Image: Supplied/The Spinoff
Image: Supplied/The Spinoff

SocietyApril 21, 2021

How alternative festivals became platforms for conspiracy theorists

Image: Supplied/The Spinoff
Image: Supplied/The Spinoff

Because Covid denial and medical misinformation are rife at wellness festivals, the upcoming NZ Spirit Festival, featuring Rachel Hunter, had help from anti-conspiracy campaigners to send a clear message to its presenters. Anke Richter explains.

This autumn equinox, Earth Beat – “Aotearoa’s most innovative and earth-friendly music and arts festival” – held a five-day party at Ātiu Creek to “balance the light and dark”. On the Saturday night, that balance flipped. Matiu Te Huki, a popular performer on the festival circuit, played after midnight. Instead of bantering between his songs, the Wellington musician used the main stage for an anti-vax speech. Some people in the crowd responded to his passionate warnings about “poisoning our bodies” and a “plandemic” with cheers and clapping. Others were appalled. 

“In the blink of an eye, thousands of dollars’ worth of sound and lighting equipment assisted the propagation of a message that is profoundly damaging to public health,” Auckland counsellor Ari Amala wrote on her blog afterwards. Tauranga business owner Sam Thompson, who was sitting nearby, was wondering whether the festival condoned what she called “Matiu’s red-pilled mission”. Another woman The Spinoff spoke to said she was horrified to hear him spout such misinformation and left immediately. “It’s sad to see someone so ill-informed using his position to influence other festival goers. It really ruined Earth Beat for me.”

All three are members of FACT (Fight Against Conspiracy Theories), a volunteer network of New Zealand health workers, activists and educators who delivered thank you cards to MIQ hotels in Christchurch and had over 100 doctors and academics sign an open letter to “Covid Plan B” in March. In a preventive move, the group approached the upcoming NZ Spirit Festival to put out a clear message against misinformation spreading among its presenters and performers – which the organiser took on board. 

Matiu Te Huki in a 2019 RNZ interview

Earth Beat wasn’t the first time Matiu Te Huki has made his controversial views on masks, lockdowns and vaccines public. Since last year, he has expressed his Covid scepticism repeatedly on social media and openly supported Billy Te Kahika Jr, who ran for Advance NZ in last year’s general election. The haka facilitator said the government was “terrorising people” with an “agenda to take all your freedom”. “The likes of the Rockefellers and the Rothschilds (are) running the planet in such a detrimental, nasty, evil, psychopathic way,” he claimed in July 2020. “They have bought the media, they bought out the WHO and the UN.” Despite fans and friends pulling him up on his rants, he amped up his mix of self-promotion and conspiracy theories. In last week’s “Tikitiki Tuesday tune up”, Te Huki falsely called vaccinations “mandatory”. 

Although he wasn’t there when it happened, Earth Beat director Sadra Saffari found Te Huki’s spoken interlude on March 20 “of concern”. He wished the musician had checked in with him first. “We’ve tagged a debrief with him,” the Raglan resident told The Spinoff. “It’s a conversation we need to have and possibly weave that into artists’ contracts. We’re not into platforming things that are not in the best interest of our community and Aotearoa at large.” 

His crew was too stretched for time and resources by moving to a new location this year and “focused on building bridges with mana whenua”, he said. “When we started in 2015, it was a bit of a woowoo hippie festival. We’re not in that mindset and want to transition to a broader audience.” Green MP Chlӧe Swarbrick was scheduled as a guest speaker for the 2020 event that was postponed due to Covid. “We want more people like her.”

Sue Grey of the Outdoors Party, pictured second from left at a debate last year, visited an anti-5G tent at February’s Luminate festival (Photo: Alex Braae)

It wasn’t the first time that an alternative festival has platformed Covid conspiracy theories, willingly or unknowingly. Luminate, which every second year attracts 4,000 people to its drumming circles and electronic music dance floors at Canaan Downs above Golden Bay, near Nelson, was criticised last November in an open letter by DJs, artists and musicians like Marlon Williams for promoting conspiracy celebrity David Icke. The festival organisers took the British holocaust denier off their website and added a clarification, saying they were not aligned with QAnon or the far right. The fallout led to a rapid loss in reputation and ticket sales – and to the formation of the “Rabbit Hole Resistance”. The Facebook network supports people who are affected by conspiracy theory spreading. They had their first meet-up at a festival too: Kiwiburn, the regional Burning Man. 

