A new report offers counter-narratives to deploy against New Zealand’s far right, Marc Daalder reports
A European Union-funded study has praised Jacinda Ardern’s response to the March 15 terror attack and offered suggestions for how New Zealand can counter far-right narratives in the future.
The report surveyed 12 far-right groups, including defunct 1990s-era skinhead gangs like Unit 88 and more modern white supremacist outfits like Action Zealandia, to determine the most prevalent extremist narratives. It then recommended potential avenues for countering these narratives.
Titled From Gangs to Groupuscules and Solo-Actor Terrorism: New Zealand Radical Right Narratives and Counter-Narratives in the Context of the Christchurch Attack, the paper was written by William Allchorn, an expert on anti-Islamic extremism in Europe. It was published by the Hedayah Center and the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right, which study extremism, and funded by a European Union counter-extremism project.
Certain narratives common on far right
Allchorn found 25 different extremist narratives had been deployed in New Zealand, ranging from white supremacy to anti-Semitism to identitarianism.
“Key narratives centre upon ethno-nationalism and/or white supremacism, antisemitic and Islamophobic tropes, anti-establishment sentiment, environmentalism, and chauvinism at this present time,” he wrote. These were “largely in keeping with other radical right contexts in Europe, North America, and elsewhere”.
Two differences that set New Zealand apart were a focus on anti-Māori narratives in particular and environmentalist ones, which then tied into far-right ideals around a lack of resources and overcrowding by non-whites.
In addition, chauvinism (sexist, homophobic and transphobic narratives rooted in toxic masculinity), anti-establishment narratives and anti-immigrant views were among the most prevalent of the 25 found in New Zealand.
To counter these narratives, Allchorn proposed new “counter-narratives in order to disrupt, delegitimise and/or devalue the appeal” of radical right talking points.
For example, anti-Māori sentiment could be countered with emphasis on bicultural concepts and Treaty partnerships.
‘Simplistic’ and ‘exterior’
Kate Hannah, an expert on extremism at the University of Auckland, said the counter-narratives in the report fell short.
“They very much are written by someone who doesn’t know very much about Aotearoa. It’s overly simplistic, it’s a very exterior view, it’s not embedded in Aotearoa New Zealand,” she said. “It acknowledges the foundational nature of the Treaty but in no way is it embedded in bicultural discourse.”
Hannah pointed to the counter-narratives for anti-Māori sentiment, which also highlighted the opportunities to “stress the importance of shared interests of Māori and Europeans through communal sporting programmes like cricket and rugby, especially the All Blacks”.
“The anti-Māori counter-narrative slipped quite quickly into, ‘sports are a good place for ethnicities to unite,’ which has underlying tones of racism itself. It’s highly simplistic,” she said.
Counter-narratives to misogyny and chauvinism suggested touting Kate Sheppard and Marilyn Waring.
“The chauvinist counter-narratives actually made me laugh out loud. We’ve been through, in New Zealand, quite a strong set of conversations around the preeminence of someone like Kate Sheppard in the discourse around women voting – at the expense of those Māori women whose autonomy, whose rights on the pā were taken from them by colonisation,” Hannah said.
“To focus on two white women in a so-called chauvinist counter-narrative really is not embedded in where New Zealand is in this conversation.”
Social cohesion through counter-narratives
Jess Berentson-Shaw, an expert on misinformation and the science of communication and a co-director of The Workshop, told Newsroom that the report did contain some helpful suggestions. The broader approach of identifying far-right narratives and devising counter-narratives that target their weak spots and build social cohesion at the same time was valuable.
“It is interesting to me, as somebody who works on narratives, that people in this [counter-extremism] space particularly recognise the role of narratives,” she said.
“You have to create counter-narratives, you can’t just go hard at the usual kind of stuff around mythbusting. That shows quite a depth of understanding about how people come to believe the things they do and how people reason.
“At the heart of a lot of narrative stuff is understanding how people are reasoning about an issue. The goal of counter-narratives is to create different ways for people to reason about an issue – so, conceptually, it’s very useful.”
Berentson-Shaw said these counter-narratives shouldn’t be thought of as retorts to a given logical fallacy or piece of false information. Evidence from countless studies has shown that mythbusting or debunking false information is rarely successful in changing the mind of someone who has been misled.
