US vaccine misinformation and extremism enter New Zealand

People attend a protest march organized by the Freedom and Rights Coalition to demand an end to Covid-19 restrictions and mandatory vaccination in Christchurch, New Zealand on November 20, 2021.

Sanka Vidanagama | NurPhoto | Getty Images

When Josephine Bartley, a member of Auckland City Council, New Zealand, understood that a local Covid-19 The vaccination clinic had been vandalized earlier this month, she drove to see the damage. After talking to the owners and helping them get in touch with law enforcement, she noticed three men were lurking near her parking space.

“Some guys were standing around my car looking at me,” she said by phone and email last week.

“One of them called me a scum,” she said, and suggested they damage his vehicle. The men got into a four-wheel drive vehicle and drove off. But the experience rocked Bartley, a Labor Party member, who said she was unsure whether the men were linked to the vandalism of the health center, which primarily serves the local Pacific community.

“I was confused, trying to figure out who was ‘scum’ – was it brown people? Was it Labor, was it the board? Was it the vaccination? Was it women? But j ‘was worried about my safety,’ Bartley said. The police “advised me not to use my car and to keep a low profile for a few days,” she said.

As New Zealand shifts to a ‘live with the virus’ policy, residents accustomed to living virtually Covid-free during most of the pandemic face rising cases and expanding vaccination mandates . Opposition to vaccinations and frustration with pandemic restrictions are fueling a small but noisy protest movement inspired in part by US politics.

In a work document he published this month, a team of researchers in New Zealand said there had been a “sharp increase in the popularity and intensity” of disinformation around Covid-19 since early August of an outbreak caused by the highly transmissible delta variant of the coronavirus, which is responsible for the vast majority of cases in New Zealand.

The researchers said the disinformation was “being used as a sort of Trojan horse” to trick New Zealanders from reluctance to vaccination, to vaccine resistance and then to adopting. far right ideologies, like white supremacy and extreme misogyny. Some of the more extreme content, they said, comes from overseas, especially Australia and the United States.

Bartley said online abuse by New Zealanders directed at his office and the clinic increased before the incident at the clinic.

“I was sent a video with an American anti-vaccine saying, ‘If you support vaccinations you will go to hell,’” she said.

NBC News also saw Telegram messages from Shane Chafin, a US resident of New Zealand, revealing the cell phone number of a pharmacist who criticized his anti-vaccination shows, in which he appeared to encourage his subscribers to harass her by reprisals. NBC News has asked Chafin for comment.

Chafin works for Counterspin Media, a New Zealand-based news site hosted by GTV, a company founded by former Trump strategist Steve bannon. In November, a press conference by the Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was suspended after Chafin heckled her about vaccinations.

Make America Even More Beautiful hats and flags of the QAnon Conspiracy Theory Movement can be seen in crowds during anti-containment and anti-vaccination protests in cities like Wellington and Christchurch. Sam Brett, a University of Canterbury student who attended recent protests for his doctoral research, said a typical protest looked like a “miniature New Zealand version of a Trump rally.”

Protests often feature “powerful and charismatic speakers,” said Brett, who said the government is presented as “vicious attempts to deprive the rights of people.”

Activists and members of the Freedom and Rights Coalition attend a protest march demanding an end to Covid-19 restrictions and mandatory vaccination in Christchurch on November 13, 2021.

Sanka Vidanagama | AFP | Getty Images

They also co-opted the language and culture of indigenous New Zealand Maori, even as online discourse on the matter encourages anti-Maori racism, said one of the authors of the discussion paper, researcher Sanjana Hattotuwa. at the University of Auckland.

“Māori identity, symbols, history, culture, narratives and specific individuals are appropriated by white supremacist accounts and actors, especially on Telegram,” an app that can serve as a platform alternative social media, allowing greater anonymity and less strict community rules than sites like Twitter.

Symbols include the Maori flag and the Ka Mate haka, a ceremonial dance known around the world for its performance before matches for the New Zealand All Blacks rugby team.

Ngati Toa, a Maori tribe recognized by the government as having legal rights to the dance, called on protesters in a declaration this month to stop using it “immediately”.

“We are absolutely clear that the Covid-19 vaccine is the best protection we have,” said Helmut Modlik, chief executive of the tribe.

The tribe singled out Brian Tamaki, an anti-containment brand who heads a group called the Freedom and Rights Coalition, saying he had been alerted that he was planning to teach protesters the haka for future performances.

Tamaki, who is on bail after several arrests for his appearances in anti-lockdown protests in defiance of court orders and public health checks, did not respond to requests for comment. Martin Daly, a member of the Pentecostal Church led by Tamaki and also active in the Coalition for Freedom and Rights, said he disagreed with the tribe’s directive.

“There are a lot of Maori iwi [tribal] leaders of our movement, in the North Island, and they said they were talking completely irrelevant, ”he said.

The Maori tribes are all the more frustrated as they are less likely to be vaccinated than other New Zealanders and have been disproportionately affected by the epidemic of the delta variant.

Hone Harawira, a Maori rights advocate and former lawmaker, said he respects people’s right to protest, but “not when the protest endangers the health and well-being of our whanau,” Maori language for family and community.

Harawira condemned Tamaki’s activity and called on the Maori to confront what he perceives to be far-right themes in parts of the protest movement, in particular “their anti-vax games, Trumpist rhetoric, their hatred and their fundamental racism, too. “

New Zealand’s national security advisers have warned that those radicalized by their exposure to extremist online content during the pandemic could resort to violence, according to Newshub news outlet reported. Security measures for government officials have tightened in recent weeks.

Auckland-based security analyst Paul Buchanan, a former US intelligence consultant, expressed concern about “importing American-style populist rhetoric” into New Zealand’s anti-vaccination movement, calling it “tinged with violence and vulgarity”. , a dehumanizing lack of respect for political and social opponents. “

This can increase the risk of violence “when you reduce the quality of speech to the level of street fighting,” he said.

Daly said the fears of extremists among the protest movement were misplaced, arguing that they were an expression of widely felt concerns about the erosion of civil liberties.

“It is about freedom of movement, of being able to assemble, of freedom of expression,” he said. “The suppression of freedoms is our big problem. We are not anti-vax. We are more pro-choice.”

As thousands gathered outside Parliament in Wellington on November 9 to protest the closures and vaccination warrants, Ardern said she was aware of the opposition but did not think it was it was representative of public opinion.

“Whatever your position, there is a place for everyone’s voice to be heard,” she said later. “Please be nice. “

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