A surfer photographed raising his middle finger says it was clearly aimed at the photographer, not the police, and wants the online threats against him to stop, reports Bonnie Sumner.

A west Auckland surfer says threats have been made against him and his family after the Stuff news site published a photo of him with a caption erroneously describing him as “not happy” to be spoken to by police.

In the photo, published on April 5, the man is seen holding his surfboard and giving the middle finger to the camera while being spoken to by a police officer. He says the photographer had been hounding the surfers for a while and he was unhappy with the photographer, not the police officers.

The full caption beneath the photograph reads: “A surfer is not happy to be spoken to by police for flouting lockdown rules at a West Auckland beach.”

On closer examination it is clear the surfer is not looking at the police officer standing nearby, but directly at the camera.

The man, who was photographed going for a final surf at his local beach on Sunday, says he has been threatened with being tasered, shot and hung in multiple Facebook groups and reddit threads.

“When I walked up the beach I did the fingers to the photographer skulking around the beach, thinking nothing of it. I went and spoke to the police. They were lovely and were clear with their instruction and delivered their message and I acknowledged their advice and agreed.

“We then continued to chat for about 10 minutes. That afternoon I became aware of an article on Stuff using a photo of me. The caption of the photo implied I did the fingers to the police and resisted their advice. This is not true.”

He says he has had hundreds if not thousands of “horrific” comments – many driven by one stranger online who continues to share the article in community Facebook groups throughout the country.

“Over the following hours I was made aware of the photo being shared and some pretty scary comments being made. This escalated to the point that hundreds of people were saying all sorts of nasty stuff believing I did the fingers to the police.”

The man, who did not want to be identified, is now too scared to leave his house for essentials and has deleted his social media profiles.

He says there was another press photographer present that day but their published pictures didn’t identify any of the surfers. He admits is was “dumb” to give the photographer the finger, but says he had never been in that situation before.

“I don’t have media training. This is my home beach, I’m in my community. That photographer has driven all the way out here to stand by the police taking photos. No one else is allowed to drive out here or come to the beach. What he’s doing is not exactly an essential service. That’s not journalism, that’s tabloid stuff.”

He said it’s been a very confusing time for everyone and until Saturday the rules around surfing locally were still unclear, and that he and a handful of others just wanted to get in their last surf.

“People should also remember this is a surreal situation that none of us have ever experienced before. Those of who live on the coast have never been told we cannot go in the ocean and would never imagine that day would come.”

New laws were introduced on April 4 clarifying lockdown restrictions, with surfing on the list of banned activities. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said police would be out to educate and warn anyone flouting the ban.

Stuff was asked whether they were aware of the social media threats resulting from the caption on their photograph, why the caption misrepresented the photograph and whether they would be apologising.

Deputy editor Janine Fenwick declined to respond, adding “but thanks for bringing the caption to our attention – we have amended it slightly.”

The caption now reads: “A surfer is spoken to by police for flouting lockdown rules at a West Auckland beach.”

For the subject of the photograph, it has been a lesson in the speed with which misinformation can travel. “It’s scary how people can see one image with a misleading caption and it results in thousands of people around the country and even in Australia making comments,” he says.

“We’re in the middle of one of the craziest things that’s ever happened in modern history and people think it’s a good time to increase the hatred. It’s not a good attitude from the media and it’s not fair and its pretty terrifying what it can do so quickly.”

Bonnie Sumner is part of the Newsroom Investigates reporting team

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