The fiery end to the three-week occupation will only firm the resolve of the violent extremists of the anti-vax and anti-mandate movement, Marc Daalder reports
Analysis: The occupation of Parliament grounds was always going to end in violence – either from police or protesters. On Wednesday it was the latter, with law enforcement exercising remarkable restraint in the face of deliberately-set fires and a hail of bricks.
In the short-term, the frantic clearing of downtown Wellington will reverberate across the country. The protesters will return home or link up with other, smaller occupations that have sprung up around New Zealand over the past few weeks. Eventually those too will be broken up or merely dissipate.
In the long-term, the three-week occupation and the violent clashes that ended it will catalyse New Zealand’s violent extremists and radicalise some of the more moderate conspiracy theorist fringe. It will also entrench an alternative media ecosystem which allows a small minority of the country to live in an alternate reality, dangerously disconnected from the real world.
From Telegram to Parliament grounds
Before February 8, New Zealand’s far-right, violent extremist community was tight-knit and interconnected, but existed almost entirely online. While they had a presence and occasional speaking roles at actions in the real world – usually related to anti-lockdown or anti-vaccine activism – they had little sway over the rest of the attendees at these events.
The start of the occupation of Parliament grounds changed all that. Suddenly, people who knew of each other from Facebook, YouTube or Telegram were now meeting in person. They formed real world bonds with others who they had only known as usernames or profile pictures. Amidst the death threats and harassment of Wellingtonians, a small core of extremists managed to grow a true sense of community in the tent city on Parliament grounds.
In addition to solidifying their connections with one another, these people also experienced real world action for the first time. They proved that their movements could make the jump from Telegram channels to the streets of the capital city.
They also massively increased their influence and their audience.
The far-right alternative media outlet Counterspin is the perfect example of all of this. Counterspin is the brainchild of Kelvyn Alp, an extremist who in the early 2000s declared war on the New Zealand Government and who in January issued a viral call for the armed kidnapping of MPs and journalists.
Before the occupation, it was one of the larger influencers on New Zealand’s extremist fringe, but had little name recognition among the comparatively larger anti-vaccine and anti-mandate movement. Once the convoy started in early February, Counterspin attracted record viewership by livestreaming the whole thing, hour by hour, day by day.
While the original, more moderate organisers of the convoy distanced themselves from Counterspin when it promoted violence against the police and Parliament, they were back to endorsing the outlet by Wednesday morning.
Alongside the Facebook livestreams of anti-vaxxer Chantelle Baker, Counterspin was seen by the occupiers as the authoritative media outlet covering the protest. Its audience has swelled immensely and it has considerable influence not just as a neutral observer of events but as an actor in the movement as well. Alp’s pet project has gone from a daily broadcast of conspiracy theory rants viewed by only a few thousand people to the de facto outlet of record for the occupation.
Throughout all of this, Alp hasn’t moderated his extremist views.
On Wednesday, he gleefully covered protesters hurling bricks at police, saying they were “justifiably” angry. He also mused that the entire police operation may have been a distraction so the cops could arrest those he viewed as the actual criminals – every politician and journalist in Parliament. Reluctantly, he conceded that wasn’t the most likely explanation.
Counterspin will continue to command the attention and loyalty of a large chunk of New Zealand’s extreme fringe. Going forward, there’s no incentive for Alp and his ilk to tone down their rhetoric or their ambitions – if anything, the failure of the occupation will only have hardened their belief that everyone in the Beehive needs to hang.
Igniting violent extremism
The fiery end to the three week occupation will only serve to catalyse the resolve of the violent extremists on the anti-vax and anti-mandate fringe.
Political solutions to their grievances are transparently unachievable. Some are lucid enough to know that their views will never win at the ballot box. Those who aren’t believe that any election would be rigged against them anyway.
Civil disobedience and peaceful protest has now failed. Not a single politician met with the protesters over the three weeks they camped out on Parliament’s lawn. The conditions for a meeting were clear: End the abuse of Wellingtonians, the violent threats against those who work in Parliament and the obstruction of the roads. The protesters couldn’t manage that. Now the occupation is over and the mandates and Covid-19 restrictions are still in place.
Many will simply give up. But among the hard core who refuse to, violence will emerge as the only possible solution.
