New Zealand's Fake News
Webworm explores two kiwi news shows that are conspiracy theory central
One of the smartest (for him) and most frustrating (for the world) things Donald Trump did was hijack the term “fake news”.
Before Trump, fake news was levelled at news that was fake. It referred to news found on sites like “247realnewshourly.com” and “thetruthisuponus.com/193/homepage”.
But Trump took that wonderful phrase and, too be crass, fucked it — creating a term that would call into question the legitimacy of any facts indicating that maybe — just maybe — he wasn’t a standup guy.
But fake news — real fake news! — is still all around us. And in New Zealand it exists in all its glory on two news shows being digested by vulnerable kiwis as I type.
Today’s Webworm presents an investigation by Byron Clark into New Zealand’s real fake news. Yes, I know that is a confusing sentence. I’m a huge fan of Byron’s work — and he last wrote for Webworm in Encounters with the far-right.
So here is Part I of his deep dive into the show attempting to pass itself off as news, while in fact being a giant spewing fountain of misinformation.
This Webworm was made possible thanks to paying subscribers. If you want to support the work done here and it doesn’t cause you financial hardship, you can become a subscriber for a monthly or annual fee. It lets me pay guest writers, and deal with the odd bit of legal fallout from the things I publish here. It’s cheaper than Netflix!
PS: Before things get heavy — please admire this Lion King cake from Twitter over the weekend. It depicts Mufasa’s death, requested by a three-year-old so “everyone will be too sad to eat the cake and it will be all for me.”
New Zealand’s Fake News TV
an investigation by Byron Clark
When Twitter began its purge of Qanon and Qanon-adjacent accounts following the January sixth riot at the US Capitol, a small number of New Zealand based influencers were swept away.
The most prominent of those, Damien de Ment, a dual citizen of New Zealand and the United States based in Auckland, had been cheering on the insurrectionists on his now deleted Twitter account and YouTube channel. While the riot in Washington DC was going on he uploaded a (still online) video titled “I’m loving American Patriots today! NZ Govt sh** scared Kiwis will get ballsy - Lockdown inbound”.
Over the past year or two de Ment has become a fixture on New Zealand’s fringe conspiracy theorist scene. His YouTube channel, which features videos claiming that the Pope was arrested during a blackout in Rome, or that the Qanon conspiracy is “mathematically impossible to not be real”, has amassed over 6,000 subscribers.
Offline, he was a regular speaker at Auckland anti-lockdown marches, and was issued with a warning by police at a rally outside Auckland War Memorial Museum during Covid alert level 3, when mass gatherings were prohibited.
His followers were shocked when on March 8 this year he uploaded a video announcing he was “leaving the freedom movements in New Zealand”. His hiatus turned out to be short-lived however, as he returned to YouTube in April with a video titled “I'm back to fight bloody Communists!”.
He invited his viewers to support two new media projects from the movement he is a part of, as well as Outdoors Party leader Sue Grey who at that point was pursuing a legal challenge against the government's Covid-19 vaccine roll out:
“Please steer your attention to these three wonderful groups who are doing a lot of great work right now. The first is Counterspin Media, all of us know who Sarah Smith and Kelvyn Alp are, they have kicked this off and I myself am actually going to be a guest on their show later this week.
Please also support Leao Tildsley and Elliot Ikilei with their show, it’s on channel 36 it’s called Talanoa S’ao, it basically means Samoan for “straight talk” really really good show and also please please support Sue Gray.”
Talanoa Sa’o airs on Apna Television (Freeview channel 36) and is hosted by Leao Tildsley, Elliot Ikilei, and Fuiavai Ala’ilima. All three of them stood as candidates for the New Conservative Party in the 2020 election, Ikilei as deputy leader. A charismatic speaker, he appears to have modelled his political career on Candice Owens, the African-American conservative activist (he also occasionally shares her social media posts).
Like Owens, Ikilei says things that would probably sound racist if coming from a white person, such as telling audiences on the campaign trail that “The greatest culture in the world is Western culture” and stating that race relations commissioner Meng Foon should “apologise for throwing up the ‘racism’ card at the police force and [reality TV show Police] 10/7.”
