Escalation: Expect that word to start appearing in reports of the activities of the ragbag that is using the Covid vaccination as a rallying point.
Commentaries last week, particularly a couple of excellent pieces on The Spinoff, suggested New Zealand was entering a dangerous phase in which, to quote its editor-at-large Toby Manhire, “suddenly things could turn very, very nasty”.
Events of the past few weeks have been drawn straight from the agitation playbook. It started with small and relatively innocuous ‘protests’ that gained media attention more through fears they could become super-spreaders for the virus than any of the anti-vaccination messages being spouted.
Then it moved up a notch to involve street marches that caused a measure of disruption and that, too, caught the media’s eye. So did the arrest of “Apostle” Brian Tamaki (promoted by We Know Not Who from the rank of mere bishop) for allegedly helping to organise and attending one of the gatherings. In the game of agitation there’s no such thing as bad publicity.
However, the campaign needed more impact. The answer was a march on Parliament. That gained media attention but, again, the mainstream media chose to focus on the disparate ‘callings’ of its participants, the vituperation expressed on its placards, plus the targeting of journalists and the Prime Minister with promises of violent retribution.
Despite the liberal sprinkling of swastikas, the ‘protestors’ were allowed to have their say – that happens in a democratic society – and were reasonably well-behaved. The disruption to civic life was minimal.
Come the weekend and the organisers attempted to take disruption to a new level. Convoys of cars travelling at 50 km/h attempted to choke a circuit of Auckland’s urban motorway system. And it did cause some disruption. It was a little like being on the motorway during a normal rush-hour. Sadly for the activists, Auckland right now is not ‘normal’. It is still in lockdown and traffic levels are a fraction of usual weekend volumes.
So, what next?
The campaign is following a classic pattern. Let’s look at the playbook.
If those behind this hotchpotch movement are determined to remain non-violent, they will probably follow Ebert’s model of escalation. The German peace researcher identified three stages: Bringing an issue into the public sphere; increasing public pressure through innovative events; then civil disobedience. On his scale we are at level two.
If the agitators have no qualms about violence – the placards and an assault on a television cameraman suggests they may not – don’t expect to see overt calls for organised violent acts. Far more likely are subtle messages that it is okay for individuals to get rough. This was the outcome in Australian ‘anti-vaxxer protests’ where police and journalists were attacked.
Studies of Right-Wing extremists in the United States, Europe and Australia show patterns of communication and behaviour that do not openly advocate group violence but which lead to maverick acts by individuals.
It is a modern repeat of what occurred in the Anarchist Movement of the nineteenth century. Although acknowledged members gave advice on bomb-making and the use of dynamite, the movement attracted a motley non-ideological bag of individuals ranging from the disaffected to the psychologically unbalanced. The acts of terror that identified Anarchy were largely the work of these individuals. That stands in stark contrast to Adolf Hitler’s use of violence in the early days of the National Socialist German Workers Party. He organised disciplined acts of violence, carefully orchestrated to look like self-defence against Bolsheviks, to gain the attention of mainstream newspapers.
Of course, we can only guess at the genesis of the anti-vaxx movement in New Zealand.
What we do know, thanks to a working paper released last week by the Disinformation Project (part of Te Pūnaha Matatini at the University of Auckland), is that the agitation is pointing in the direction of the Far Right. The report found that the Covid-19 outbreak and the vaccine are being used to push various Far-Right opinions and beliefs (many sourced from the United States and Australia) that are against gun control, against women’s rights, anti-gay, anti-immigration, anti-1080, anti-Muslim, anti-Jewish, and anti-Māori. There has been a sharp increase in the amount of posts and people liking, sharing, and commenting on them since the current lockdown began in August. The Project found significant use of encrypted platforms such as Telegram and Gab, both of which are used by Far-Right groups.
What is less clear are the motives of the agitators.
They may be go-for-broke advocates for the complete destruction of current political institutions that they believe are responsible for the loss of what academics call ontological security – a meaningful sense of self. These people believe Far-Right extremism restores their sense of identity. Or they may be trying to shift public and thence political thinking to new agendas that favour Right-Wing views. Academics refer to this as shifting the Overton Window. Named after American political analyst Joseph Overton, the window refers to the range within which ideas are politically acceptable. It sits within a sliding scale from unthinkable to popular and can generate policies that create more or less freedom.
On the surface, the anti-vaxxer protests appear to be aimed at shifting mandatory vaccination outside the window of acceptability but this becomes less obvious when one considers the diverse range of disaffected groups and individuals now going along for the ride.
The unidentified background organisers are probably few in number. Even the core international online anti-vaxxer movement has a remarkably small number of leaders. The Centre for Countering Digital Hate conducted research that showed up to 65 per cent of anti-vaccine disinformation content on Facebook and Twitter had been generated by only 12 people.
What is self-evident, however, is that they know how to organise. It is no mean feat mobilising the march on Parliament groups identified by Nicky Hager in a more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger piece on The Spinoff: “White supremacists, Trump supporters, fundamentalist Christians, people who are pro-guns, anti-UN, anti-immigrant and anti-Jewish, [and] people who believe a powerful ‘them’ want to kill millions and enslave the Earth…”
All of this calls out for urgent forensic investigative reporting by New Zealand news media.
The people behind these actions – and those who, for their own reasons (or none in particular), are blindly following them – may jeopardise efforts to protect our population from the worst effects of a deadly virus. Worse, they may tap into a miasma of real and imagined grievances – magnified by the uncertainties of a pandemic – and wreak havoc.
As Kevin Norquay expressed it in the Sunday Star-Times last weekend: “Rage is rampant. Anxiety abounding. Mere mention of words such as vaccine, mandate, MIQ, Māori, Aotearoa, lockdown, Three Waters and Jacinda can set up a tack-spitting frenzy…Some recent social media feeds have been frankly terrifying, saying Ardern would be ‘lynched’ if she went to Auckland. When even doctors have been threatened at gunpoint*, nothing can be ruled out. Nothing. Anger, fear and anxiety is grinding down Godzone.”
Toby Manhire went further on The Spinoff: “When you have public calls for politicians to be lynched, when you have a polished speaker loud-hailing from the grounds of parliament to a crowd of thousands in person and tens of thousands more online that the media are terrorists, when you have something like an avalanche of graphic, violent threats becoming par for the course, they must be taken completely seriously. A lot of people are on edge. All it needs is for one or two of them to get swept up, to take these incitements seriously, and suddenly things could turn very, very nasty.”
Part of the agitator playbook is that many of the prime movers do not operate in plain sight. I hope that our journalists will drag them there, kicking and screaming.