When anti-1080 activism grew noisy, and got ugly

Anti-1080 activism has exploded in popularity and intensity in the last few months. Hayden Donnell goes down the rabbit hole to find out what’s behind the movement’s rise.

Nicola Toki remembers when the abuse picked up. It was a couple of months ago. Messages started appearing regularly on her Facebook wall. “What a disrespectful bitch,” one read. “She is one sick individual,” said another. “If she wants poison in the water give her a big bag of the bloody stuff.” Toki is a well-known DOC employee who preaches the benefits of using 1080 poison and is used to getting criticism from anti-1080 activists, but this time it was more intense and unrelenting. “In the 10 or more years I’ve been involved in 1080, I’ve never seen anything like this,” she said. “This is a spike like nothing I’ve seen.” She still gets the messages daily.

Something similar was happening to Roger Lorigan around the same time. The owner of logistics company Epro is also used to criticism – his business organises many of the 1080 helicopter drops around New Zealand. This was different. “There’s some really crazy things started to get said on Facebook – ‘we’re going to shoot the bastards down. We’re going to drop 1080 in their backyards’. It’s just gone too far.” At a recent operation near Turangi, his team was met by protesters who threatened his workers and tried to force their way into an area where helicopters were taking off. At a South Island drop, his staff had battens thrown at them.

These escalations weren’t isolated incidents. They were early signs of an explosion in the popularity and intensity of anti-1080 activism in New Zealand: one which would eventually lead to a sharp rise in physical and verbal attacks on DOC workers, a hikoi on parliament, a High Court injunction against a 1080 drop, and – most shockingly – protests this week where fake 1080 pellets and the apparently bludgeoned corpses of native birds were tossed at the steps of parliament.

What caused the sudden escalation? Part of the answer can perhaps be traced back to October last year, when anti-1080 leaders held a think-tank near Nelson. There the lawyer Sue Grey gave a presentation on how to mainstream the movement. Grey has been a leading spokesperson in the medicinal cannabis movement, which has gained political traction and overwhelming public support in recent months, and she drew on her experience with that cause to outline a new anti-1080 strategy. Activists couldn’t rely on getting mainstream media coverage, she said. She proposed taking a different tack – co-opting stories about issues completely unrelated to 1080 to spread the anti-1080 message.

ROGER LORIGAN AT A 1080 DROP IN THE HUNUA RANGES. PHOTO: HAYDEN DONNELL

“You don’t have to wait for a story about 1080 to put a comment about 1080,” she said. “You know – here’s [a story on the fact] the prime minister’s in Vietnam – well put a comment ‘what’s the prime minister telling them about putting 1080 in our food?’. And you can actually sort of divert the whole story.

“There’s all sorts of things you can do to pick up on momentum and people are going ‘hang on, where’s all this 1080 stuff coming from’.”

In another part of the talk, Grey offered advice on how to stop being ignored or sidelined by the media. “We’ve got to be more noisy and cause more trouble than any of the other problems so we go to the top of the list,” she said.

Grey isn’t an avid social media user. Her talk was mainly about how 1080 could hijack the comments on news stories and blogs. She told me she didn’t believe she was the cause of the recent spike in anti-1080 activism. “I think it’s just an issue whose time has come,” she said. But it seems likely someone in the audience was taking her advice on board. The tactics she outlined almost perfectly match a sea change in how anti-1080 activism is practised online, and particularly on Facebook.

I had my first encounter with the online anti-1080 movement last month after watching a live news video where Phil Twyford and Kris Faafoi glumly announced new rules governing wheel clamping. When I looked at the video’s comments section, almost no-one was interested in clamping. Nearly every comment was the same message, repeated over and over: Ban 1080.

I found out the comments had their roots in a single Facebook page: Operation Ban 1080. The 60,000-member group  was encouraging members to take advantage of Facebook’s easily evaded moderation tools to get their message heard on unrelated videos.

It was like Grey said in her seminar: they weren’t waiting for stories about 1080 to post a comment on 1080. They were diverting news stories on unrelated topics. They were being more noisy, and creating more trouble. And it seemed to be working. Though Operation Ban 1080’s numbers was most likely inflated by its members’ tendency to add their entire friend lists to the group with or without their friends’ consent, its following was inarguably huge and growing. The group’s proselytising would put the Mormon church to shame. They were passionate and extremely visible online, and that seemed to be starting to spill over into mainstream media coverage. Earlier this month, Mark Sainsbury devoted his entire three-hour RadioLive show to 1080.

The dark side to that is familiar to anyone who’s watched fringe groups flourish on social media in recent years. Where Operation Ban 1080 would previously have had to go through gatekeepers to get their message heard – opening themselves up to scrutiny and countering opinion – on Facebook they were allowed to run wild. Emotive posts accusing 1080 of wholesale environmental destruction were actually rewarded by Facebook’s algorithm due to their high engagement. False posts or doctored photos showing native birds or deer “poisoned by 1080” went semi-viral. Lies could be posted without counterargument, and any objections were confined to other parts of the site.

