Encounters with the far-right: Part 1

An essay by Byron Clark, who's been documenting pests in New Zealand

Hi,

Today I bring you a piece from someone I really admire here in New Zealand, Byron Clark. I don’t really know anyone else that has such an accurate finger on the pulse of the alt-right and related movements like QAnon here in New Zealand.

I see New Zealand as this little microcosm of the world — so I think that seeing the way QAnon plays out here in New Zealand can teach us about what’s going on in the rest of the world.

Which is why part of why Byron’s work is so important.

He also calls people out on their bullshit. Following him on Twitter and watching his excellent YouTube essays, I’ve become more and more aware of this fact. I feel alarmed for him at times. In my job, I often annoy certain people — and sometimes they react badly. But Byron deals with a certain type of grub I tend to stay well away from.

So I asked Byron for two things. First, I wanted him to paint the scene here in New Zealand, and how this cute lil’ country is just as susceptible to the bullshit as — say, the United States. And then I wanted him to write about how the reporting of this stuff has crept into his real life.

The story he paints is alarming: of both what’s going on in New Zealand, and the sorts of weird shit he’s faced since reporting it. There are also some grimaces and lols along the way, too. I find it hard to not laugh when he talks about the theory of “semen retention” in a group called Wargus Christi. My jaw dropped.

In summary: Byron’s a good, smart guy who’s not without a sense of humour. Over on his website, he has a FAQ. In answer to the question “You know you’re a disgusting fat social justice warrior, right?” he posts this image:

I’d rather be a pig than a fascist”. With that in mind — here’s Part 1 of Byron’s essay, where he sets the scene about the dirty side of Aotearoa. I learnt a lot, and I hope you do too.

David.


Dangerous games

I don’t actually remember exactly when I began following the far-right, but it would have been in the aftermath of Gamergate, the large scale harassment campaign targeting female video game developers and critics — especially those who were openly feminist.  

In 2015 A Gamergate supporter had threatened a “Montreal Massacre-style attack” at an event a feminist YouTuber was speaking at. A YouTube video by a man named Davis Lane claimed that what Gamergate was fighting was not just feminism, but a plot by “Cultural Marxists” to make video games less “masculine” as part of the larger goal to emasculate young white men.

The movement had spawned on 4chan (and migrated to 8chan when the former banned the topic) and gained sympathetic coverage from Brietbart News, described by then chairman Steve Bannon as the “platform for the alt-right”.

It was an early example of how disaffected men can be radicalised to violence online. According to David Niewert, author of Red Pill, Blue Pill: How to Counteract the Conspiracy Theories That Are Killing Us, Gamergate “became a recruiting ground for white nationalists and neo-Nazis and played an essential role in generating what became known as the alt-right”.

I sat up and took notice.

The alt-right comes to Aotearoa

Throughout 2016, I watched the alt-right movement grow in size and influence overseas. And I began following the various alt-right adjacent Facebook pages and YouTube channels popping up in New Zealand. 

Ideas previously outside the bounds of acceptable political discourse entered into the fringes of this country’s politics. For example, the now defunct Whale Oil blog founded by Cameron Slater published an article titled “White Genocide: It’s real and on it’s way to New Zealand” which was shared by numerous pages including Hobsons Pledge, the organisation run by former National Party leader Don Brash.

In 2017, a group calling itself the Auckland University European Students Association appeared on campus, but quickly disbanded following national media coverage. When New Zealand First leader Winston Peters visited Victoria University in Wellington the following week, he questioned the media's role in causing the “European” group to shut down, accusing journalists of suppressing dissenting voices. On his way out, he signed a poster featuring a picture of him styled as Pepe the frog, a symbol adopted by the alt-right (Webworm spoke with Pepe’s original creator here).

Investigative reporter Kirsty Johnston reported on the positive reaction this provoked on 4chan. Peters denied having any knowledge of the alt-right. “I have no idea who or what you’re talking about,” he told Johnston. “I’ve never heard of them and I've had no contact with them.

