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American vaccine misinformation and extremism are infiltrating New Zealand

“When you reduce the quality of discourse down to street-fighting level,” it can raise the risk of violence, said a former consultant to U.S. intelligence services.
Image: Anti-Lockdown Protesters Gather In Wellington
Protesters gather at a Freedom and Rights Coalition protest at Parliament in Wellington, New Zealand, on Nov. 9.Hagen Hopkins / Getty Images file

CHRISTCHURCH, New Zealand — When Josephine Bartley, a member of the city council in Auckland, New Zealand, heard that a local Covid-19 vaccination clinic had been vandalized early this month, she drove over to survey the damage. After she spoke to the owners and helped them connect with law enforcement officials, she noticed three men loitering near her parking spot.

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

“One of them called me scum,” she said, and suggested that they damage her vehicle. The men got in a four-wheel-drive vehicle and left. But the experience shook Bartley, a member of the Labour Party, who said she did not know whether the men were linked to the vandalism of the health center, which primarily serves the local Pacific community. 

“I was confused, I was trying to figure out who was ‘scum’ — was it brown people? Was it Labour, was it council? Was it the vaccination? Was it women? But I was concerned for my safety,” Bartley said. Police “advised me not to use my car and lay low for a few days,” she said.

Image: COVID-19 lockdown restrictions are eased in Auckland
A storefront reads "Welcome Back!" to shoppers in Auckland, New Zealand, on Nov. 10.Fiona Goodall / Reuters file

As New Zealand shifts to a policy of “living with the virus,” residents accustomed to living virtually Covid-free for most of the pandemic are being confronted by rising case numbers and widening vaccination mandates. Opposition to vaccinations and frustration with pandemic restrictions are fueling a small but vocal protest movement inspired in part by U.S. politics.

In a working paper it 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 August, at the beginning of an outbreak driven by the highly transmissible delta variant of the coronavirus, which is responsible for the vast majority of New Zealand’s cases. 

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The researchers said the disinformation was “being used as a kind of Trojan horse” to coax New Zealanders from vaccine hesitancy to vaccine resistance and then to the embrace of far-right ideologies, like white supremacy and extreme misogyny. Some of the most extreme content, they said, comes from overseas, particularly Australia and the U.S.

Bartley said online abuse from New Zealanders directed at her office and the clinic surged before the incident at the clinic.

“I got sent a video with an American anti-vaxxer saying, ‘If you support vaccinations you’re going to hell,’” she said.

NBC News has also seen Telegram messages from Shane Chafin, a U.S. resident of New Zealand, disclosing the personal cellphone number of a pharmacist who criticized his anti-vaccination broadcasts, in which he appeared to encourage followers to harass her in retaliation. 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 news conference by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was suspended after Chafin heckled her about vaccinations. 

Make America Great Again hats and flags from the QAnon conspiracy theory movement are visible in the crowds at anti-lockdown and anti-vaccination protests in cities like Wellington and Christchurch. Sam Brett, a student at the University of Canterbury who attended recent protests for his doctoral research, said a typical protest feels like a “miniature New Zealand version of a Trump rally.”

Image: Anti-Lockdown Protesters Gather In Wellington
Demonstrators at a Freedom and Rights Coalition protest Nov. 9 at New Zealand's Parliament in Wellington.Hagen Hopkins / Getty Images file

The protests often feature “powerful, charismatic speakers,” said Brett, who said the government is cast as “maliciously trying to take away people’s rights.”

They have also co-opted the language and culture of New Zealand’s Indigenous Maori, even as related discourse online promotes anti-Maori racism, said one of the working paper’s authors, Sanjana Hattotuwa, a research fellow at the University of Auckland.

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

The symbols include the Maori flag and the Ka Mate haka, a ceremonial dance known globally for its performance before matches by New Zealand’s All Blacks rugby team.

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

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

The tribe singled out Brian Tamaki, an anti-lockdown firebrand who leads a group called the Freedom and Rights Coalition, saying it had been alerted that he planned to teach the haka to protesters for future performances.

Tamaki, who is out on bail after multiple arrests over his appearances at anti-lockdown protests in defiance of court orders and public health controls, did not respond to requests for comment. Martin Daly, a member of the Pentecostal church that Tamaki leads who is also active in the Freedom and Rights Coalition, said he disagreed with the tribe’s directive. 

“There’s a lot of Maori iwi [tribal] leaders in our movement, up in the North Island, and they’ve said they’re speaking completely out of line,” he said. 

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

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

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

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

An Auckland-based security analyst, Paul Buchanan, a former consultant to U.S. intelligence services, said he was concerned by the “importation of U.S.-style populist rhetoric” into New Zealand’s anti-vaccination movement, characterizing it as “tinged with violence and vulgar, dehumanizing disrespect for political and social opponents.”

It can raise the risk of violence “when you reduce the quality of discourse down to street-fighting level,” he said.

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

“It’s about freedom of movement, to be able to gather, freedom of speech,” he said. “The removal of freedoms is our big issue. We’re not anti-vax. We’re more pro-choice.”

As thousands of people gathered Nov. 9 outside Parliament in Wellington to protest lockdowns and vaccination mandates, Ardern said she was aware of the opposition but did not think it was representative of public views. 

“Regardless of your position, there’s a place for everyone’s voice to be heard,” she said later. “Please just make it kind.”