The Freedom and Rights Coalition protest at Parliament. Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images
The Freedom and Rights Coalition protest at Parliament. Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images

Covid-19November 10, 2021

The protest that revealed a new, ugly, dangerous side to our country

The Freedom and Rights Coalition protest at Parliament. Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images
The Freedom and Rights Coalition protest at Parliament. Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images

However motley and incoherent some of the messages might seem, to laugh it off would be a mistake. The day brought to the surface nasty and violent sentiments that could, unchecked, turn into something awful, writes Toby Manhire.

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The Capitol riot did not arrive in Wellington yesterday. There was no serious attempt to storm parliament – when one barricade was toppled, protesters reportedly responded in the most New Zealand way imaginable, by putting it back up themselves. There was no Donald Trump or Ted Cruz to inspire the mob; our elected representatives steered well clear. And there was no cosplay shaman in a horned bearskin. 

But it did share some of the DNA of the terrible events that took place in Washington DC on January 6, and plenty of the language. The government and the media were variously decried on signs as Nazis, Communists, tyrants, terrorists, rapists and murderers (also: “lying nerds”). From the crowd who walked from Civic Square to parliament came slogans declaring, falsely, that ivermectin cures Covid, that the virus is a hoax, that a UN agenda conspiracy is out to get us all, that new Nuremberg trials were coming. “Drain the swamp”, blared one sign, in an exhortation that disappointingly amounted to an unimaginative parroting of Trump rather than a commentary on the capital city’s plumbing issues. One gentleman in a Maga hat brandished a banner claiming that 9/11 and the Christchurch massacre were both “inside jobs”. The solution: “hang all involved”. There is, sadly, no vaccine for brain worms.

Not all, of course, were conspiracists, crackpots and grifters. Many of them have personal and principled objections to the vaccine mandates. Most of us think they’re quite wrong: the evidence shows unequivocally that the vaccine is our best defence against Covid-19, against its spread, against hospitalisation and against death. Mandating vaccinations for people who have consistent interaction with others (which is a different thing to forcing people to be vaccinated) is in truth the best way to restore our freedoms. I can only hope, however, that those who oppose vaccine mandates got a fright when they saw who they were lining up alongside yesterday, and resist the temptation to follow them from Lambton Quay all the way down the rabbit hole. 

It must surely give them pause to discover they’ve been chanting alongside QAnon conspiracy theorists who believe Jacinda Ardern was arrested for child trafficking in 2019 when she visited the White House, and is currently in an ankle-bracelet under house arrest.

The temptation in the face of such absurdity is to laugh all of it and all of them off. As the associate minister for health quite rightly pointed out, two or three thousand protesters were easily outnumbered by New Zealanders who yesterday went, quietly and responsibly, to get vaccinated.

Small though the crowd may have been in the scheme of things, however, it was a non-trivial turnout, especially when you add the tens of thousands cheering them on from behind their keyboards. And the language very clearly draws on the same source material that inspired the storming of the Capitol. To be concerned about the risks of violence here is not paranoid; on the contrary, to dismiss it as a big-nothing is naive.

One speaker told the crowd yesterday that Ardern was running a “despot government” and a “communist nation”, apparently unaware of the irony he was saying as much untrammeled directly outside the house of parliament. Auckland, he said, was “the largest concentration camp in the world”, its residents “enslaved”.  He went on to call the media “an army of terrorists”, to loud supportive boos from protesters. 

It was a step up from the more familiar “fake news” and “media is the virus” slogans, both of which had a good airing through the course of the day. Another placard screamed “MEDIA TREASON”, a message festooned with hand-drawn swastikas. A separate group of protesters yesterday morning gathered outside a newspaper office in Whangarei, hurling abuse at those inside.

At parliament, protesters told journalists they would “get what’s coming”. One protester threatened to destroy a Newshub camera, calling its operator a “lying fucking cunt”. A Stuff journalist was abused, grabbed and pushed. On Saturday a 1News camera operator was assaulted by an anti-vax protester on the West Coast. “Do you want this fucking camera smashed in your face?” he shouted, punching the camera. 