That it didn’t work on Wednesday is no matter. Thinking their backs are up against the wall, the most extreme minority will lash back out. What Wednesday showed them was that violence felt good – the enthusiastic cheers whenever an LPG canister exploded after being tossed into an intentionally-sparked fire were proof enough, as was the willingness of at least a few dozen protesters to aid in the laborious process of digging up bricks from the footpath, moving them to the front line and then catapulting them at the riot police.
In addition to catalysing pre-existing violent extremists, the occupation will also have radicalised some of the more moderate conspiracy theorists who attended. Many people cleared out voluntarily over the past few days and more still will have been horrified by the fires and violence against police. But some will have been sucked into Counterspin’s alternate reality, where violence against the Government is justified because of the extent of politicians’ crimes – including but not limited to the vaccine rollout, the Covid-19 response and the obviously false conspiracy theory that MPs are implicated in a global paedophile ring.
This isn’t idle speculation. For more than a year, intelligence agencies have been warning the Government that opposition to the Covid-19 response could evolve into a security threat.
In February 2021, the Government’s Combined Threat Assessment Group (CTAG) concluded there was a “realistic possibility Covid-19-related personal grievances, and increased time spent online throughout various Covid-19 restrictive measures, will continue to accelerate some drivers of violent extremism in New Zealand, including social, political and economic factors. We assess there is a realistic possibility these will also contribute to the acceleration of radicalisation pathways for some individuals in New Zealand in the medium- to long-term.”
By the end of the year, CTAG was saying that while most anti-vaxxers were “highly unlikely to have the intent to conduct violence … the volume and nature of the rhetoric is creating an environment that normalises and justifies violent rhetoric as a legitimate response to public policy”.
Solutions need time to bed in
For the immediate future, the majority of these radicalised and catalysed extremists will be handled as security threats.
Deradicalising someone takes intensive one-on-one effort and usually requires the person to be willing to change in the first place.
But the entire saga of events also highlights two interlinked issues the Government needs to work on: Social cohesion and resilience to misinformation. Neither of these measures can be implemented overnight, but the longer it takes to put them in place, the more damage is locked in.
Both of these issues were acknowledged by Jacinda Ardern on Wednesday evening.
“One day, it will be our job to try and understand how a group of people could succumb to such wild and dangerous mis- and disinformation,” she said. “We have a difficult journey in front of us, to address the underlying cause of what we have seen here today.”
Ardern suggested that this wasn’t solely the responsibility of Government and said big tech companies as well as the rest of New Zealand have a part to play.
“Alongside that growth in disinformation, it is accompanied by growth in distrust of traditional forms of access to information, such as mainstream media, and also distrust in Government. 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. Government will not be able to solve it alone, particularly given the growth in people accessing information in those non-mainstream platforms and media.”
However, misinformation researchers have been arguing for years that proactive approaches are needed. In November 2019, psychologist Jess Berentson-Shaw told Newsroom about inoculation or pre-bunking, “which is where, before people are exposed to bad information, you can get in there first and let them know that they might hear this information and it will be false. That really relies on the ability to get in there first.”
Of course, that’s difficult to do with those who are already down the rabbit hole. The events at Parliament will likely entrench prior splits in the narrative of what’s really going on in the world – what researcher Sanjana Hattotuwa calls “splintered realities”.
First of all, there is the reality told by the mainstream media and the Government. Then there’s the violent extremist reality, in which brawls with police are justified by the moral necessity of overthrowing the Government. Sandwiched in the middle are the moderate conspiracy theorists who even now are dismissing the violence on Parliament’s lawn as the work of left-wing activists or agitators paid by the Government.
“When the debate you’re having is no longer based on fact, where does that take you? And that’s the challenge,” Ardern said.
The other key reconciliation tool is social cohesion, but it too has less immediate potential. One of the main recommendations from the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the March 15 terror attack was that a socially cohesive society where everyone feels like they belong, like they are included and tolerated, is less likely to produce extremists in the first place.
Social cohesion goes beyond preventing violent extremism, however. It can also ward off splintered realities and bolster resilience to misinformation.
While work on this recommendation has progressed, it’s only out for consultation so far. Ardern said it would be of limited use here.
“A lot of the policies that people use as examples of having an evidence base in the social cohesion space very much are long-term practices and principles that you embed very early on. Not the kind of thing that I think deal with the immediacy of misinformation and disinformation.”