Lunasa, as the 2021 Luminate was called, was a much smaller event this February than in past years. Some participants wanted to hold an impromptu workshop on “Covid – The Great Reset”, which the festival management tried to stop, asking for their posters to be taken down. The festival declined to comment. There was no overt conspiracy content in the programme, but one festival tent was run by an anti-5G group, which Sue Grey from the Outdoors Party visited. “I’ve personally had a brilliant reception at Luminate when I’ve spoken there in the past,” the Nelson lawyer and anti-vaxxer wrote to The Spinoff. Grey is a prominent protester against New Zealand’s Covid measures and vaccine rollout and has compared immunisation to rape and murder on her social media. Former white supremacist Kyle Chapman, who is currently doing leaflet drops with anti-vax misinformation, is helping her as an organiser on the ground. 

FACT spokesperson Jacinta O’Reilly delivering a thank you note to the manager of the Sudima MIQ facility (Photo: Anke Richter)

It’s this overlap of alternative health and wellness culture with Covid sceptics and far-right extremists – coined “conspirituality” – that is alarming for FACT spokesperson Jacinta O’Reilly. “We need more awareness in our communities, especially in the yoga and festival scene, about the way completely false and fictional statements are presented as hidden truths,” said the Christchurch community activist. “There’s often a monetised agenda by anti-vax lobby groups, like selling supplements or essential oils. Targeting people with genuine concerns about medicine and Big Pharma to then sell them snake oil or build trust in alt-right recruiters is what we want festival organisers to address and avoid.”

O’Reilly got behind the request that was put to NZ Spirit Festival, whose organisers also run Resolution festival over New Year’s. “Over this past summer, there have been some attendees, artists and facilitators who have been known to share misinformation at these large community events,” FACT wrote in a letter to the festival’s producer Franko Heke last week. “We hope that the NZ Spirit Festival does not become a platform for misinformation.” 

Their suggestion for a basic health and safety update – asking people to scan in and wear masks if necessary – was immediately implemented on NZ Spirit’s website. “We take the Covid-19 global pandemic seriously,” it starts. FACT’s second request – an agreement between NZ Spirit and all artists and presenters – was sent around by Heke via email. “The festival organisers have decided that debate on the public health response to Covid-19 will not be conducted on the site at this time,” it states. “We ask everybody, attendees, performers, and presenters to respect this.” That includes distributing “flyers and posters of a political nature”. Heke said he was happy to collaborate. “Perfect timing,” he told The Spinoff. “I appreciate the care and recognise it as an opportunity to grow this movement.”

A scene from a previous NZ Spirit festival (Photo: NZ Spirit)

The family-friendly event that is connected to the Bali Spirit brand runs for the fourth time from tomorrow (Thursday, April 22) and is drug and alcohol free. It kicks off in Kumeū, north-west of Auckland, with over 3,000 people and a yoga meditation session led by former supermodel Rachel Hunter. Tiki Taane and Maisey Rika will take the stage as top acts in a lineup of 70 musicians. There will be a “cosmic Kundalini breath journey”, chakra chanting and womb healing. “It’s a place to discover your own personal truth before any global issues,” said Heke, also a musician. The four-day mix of music, stalls and workshops is “vibrating on a very high frequency”. 

But some of the frequencies the festival community vibes with are questionable. The marketplace, for instance, will feature a white and gold “Starseeds” tent to “shift your soul into sovereignty”. Starseeds is a new-age cult that believes its followers, who include the likes of the Covid conspiracy theorist Lonely lingerie owners, are advanced spiritual beings from other planets. Another cult – QAnon – was hailed on the NZ Spirit Tribe Facebook page, a community page for fans of the festival, when one of its members live-streamed from an anti-lockdown protest in Auckland, passionately shouting: “Q is from God!” 

“Some people are misled,” admits Heke, who is admin of the community page. “We don’t know who they are until they do something destructive. But this kind of stuff is maybe 0.1% of the group.” Another post on NZ Spirit Tribe about the Luminate controversy last year generated more antisemitic comments than those in favour of calling the Golden Bay festival out. A day later, Heke deleted the whole post. “When humans get together in the physical form and not just online, we can harmonise all people.”

Sustainability consultant Leo Murray is presenting a workshop at NZ Spirit as well as helping to set it up. He was the author of the open letter to Luminate and five months later, its echo has come full circle. The DJ from Tauranga is relieved to see NZ Spirit’s FACT message get out. “I’m as worried about our information hygiene as I am about the virus,” he said. “Folks are vulnerable – it’s good that festivals take responsibility as hosts.” 

On Sunday, Murray will be chairing a panel called “Our Future of Conscious Festivals” with the organisers of Earth Beat, NZ Spirit and Splore. The February music and arts extravaganza made the most proactive move towards “information hygiene” this year: Splore had microbiologist Siouxsie Wiles on stage.

Anke Richter is a member of FACT and co-founder of “Rabbit Hole Resistance”

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