Two weeks later, posters with the slogans “White lives matter” and “Let’s take our country back” appeared on the Auckland University campus, promoting a group called Western Guard. As Reported by the Herald, content on the group’s website contained rhetoric similar to the Great Replacement conspiracy theory, a belief that there is a deliberate plan to “replace” white populations with people of colour, and material propagating the pseudo-scientific idea that Africans are inherently less intelligent than Europeans.

The group’s website contained the acknowledgement “special thanks to our brothers in the USA - Vanguard America”. Later that year, at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville Virginia, twenty-two year old James Alex Fields, who had been seen carrying a shield emblazoned with the emblem of Vanguard America, drove his Dodge Challenger into a crowd of counter protesters, killing one of them and injuring dozens of others.

Like the European Students group, Western Guard soon disappeared — but a group espousing the same rhetoric emerged the next year. The Dominion Movement described itself as “building a brotherhood of New Zealanders bound by blood, culture, and flag, committed to fulfilling our duty to our nation.

The alt-right enters the mainstream

In 2018, two famous Canadian YouTube personalities came to New Zealand: Stefan Molyneux and Lauren Southern.

Molyneux promoted the same racist pseudoscience the aforementioned New Zealand based groups were spreading. Southern had made videos about the so called “Great Replacement” and an alleged white Genocide in South Africa, a conspiracy theory the Dominion Movement had espoused and which has also found support among some South African migrants to New Zealand

After several cancellations, the pair could not find a venue that would host them, but the fact that they had decided to include Auckland in their speaking tour demonstrated that there is a not insignificant sized audience in New Zealand willing to buy tickets to see two far-right proselytisers speak.

After they were de-platformed, nationwide “Free Speech” rallies were organised and promoted on the Right Minds website run by Auckland based far-right activist Dieuwe de Boer, who blamed the Federation of Islamic Associations of New Zealand (FIANZ) for the event’s cancellation, accusing them of attempting “to silence conservative speakers simply because those speakers are critical of Islam”.

The rallies were combined with already planned events in support of British anti-Islam activist Tommy Robinson, who had recently been jailed for contempt of court. So there, in amongst free speech slogans, demonstrators also carried signs reading “free Tommy” and “no to Sharia!” 

The UN Migration Compact

The significant watershed for New Zealand’s alt-right was not the Molyneux and Southern tour however, but the campaign against UN Global Compact on Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration that arrived a few months later.

The previously obscure United Nations compact had been propelled into the spotlight by far-right groups in Europe, in particular Austria’s Generation Identity, who pressured mainstream political parties to oppose the compact. In some countries, that pressure was successful. 

The campaign didn’t take long to arrive in New Zealand, and once it did, its impact was disproportionate to the number of people involved. I watched a petition against the compact, started by Auckland based YouTuber Carol Sakey, get shared across the loose network of far-right Facebook pages I was following.

Among the most followed pages sharing the petition was the South Island Independence Movement, a page run by Solomon Tor-Kilsen of Timaru. Tor-Kilsen had self-identified as part of the alt-right when interviewed by the Herald’s Kirsty Johnston in 2017, when he was a member of Facebook groups with names like “Kiwi’s against the Islamification of New Zealand”. The “movement” has over 20,000 followers, though presumably many of them think it’s a joke. The Otago Daily Times had reported on the racist and violent discussion that occurs on the page. 

The other large page was the New Conservative Party. The right-wing party (outside parliament) embraced the campaign against the compact, and targeted for recruitment former New Zealand First supporters, disgruntled that in his role as foreign minister, leader Winston Peters would be signing it.

It was at a rally in Christchurch, attended by then New Conservative leader Leighton Baker, where the white supremacist Phil Arps called for Peters to be hung when his name is mentioned by the speaker, YouTuber Lee Williams.

New Conservative were the bridge between the far-right and mainstream right-wing politics. Deputy leader Elliot Ikilei had spoken about the UN compact in Facebook live videos, and on talkback radio. Anti-migration compact calls to Newstalk ZB became so common they published an article titled “Callers overwhelmingly against NZ signing up to UN migration compact” featuring a montage of calls, including one in which a caller cites a video about the compact made by Stefan Molyneux.