Instead, effective counter-narratives that build social cohesion – by, for example, emphasising the achievements of immigrants and the value of diversity, or highlighting biculturalism – should be deployed more broadly.
“Once people are at an extreme end of a far-right narrative, the research on how to bring them back is a little bit different. You’re at a point where you’re having to do one-on-one interventions with people,” she said.
“For me, counter-narratives work in this space of stopping people from walking down that path. The role of counter-narratives is essentially to build up much more powerful understandings and deeper understandings in people who might be potentially persuaded into that space. Counter-narratives are something you do in a general, public sense.”
In the report, Allchorn wrote that New Zealand has only recently begun to grapple with the far right.
“This means that there are few examples of formal programmes and interventions designed to mitigate or tackle head-on forms of radical right extremist terrorism and violence,” he wrote.
“Having said this, one of the best examples of radical right counter-narratives, or strategic communications relating to radical right extremism, came in the wake of the Christchurch terror attacks.”
Ardern’s emphasis on multiculturalism after the attack (“they are us”), her emotiveness and the push for a global response were all hailed as successful counter-narratives.
“In consequence, the Christchurch attack and New Zealand’s impassioned response to it witnessed a proactive shift in seizing the initiative against radical right violent extremism,” Allchorn wrote.
List of groups outdated
The need for counter-narratives in the first place was laid out in the first section of the report, which traversed 12 far-right groups in New Zealand.
Byron Clark, a left-wing activist who tracks New Zealand’s extreme right, told Newsroom that Allchorn’s analysis might overstate the relevance of older far-right groups – but individuals involved in some of those groups, like neo-Nazis Kyle Chapman and Kerry Bolton, have continued to organise on the radical right and among conspiracy theorists.
Allchorn’s conclusions about the dominant narratives among New Zealand’s far right were accurate, Clark said.
“The ideologies the report notes as motivating the radical right- being anti-establishment, chauvinism … and anti-Maori sentiment match what I’ve observed,” he said.
The extreme right’s promotion of environmentalist narratives was more nuanced than Allchorn implied, however.
“I think the relationship to environmentalism is a bit more complex, there are definite eco-fascist tendencies – particularly with Action Zealandia – but I also see a fair amount of climate change denial on the far right. Some local far-right activists attempted to distance themselves from [the March 15 terrorist] by claiming he was a leftist, citing his environmental motivations with the implication that environmentalism is an inherently left-wing ideology.”
Clark also saw value in using counter-narratives to prevent radicalisation, but “if the goal is deradicalisation then it could backfire, as promotion of multiculturalism or acceptance of diverse expressions of gender and sexuality by the state or mainstream media would likely reinforce conspiratorial ideas about the establishment pushing an anti-white agenda”.
Fringe right still supports terrorist
Allchorn’s report came after another study by counter-extremism experts relating to the March 15 attack. This paper, by the Global Network on Extremism and Technology, surveyed the ongoing popularity of the March 15 terrorist in online far-right spaces around the second anniversary of the terror attack.
More than 250 posts relating to the attack were made on the 4chan website on March 15, 2021, when the average number of posts a day relating to the attack and the terrorist was closer to 50. About half of these posts and comments were supportive of the shooter, 14 percent opposed what he did and 10 percent argued the attack was a hoax.
On even more fringe websites, the terrorist received greater support. More than three quarters of posts on the obscure 16chan message board supported the attack.
“Two years after one of the worst far-right terrorist attacks in recent history, the atrocities of 15 March continue to have an enduring legacy among the digital far right. The propaganda materials created by the attacker were designed to inspire other extremists across the globe to take action,” the researchers found.
“As the subsequent (attempted) attacks in Poway, El Paso, Oslo, Halle and Singapore demonstrate, this endeavour was unfortunately successful. The Christchurch attacker has attained iconic status among the pantheon of far-right terrorists that are openly glorified across a wide range of alt-tech platforms.
“While working with smaller platforms to make access to terrorist materials more difficult remains crucial, this research points towards the need go beyond content removal and address the underlying extremist ideological world views that have thrived within far-right online subcultures.”