Māori media face yet another pressure. “The co-opting of Māori activist language and strategies by those who have never been on our side has led to Māori journos and activists being framed as sell outs and paid puppets,” Māori Television presenter Moana Maniapoto told David Farrier this week. “On one hand it’s laughable being called a house n*****. On the other hand, I’m actually nervous that by interviewing certain guests, we may be exposing them to threats.” She added: “I just have to keep telling myself that we have to keep doing what we do, that it’s only a small group of people out there. But I am worried.”

A protestor wearing a Donald Trump face mask holds a sign with a popular US right-wing slogan – code for ‘Fuck Joe Biden’ – during the protest. (Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

While mainstream media are reviled and physically attacked, social media is embraced. “Get your phones out, get on that feed,” was the message to protesters yesterday. “You need to make sure you’re in the communications loop … and be ready for action”. Earlier, at Civic Square, a speaker summed up the recruitment strategy. “Share! Share! Share!” she shouted.

Facebook has cracked down on some of the worst Covid disinformation, but it remains very much the network of choice for the anti-vax herd, the place that dangerous, anti-science falsehood can thrive. It is confounding, breathtaking, that New Zealand lawmakers remain so timid in taking regulatory action against the giants of social media. All the while they pump millions of dollars into Facebook, as invective and misinformation rain down on the prime minister’s livestreams.  

Many of those who have found Facebook too restrictive of their freedom to disseminate bullshit and encourage violence, however, have migrated instead to Telegram, the messaging app that provides a paradise for white supremacists and other assorted angry extremists. Within an hour on a single thread under a post by an “alternative news site” yesterday afternoon, there were calls for riots, for civil war, and “guillotines and gallows”. There were numerous incitements to violence and misogynistic screeds, along with implied and direct threats to kill. That thread alone is reason enough to require, in the short-term at least, that security provided to New Zealand politicians of all stripes must be substantially bolstered. Necessarily, the speaker boosted security measures at parliament yesterday to extraordinary levels. Necessarily, the prime minister’s activity in Auckland today will have extra layers of precaution. 

One Telegram regular instrumental to the promotion of these protests is a QAnon American resident in New Zealand who repeatedly threatens academics, politicians and media. Earlier in the year he marched into the university office of one Covid expert. I was personally targeted by him a couple of months ago when he urged his followers to go after me and claim “a scalp”.

It’s all of a piece with the research that shows the horrifying rate of abuse and harassment directed at scientists and other experts in the public eye during the pandemic, abuse which includes death threats and threats of sexual violence.

And these are no isolated incidents. A report from Te Pūnaha Matatini published yesterday observed “a disinformation landscape that is sophisticated, motivated, adaptive, resilient, increasingly violent and significantly volatile”. And: “The last 12 weeks show increasingly violent language and other forms of expression, which has become normalised and justified within the groups and individuals who make up the disinformation community in-group. Language specifically targeting individuals and minority groups has become more violent and graphic.” Specifically: “Explicit terminology, violent jokes, transphobia and homophobia, casual racist invective and slurs, crudity and vulgarity”, all of which was now, they found, “in use regularly by a wide range of New Zealanders”.

The researchers identified, too, a “broader threat”: signs that “Covid-19 and vaccination are being used as a kind of Trojan Horse for norm-setting and norm-entrenchment of far-right ideologies in Aotearoa New Zealand. Such ideologies include, but are not limited to, ideas about gun control, anti-Māori sentiment, anti-LGBTQIA+, conservative ideals around family and family structure, misogyny, and anti-immigration. Mis- and disinformation and ‘dangerous speech’ pose significant threats to social cohesion, freedom of expression, inclusion, and safety.”

Post-Christchurch, post-Capitol-riot, no one can seriously argue that online attacks are some peripheral blur of keyboard hyperbole, something to be shrugged off or scoffed at as if it were a scene from The Fast and the Furious. As recent history has evidenced around the world, often with tragic consequences, violent intimations online foment violent actions in real life. Reasonable New Zealanders who wish to protest the vaccine mandates have an urgent responsibility today: to actively, vocally disavow and denounce the violent cheerleaders they find themselves marching alongside. 

When you have public calls for politicians to be lynched, when you have a polished speaker loud-hailing from the grounds of parliament to a crowd of thousands in person and tens of thousands more online that the media are terrorists, when you have something like an avalanche of graphic, violent threats becoming par for the course, they must be taken completely seriously. A lot of people are on edge. All it needs is for one or two of them to get swept up, to take these incitements seriously, and suddenly things could turn very, very nasty. 

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