Foon had said the show did “target more brown people than white people so therefore it is racist” after Auckland city councillor Efeso Collins had called for the show to be scrapped. Foon did actually apologise for calling police racist, while noting that he maintains that there is systemic racism within New Zealand’s Police force.
Ikilei has even gone as far as accusing the government of bringing “anti-White race theory” into New Zealand schools. The TV show he’s fronting is no departure from his views on race relations:
“We have watched as a ferocity of the media has now groomed our very people, to now believe that white people are bad, and brown people are oppressed. I’m not a victim, and neither are you!”
Those were Ikilei’s words in the trailer for Talano Sa’o, before he states that the show represents “Pasifika voices, Pasifika values, Pasifika perspectives”.
I contacted Efeso Collins to ask his thoughts on a Pasifika orientated show promoting these views. “I actually believe that there are some, there are a small group of Pacific people in our community who adhere to the views that Elliot is promoting,” he tells me.
“I know that there are many in the church community who would support this particular take, and you know, it’s no surprise to me that he was part of the New Conservatives. So I definitely acknowledge that group of people in the community.
Where I would differ quite strongly with Elliot is my belief that, there are a number of things at play here that people might not be familiar with, and firstly it’s acknowledging that Pacific people are very respectful and often seem deferent and as a result of that have taken on what I would regard as assimilationist processes and thoughts, where we just accept that we’re the naughty people, the data shows that we’re the ones filling the prisons, so we accept in a very deferent way that it’s because of our naughty behaviour that we’ve ended up there, and that’s what I mean by an assimilation perspective.
It is often ingrained through our churches because we often take on the theology that if we’re naughty and we misbehave we miss out on blessings, and whilst that might be seen as a simplistic approach to theology, I think that’s what drives a lot of people like Elliot.”
The other two co-hosts had both spoken at the rally outside Auckland War Memorial Museum during the level 3 lockdown. Tildsley also spoke at a smaller rally outside an Auckland primary school after information circulated on social media claiming that the school was carrying out Covid-19 testing.
Counties Manukau Health and the National Hauora Coalition (NHC) issued a statement warning the public about the false narrative being spread:
“NHC and Counties Manukau Health emphatically state that no children involved in our Mana Kidz programme are being swabbed for Covid-19 or being removed from school.
“This misinformation is not only incorrect, but it also risks seriously undermining an important health initiative.”
Mana Kidz carries out throat swab tests as part of a rheumatic fever prevention programme, and the tests require parental consent. National Hauora Coalition clinical director Dr Rawiri McKree Jansen told the New Zealand Herald:
“What does concern us though is that the schools are reportedly being contacted by abusive members of the public who are not parents. This abuse is based on the misinformation circulating on social media.”
In April on Talano Sa’o, Tildsley spent an episode interviewing a man she described as “an unsung hero in Samoa” Edwin Tamasese.
“During the measles pandemic — which was devastating to our people, killed around seventy of our babies — he was right in the middle of it, and he was part of sharing vitamin D, vitamin A, vitamin C, and he did what he needed to do.”
Tamasese, who has no medical training, spread the false claim during the measles outbreak that authorities were “seeding” the country with measles through the emergency mass immunisation program deployed to stem the epidemic.
He was arrested in December 2019 under Samoa’s 2013 Crimes Act which forbids inciting hostility against the government in circumstances where a risk of lawlessness, violence or disorder is present. He had been spreading vaccine misinformation on social media and the alleged comment that resulted in his arrest was stating in reference to the measles vaccine “I’ll be here to mop up your mess. Enjoy your killing spree.”
When asked about the Covid-19 vaccine by Tildsley, Tamasese states that “It’s been really clearly demonstrated with Covid that we can’t depend on vaccines for our health” and claims (inaccurately) that nutrition and a healthy lifestyle will prevent the virus. He then makes the dubious claim that every company producing vaccines has been in court for “serious criminal behaviour” and “can’t be trusted” before thanking Tildsley for the opportunity to “present my side of the story.”
