, Freedom Alliance, NZ Doctors Speaking Out with Science, the Outdoors & Freedom Movement, the Freedom and Rights Coalition and Voices for Freedom, has not responded.
Annabelle Lee-Mather, Toby Manhire and Ben Thomas discuss the protest and the response from politicians and police in the Spinoff’s Gone By Lunchtime podcast. Listen on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or your favourite podcast provider.