A study commissioned by the Government has found that New Zealand has one of the highest rates per head of population of right-wing extremist activity on social media.
The study was commissioned by the Department of Internal Affairs and carried out by the London-based Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD), a highly regarded London-based think thank that studies extremism across the spectrum from Islamic extremism to the activities of extremist right-wingers.
This weekend, another “freedoms” protest began with truck convoys from the north and south headed to Wellington.
The researchers found clear links between last year’s anti-vax protests and the bizarre extreme right-wing American QAnon movement.
Many of the protesters at the US capitol on January 6 last year were QAnon adherents.
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.
The study found a close connection between the pre-Christmas anti-vax demonstrations and right-wing extremism.
“Despite QAnon’s focus on American politics, the conspiracy theory has also gained traction in New Zealand, including incorporating local politics and domestic causes, as well as merging with other widespread conspiracy theories about Covid-19 and 5G towers,” the report says.
“Notably, QAnon activity in New Zealand is not confined to the Internet, with references to the conspiracy theory being regularly spotted at anti-lockdown rallies.
“Such rallies have attracted not only opponents of government lockdowns but also people calling for a ban of the 1080 poison and referencing QAnon-related conspiracy theories about child trafficking. The data suggests more emphatic engagement from New Zealanders in the events, personalities and affairs of the international sphere than vice versa.
” Drawing on data on international extremist actors, and particularly other countries in the Anglosphere, we found that while extremists from 102 different countries mentioned New Zealand during our period of study, references to New Zealand were only present in a tiny fraction (0.05%) of the total number of posts analysed from international extremists.
“Conspiracies around Covid-19 merging with discredited theories around 5G even resulted in criminal activities in New Zealand, including at least 14 arson attacks on 5G infrastructure in six weeks.”
Nevertheless, the data found that there was little international interest from right-wing conspiracy sites in what was happening in New Zealand.
“Drawing on data on international extremist actors, and particularly other countries in the Anglosphere, we found that while extremists from 102 different countries mentioned New Zealand during our period of study, references to New Zealand were only present in a tiny fraction (0.05%) of the total number of posts analysed from international extremists.”
But when New Zealand was mentioned, it was often in connection with the Christchurch Mosque massacre, which, ironically, New Zealand extremists tended not to talk about.
“The Christchurch attack has been a symbolic issue for extremist movements around the world. It is by far the single most mentioned location in New Zealand by international extremists – over half of all mentions of any identifiable location in New Zealand are about Christchurch, and over the last two years (November 2018- November 2020), just under half of all mentions made by international extremists of a place, person or thing in New Zealand happened in the immediate aftermath of the attack itself, and the attacker’s trial.”
The report says that in an average week last year, it found
- 192 New Zealand extremist accounts were active online;
- The accounts posted 20,059 times in total. 199 posts were on Parler, 898 posts on Facebook, two messages on Telegram, 266 posts on Gab, 18,676 tweets on Twitter, and 18 videos on YouTube;
- The posts collectively attracted 203,807 likes and up-votes;
- The posts drew 62,077 comments and replies;
- Videos posted by extremist channels on YouTube were viewed 41,569 times;
- The posts were shared, reposted, retweeted, re-blogged, or otherwise amplified 38,333 times;
- 136 of these posts would be aggressive or a concrete call to action;
- Finally, 1,074 posts sent by extremists outside of New Zealand referenced New Zealand in some way.
But though those numbers are very small in comparison with the total numbers using social media every day, what stands out about New Zealand, is the size of the extremist users relative to the population.
“On a per-person basis, New Zealand extremists have posted almost twice as much as their counterparts in the UK and Australia. American extremists are (by far) the most prolific,” the report says.
“Far-right Facebook pages in New Zealand have more followers per capita (757 per 100,000 Internet users) than Australia (399), Canada (252), the US (233) and the UK (220).
“While the online ethnonationalist community online in New Zealand is very small in comparison to their international equivalents, New Zealanders sent the second-most QAnon-related tweets per capita (1,500 Tweets per 100,000 Internet users), only surpassed by the US (3,000) during the period analysed.”
The Royals Commission into the Christchurch massacre was critical of New Zealand’s Human Rights Act which provides penalties for anyone inciting racial disharmony but only if the incitement is published by print media or broadcast. It does not cover social media.
“This is a significant gap in the scope of the offence that should be remedied,” it said.
“Indeed, we see no good reason why there should be restrictions based on how hate speech is communicated.”
The report notes that the Christchurch terrorist was a frequent user of right-wing extremist social media, and the Commission called for more research into this whole area in New Zealand.
The ISD report is part of that.