In a subsequent episode Tildsely asks her co-hosts “With the rate that we’re going with hate speech and all of these things, do you actually think we will have an election in 2023? I’m asking this because we’ve got this government who now has almost an [sic] absolute power.”
She later suggests that people get involved with the anti-vaccine group Voices for Freedom, who she notes are “[i]n the news right now for misinformation”:
“But you know they’ve got some lawyers on there who are very robust and so if you are wanting to be part of, you know, wanting to stand... [up] for what you believe [in] there are ways that you can do that. There are practical [ways] and we can break it down for you, if you would like some more information you can just email us.”
I reached out to Dr Colin Tukuitonga to ask his thoughts about a television show that claims to represent a Pasifika perspective spreading these narratives around vaccines. Tukuitonga is Associate Dean Pacific, Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences at the University of Auckland, and the former Chief Executive Officer of New Zealand’s Ministry of Pacific Island Affairs. Like Elliot Ikilei, he is Niuean.
“Ikilei does not speak for Pacific communities” Tukuitonga tells me in an email. “He is Niuean but most Niueans don’t know who he is. His views are not shared — they are clearly minority views. I don’t know the others noted in your [email] except to say they are seriously deluded and mistaken — they have the potential to influence Pacific people in a negative way.”
I also raised this with Efeso Collins when I spoke to him. Collins has been working on overcoming vaccine hesitancy in his community. “I’m open to any kind of discussion as long as it’s critical and valid” he told me, “but if there’s a lack of balance and real thrashing of the issues available to people when they’re watching those conversations it’s of no use really to anyone, all it’s doing really is following the Facebook algorithm and just pushing out what you want to hear.”
In Collins’ view, blame cannot lie solely with those spreading conspiracy theories, but also with government institutions who have not reached the Pacifika community with Covid-19 messaging.
“I actually think there’s been a failure on the part of the Ministry of Health to get good clear communication to our community in a way that they are going to receive it, and I’ve dealt with young people over the past few weeks where we’re sat down, we’ve talked about what they believe the issues are, we’ve talked about who’s hearing the conspiracy theories, why they believe they’ve been coming out, and actually been able to work through those issues.
The Ministry of Health has just put information out in English on all the major channels that offer the reminders that are needed to those people who speak English, listen to Radio New Zealand and ZB and watch Three News, that’s not our people, and as a result of that gaping hole, the conspiracy theorist view has been able to fill a lot of that void, which is why so many of our people have fallen for those conspiracy theories.”
Apna Television did not respond to my request for comment, but as I delved deeper into the world of homegrown fake news, I found that Talanoa Sa’o may not be as far removed from Apna’s editorial line as I originally assumed.
More on that, in part two. It’s a doozy — a story that features more fake news, Steve Bannon, anti-government militias, Jami-Lee Ross and, yes — Lonely Lingerie.
Great read. I just subscribed to your newsletter and cant wait to see more. I used to follow VFF but stopped when I noticed their movement slowly introducing incendiary, anti-government rhetoric. They, like all cult like movements *do* prey on vulnerable people and I was once that vulnerable person in that vulnerable mindset. David Farrier im curious to know if you would ever write a piece on the more behavioural and social aspects of these communities? It’s almost cult-like, Feverish, frenzied, really high strung atmosphere that’s practically a breeding ground for extremist attitudes and behaviours under the guise of ‘freedom of speech’. The president trump era really radicalised this audience - i know this because i was part of it (no, i dont believe the government is inherently evil and wicked and wants to enslave us all. I believe in questioning things and healthy debate which is what attracted me about those circles in the first place) but it scared me to see how mean, volatile and probably unsafe these people are becoming especially in the last year or so. I began to see it for what it really is - a bunch of enablers, self righteously justifying eachothers bad behaviours. In their quests to ‘protect’ and ‘fight for freedom’, they are enslaving themselves to primitive mindsets with outlandishly, childish actions. Id Love to sit down with you and talk about all of this one fay if you’re ever in Wellington
When I saw the cake I thought it was another example of fake news. I'm glad to know the cake is not a lie.