Experts say the new low-tolerance approach from police could inspire more non-compliance but might still be justified by the circumstances, Marc Daalder reports

Over the course of four separate lockdowns (three of which were confined to Auckland), the New Zealand Police have taken an educate-first approach to rulebreakers.

That has extended even to those who knowingly violate lockdown restrictions, as when politicians, conspiracy theorists and far-right activists gathered for a large protest in defiance of Auckland’s lockdown in September. Despite hundreds of people crowding Aotea Square with little or no mask use, police made zero arrests.

This period of tolerance has come to an end. Wednesday saw a number of small, spontaneous anti-lockdown protests organised by the usual crowd of conspiracy theorists in response to the new Level 4 lockdown. This time, however, police responded by arresting eight of the protesters – four in Auckland and four in Tauranga. Among the arrested were failed politician Billy Te Kahika Jr and conspiracy theorist and former YouTuber Vinnie Eastwood.

“We have a low tolerance for unlawful gatherings, particularly in the context of a Delta variant outbreak. People can expect we will move more quickly to enforcement action given that context,” Police Commissioner Andrew Coster said on Wednesday.

In other words, no more warnings or standing passively by while anti-lockdown protesters gather in the streets.

“They can expect enforcement action,” Coster said.

But is there a possibility that this might backfire? Could the arrests of prominent members of the anti-lockdown movement inspire more non-compliance, rather than depress it?

“Look, it’s always a balance: what’s the downside of taking the enforcement action versus the downside of not?” Coster said.

“And what we’ve assessed today is, actually, we just can’t have crowds of people gathering in this context. And so that’s why we’ve leaned towards the enforcement option.”

Coster speaks to media on Wednesday. Pool photo: Mark Mitchell

Sanjana Hattotuwa, who studies misinformation and disinformation in New Zealand for Te Pūnaha Matatini’s Disinformation Project, told Newsroom the Government is faced with a Catch 22 in this scenario.

“Whether this protest and the police reaction to it will lead to offline gatherings in the future is a Catch 22 because the police had no option but to do what they did as a consequence of the more transmissible variant that we’re dealing with,” he said.

“Given the transmissibility and the viral signature of Delta, the police did what they had to do. If as a consequence this brings out those who were thinking on the same lines as those who were part of the protest in the morning, that consideration I don’t think could have precluded police action in the morning.”

However, Hattotuwa said there was no doubt the protests and arrests would result in online harm. Viewers attracted to the livestream of the protest on Te Kahika’s Facebook page will also be exposed to other false information from him. That has also led to the sharing of footage from the protests to a wide range of other platforms, both mainstream (like YouTube or Twitter) and fringe (like Gab or Telegram).

“It indicates that the offline occurrence of a gathering in Auckland today has online resonance just through Billy TK’s Facebook page. When researchers like myself talk about an ecological perspective, we mean it’s not just on Facebook that this plays out,” Hattotuwa said.

“Inasmuch as can be determined, one is seeing, rather disturbingly and authoritatively from the research that I’ve done, a steady increase in the sharing and engagement of this kind of misinformation such that you have this protest in the morning. You have significant engagement leading up to it, you have incredible engagement around it and, just on that signature, it is very likely and not rocket science to hypothesise that the online harms are going to spread in the days and weeks to come.”

This just further highlights the Catch 22 facing police. Conspiracy theorists want to spread their message. They want to go viral and if being arrested prompts that, they want to be arrested. That’s why some of the protests occurred directly outside police stations.

From the perspective of police, however, the goal of reducing protests and the virality of misinformation is secondary to their paramount mission in this moment: Stopping people spreading the virus.

Police arrest Billy Te Kahika, Jr on Wednesday. Photo: Matthew Scott

Jess Berentson-Shaw, a co-director of the think tank The Workshop and the author of A Matter of Fact: Talking Truth in a Post-Truth World, told Newsroom she was hopeful the protest might have limited offline ramifications.

She pointed to the massive anti-lockdown protest in Sydney, which garnered global headlines and saw a fierce police response, which failed to spur on further large protests.

“I think that has more to do with the fact they just got huge case numbers so quickly, with Delta. And we’re going to see more cases come [here], the Prime Minister was pretty clear on that,” she said.

“There will be a social norming factor that comes in where people just won’t protest. Just because it’s so socially unacceptable during an outbreak to do it. It’s hard to say whether anything will happen because of the police arrests.”

One of the Government’s top advisors, disease modeller Shaun Hendy, told Newsroom on Wednesday that there could have been 100 cases in the community by the time the outbreak was detected. If case numbers continue to rise over the next few days, Berentson-Shaw said she was reasonably confident that would keep all but the most determined conspiracists in their homes.

She also said that New Zealanders were tired of lockdowns and this could prompt a stronger social norm around following the rules to bring Level 4 to an end as quickly as possible.

“We’ve had so much more ability to just go about our lives so I think New Zealanders will just have a lot less tolerance for lockdowns and want to get it over and done with. They’ll see that kind of behaviour as socially unacceptable.”

The strong overlap between anti-vaccine and anti-lockdown activists gave Berentson-Shaw further hope, because the data she had seen form the vaccine rollout so far indicated there was relatively little vaccine denial. It was a loud minority, but not a sizeable force.

That was a point echoed by Coster on Wednesday.

“The vast majority of people are doing the right thing,” he said.

“I think it’s important not to be distracted by a very small number who seem to be determined to do something else. We will deal with them.”

Marc Daalder is a senior political reporter based in Wellington who covers climate change, health, energy and violent extremism. Twitter/Bluesky: @marcdaalder

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