When interviewing Winston Peters, ZB’s Mike Yardley spoke of the UN compact as if there was a massive groundswell of opposition to the agreement. Peters, now much more aware of the alt-right than he had been after signing the Pepe poster, stated - correctly - that uninformed people and the alt-right were intentionally misleading about the true nature of the agreement, which elicited an audible scoff from Yardley. On ZB’s website, the phrase alt-right is put in scare quotes in the text accompanying the interview.

Soon, it wasn’t just the New Conservatives opposing the UN Migration Compact, but also the National Party, who hosted a petition against the UN compact on their website, mirroring the one started by Carol Sakey. On March 10th 2019, Sakey uploaded a video to YouTube alleging that an “Islamic take over” was underway in Europe and would soon be underway in New Zealand. 

New Zealand’s darkest day 

Watching social media on the day of the Christchurch shooting, I saw the screenshots emerge of the shooters post on 8chan. It was not surprising that this man had emerged from the same cesspit that had helped turn many of the young men involved with Gamergate into white nationalists. I also saw the pictures of his weapons, adorned with names and slogans. On one of the guns, the words “here’s your migration compact”. 

A rush to delete content from the Internet soon followed, which included the National Party removing the petition against compact from their website. Initially, a party spokesperson said the petition had been deleted weeks earlier, but a Google cache showed it was deleted within an hour after the shooting began. When this came to light, then leader Simon Bridges blamed “a junior staffer who was very emotional” for deleting the petition. The public later learned that the so-called “emotional junior staffer” was a former press secretary who had worked for the party for six years. He resigned in May 2019. 

Some shocking comments appeared on alt-right Facebook and, in most cases, the pages didn’t stay up much longer. 

Time to do something: Breadtube

Following the shooting, people who knew I had been watching the alt-right for some years started to come to me with questions. It was abundantly clear now that New Zealand wasn’t immune to the rise of hateful ideology that was sweeping the Western world. 

I thought about the best way I could get information out to a wide audience. For a while I’d been a fan of what’s been dubbed “Breadtube” a kind of counter-cultural political movement that’s been educating people and challenging the alt-right in one of the key spaces where that movement has been fermenting: YouTube. 

I enlisted the help of some family and friends to make a video. I started a Patreon, knowing that if I were to do this long term I’d need some money for it, but feeling like it was inappropriate to be soliciting funds for myself at that time, I pledged my first three months of Patreon income to the fund for survivors of the March shooting. I uploaded my first video essay, which I had called “The UN Migration Compact: From Alt-Right Meme to Mainstream” in April 2019.

While I received a lot of positive feedback for the video, it wasn’t long before it was inundated with downvotes and negative comments (this, after all, is YouTube). One of the comments I received was from Sam Brittenden, a name that would become very familiar to me later. 

On the night of the March 15 terrorist attack, Brittenden had been partying in Dunedin, repeatedly yelling “fuck the Muslims!”. He approached a police patrol car telling them “Muslims are not welcome in our country. Go home Muslims”. He later received community service for disorderly behaviour.

Almost a year later, he was arrested in relation to a threat to the Al Noor mosque in the lead up to the anniversary of the massacre.

What I was learning through all this is that it’s almost impossible to be publicly reporting on the far-right without becoming part of the story. And things were about to get closer to home.

For me, literally.


David here, again. I will send out Part 2 of Bryon’s essay later in the week, which looks at what happens when those he’s documenting decide to follow him home. If you want that delivered and haven’t already, sign up to Webworm (there’s a free & paid version):

Until then, please stay safe and well.

If you missed it over the weekend, I sent out a newsletter for members looking at what happened after I published the Lonely Lingerie QAnon story: “The fallout from the Lonely story. It includes some of the feedback I got from the wellness community, which I’m considering slapping on a Webworm tee shirt!