“You get this snowballing crescendo of hysteria and conspiracy and science denial and hyperbole where, in order to keep on getting the likes on Facebook, each statement has to be more fantastical, more hyperbolic than the last,” said Dave Hansford, the author of Protecting Paradise: 1080 and the Fight to Save New Zealand’s Wildlife. “This is the whole fake news phenomenon. They used to be happy with simply misrepresenting studies or cherry-picking research or just denigrating scientists … but more recently that clown car has just like careered off this on-ramp to crazy town. People are no longer concerned with keeping even one fingertip still on a fact anymore. Now they’re happy to just make shit up.”

A Facebook spokesman said the company doesn’t want to be the arbiter of what’s right and wrong when it comes to the posts on pages like Operation Ban 1080. The website was a tech platform – not a publisher, he said. He later sent through a statement: “We want Facebook to be a place where people can express themselves and connect on issues that are meaningful to them. The conversations that happen on Facebook reflect the diversity of society where the norms, values and perspectives are different across a range of topics.” The company would not censor or make judgements about the views shared on its platform.

But the increasingly extreme rhetoric on Operation Ban 1080 appears to be causing real harm. As 1080’s perceived evil has grown, the perceived conspiracy behind it has also blossomed.

Many of the group’s members have become increasingly radical. They no longer believe DOC staff are just misguided. To them the poison is so bad, its use has to be down to something nefarious.

THE REAL REASON BEHIND 1080, ACCORDING TO RESPONSES TO A POST ON OPERATION BAN 1080. GRAPHIC: TINA NGATA

If DOC staff and other pro-1080 speakers are part of a conspiracy, the logical implication is that they’re liars working to destroy New Zealand’s wildlife. Perhaps because of that, people like Toki, Lorigan, Hansford, and other prominent pro-1080 voices have been targeted with abuse. Mike Hepburn has also fallen victim of the upsurge. I met the hunter and pro-1080 campaigner at in the Hunua Ranges during a 1080 “pre-drop” – just days before Grey managed to secure an Environment Court injunction against the operation.

MIKE HEPBURN. PHOTO: HAYDEN DONNELL

When 1080 bait was last dropped in the Hunua Ranges, Hepburn was one of the leading opposition voices. He changed his mind on the poison after going to 1080 drop and seeing first-hand the care that was taken to make sure it was kept away from waterways and other areas where it could be dangerous to people.

His turnaround made him a target for anti-1080 activists. Recently though, things have taken a turn for the worse – something he attributes to the establishment of Operation Ban 1080. “Facebook messages get sent to me every day ‘We’re going to kill you. We’re going to feed you baits. We’re going to put 1080 in your water’, that kind of thing,” he said.

He’s not alone. About a week ago, a YouTube account with the username Kia Kotahi Mai posted a nearly 5-minute video of threats, mainly screenshotted from Operation Ban 1080.

That would be easy to disregard as the normal downside of social media. But the hostile sentiment online seems to have spilled over into the real world. In August, DOC staff were physically confronted, abused or harassed eight times. Toki said they also received seven abusive phone calls or emails, along with the “countless” social media threats. “Under what other circumstance would we as a society allow for this kind of behaviour?” she said. “Our staff are dedicated, hard-working, caring people who go to work every day for a department whose job it is to protect our native wildlife. They do not deserve this kind of behaviour.”

When anti-1080 campaigners carried out a hikoi to parliament last week, they did so in the context of this flammable environment. Anti-1080 sentiment was growing. There was an active Environment Court injunction against a 1080 drop. Hundreds of protesters joined the march. It was a triumphant moment for the movement – probably the best example of the surging enthusiasm generated by sites like Operation Ban 1080 and Hikoi for a Poisoned Nation.

But what happened next showed the downside of that increasing radicalisation. Fake 1080 pellets were thrown onto the steps of parliament, prompting a debate between environment minister David Parker and anti-1080 protesters. Then dead birds were laid outside parliament. Though protesters originally claimed the animals were killed by 1080, tests later showed they appeared to have died from blunt force trauma. A police complaint was laid. Public tolerance for the anti-1080 protests quickly waned.

To Hansford, that shows how the same forces behind the rise of the anti-1080 movement also contain the DNA for its demise. While the increasingly radical online activism has won supporters to the cause, it also increases the chance of someone taking the violent online rhetoric literally and doing something so harmful it ensures the anti-1080 movement is booted out of the limelight and back into the fringe conspiracy dustbin, he said. “It could end in tragedy and if it keeps going there’s a good chance it’s going to. And on that day, public support for the anti-1080 movement evaporates.”


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