It was always going to come to this.
The assembly of the naïve, deluded and crackpots who came together as part of the Convoy 2022, which created the protest outside Parliament, were never going to succumb to reason.
By yesterday evening, after they had lit fires and hurled everything from resin chairs to pavers at the Police and in turn been hit back with pepper spray and foam bullets they had left Parliament grounds and the streets around it looking like an inorganic rubbish collection site, there were some very fundamental questions about the state of the New Zealand’s body politic.
POLITIK went into the camp on several nights for the first two weeks and watched it shift from a grab bag of fringe causes like anti-1080, anti 5G, Pike River and a widespread view that the entire Parliament was corrupt and should be sacked; then to a sort of dippy hippie festival and then take on a darker tinge.
That was what we saw yesterday.
Naïve politicians, including Winston Peters and Christopher Luxon, who tried to suggest the protesters may have had a point about vaccine mandates, had no idea what was really going down on Parliament’s lawn; inside the protest; inside the tents.
Perhaps the most naïve was former ACT leader Rodney Hide, who told the crowd this week he was “one of them”; “I want to live with you,” he declared from their sound stage.
Former National MP, Matt King, resigned from National and went over to the protesters. He said on Tuesday night that any Police action to move the protesters would be “bad, bad, bad”.
And there were more sinister forces. Feeds of images, video and text on various channels on the Telegram chat app.
Perhaps the most disgusting was a “documentary” on “Counterspin” arguing that the Christchurch Mosque massacre was fake and had been staged by actors.
An American woman who provided commentary on the “Revolution” channel claimed that the Ukraine flag flying on Parliament buildings proved that the Russian invasion of Ukraine was a false flag operation staged by the US and New Zealand was in on the plot – hence the flag.
“There has all the way through been an element to this occupation that has not felt like New Zealand, and that’s because it’s not,” said Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern yesterday.
“There has been foreign influence and what we’ve seen, maybe not in the traditional terms that we know it, but in terms of the disinformation that has been sourced out of other countries.
“That is something that we will have to tackle but so do other democracies because it’s a dangerous place when citizens lead into spaces where they believe so deeply in conspiracy theory that they act with such violence.”
Behind all this is an insidious leakage into New Zealand from the insane end of the United States Trumpist right wing.
“Counterspin” is tied up with Trump’s formal advisor Steve Bannon and runs the US conspiracy channel “InfoWars” when it is not running local content. Counterspin says Covid vaccinations are “crimes against humanity.”
The extreme right-wing dirty tricks New Zealand site, “BFD” (formerly Whaleoil) repeats most of the American conspiracies as it defames New Zealand politicians – though it praises Winston Peters.
The other favourite target is the mainstream media which many signs around the protest proclaimed “is the virus”.
That slogan has been picked up around the world. In Canada, there were hard-right protest rallies under its name aimed at TV stations.
Here, the right-wing blogger and former journalist, Karl Dufresne, expostulating on “Morning Report” about an interview with an academic about how the protesters were radicalised by global disinformation networks, said: “It didn’t seem to have occurred to him that if New Zealanders have been driven into the arms of dodgy alternative news sources such as Counterspin, it might be because they have learned not to trust the mainstream media. (As it happens, I don’t either.).”
A survey last year commissioned by the Department of Internal Affairs and carried out by the London-based Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) found clear links between last year’s anti-vax protests and the bizarre extreme right-wing American QAnon movement.
The ISD said its research drew on data from social media sites including Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, a range of ‘alt tech’ platforms, including Parler, Gab and Telegram, alongside data from stand-alone extremist websites and forums, with over 600,000 posts collected from over 300 extremist accounts from New Zealand.
It found that there were 300 extremist accounts registered on social media from New Zealand, and whilst that figure is small in comparison with, say, the 730,000 New Zealand Twitter accounts, it was New Zealand’s numbers in comparison with the size of its population which stood out.
On that basis, New Zealand had the second-highest number of people after the United States who had connected with QAnon, the extremist United States site which believes there is an international paedophile and baby smuggling conspiracy involving most democratically elected leaders.
“I think that every democracy that we would perhaps compare ourselves to is facing this similar issue, and one of the difficulties is that alongside that growth and disinformation, it is accompanied by a growth and distrust of traditional forms of access to information such as mainstream media and also distrust in government,” Ardern said last night.
“So the very channels that we have open to us to try and counter disinformation become seen as part of the problem by those who are succumbing to it.
“It is a complex issue. The government will not be able to solve it alone, particularly given the growth and people accessing information in those non-mainstream platforms and media.
“But it is something that is that we all need to address because the result of it can be these extreme acts that we’ve seen today.”
Now the cleanup in Parliament grounds will begin. The grounds are expected to be closed through the weekend. There will need to be better security around the perimeter of Parliament.
No one can be sure these protesters will not come back. Ending mandates won’t keep them away.
The Police have hours and hours of footage now to trawl through to identify more people to be prosecuted.
But the cleanup and the prosecutions are straightforward tasks. Ending the culture of conspiracy theories that have grabbed so many people will be a much harder job.