Looking back at the Wellington Riots
Some perspective from Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern's former social media manager
Hope your weekend was good. I saw The Batman and loved it. It’s very emo, and I was all in.
Also, thanks for all your honest (and fun) comments on The Gentle Art of Escapism. There were strong feelings on Disney Adults and Disney dystopia in general — both for and against. As always, thanks for sharing your thoughts!
“It’s funny how Disney is both escapism from our shitty dystopian world, and also, totally representative of our shitty dystopian world...”
Speaking of… last week in New Zealand, police finally moved in and broke up the “anti-mandate” protest that had been going on for weeks outside of Parliament.
Fuelled by alt-right interests, it was never about mandates and it was never going to end well. As hundreds of police moved in, those left were largely the ones suckered into the movement, long since abandoned by the likes of Peter Mortlock and Russell Coutts.
And as rioters set shit on fire, the conspiracy crowd parroted what they’d heard overseas, blaming Antifa.
It wasn’t Antifa lighting those fires.
The feral situation in Wellington came as a shock to many, as the madness of the online world (that Webworm has been writing about for almost two years now) transmuted into cold hard reality.
This email from a cafe worker captured it well:
“Honestly, I’m surrounded by people like this and I thought I knew the depths of absurdity that were happening in these spaces, but seeing this I realised, oh—no—there’s this huge other level of batshit that I wasn’t even aware of.
Anyway, I guess I’m both amused by this kind of thing and also deeply unsettled. It’s so much more real now that it has ever been for me, because so many people I know are getting sucked into this whole conspirituality movement.
I work in a cafe and my boss is anti-mandate and anti-mask, and just keeps getting deeper and deeper.
To the point where she now believes the earth is flat (sorry, I mean, she’s “just asking questions”.)
Many of our customers share similar sentiments. The other day one of our regulars was wearing a t-shirt that featured a list of “vampire slayers”, which included people such as Donald Trump and JFK. And there I am smiling (grimacing) as I hand her a latte. Another time, a customer told me she wasn’t going to get the second jab, despite her chronic lung condition, because she “hates Jacinda” and is going to “take her down.”
Um, okay, good for you — do you want a pie or not?
It’s very weird, and kind of fascinating. I sort of feel like a sheep among a bunch of wolves (I do have some other sheep friends, though, thank god).
I think a lot of people understand this from a theoretical internet-based perspective, but I am literally living inside it, and my job requires me to be nice to people like this all day every day. And I do have a lot of empathy, because many of them are just very vulnerable to manipulation. But a lot of the time these days I’m really pissed off.”
Perspective is so hard to keep in all of this. But I’ve been talking to a woman who had a stint as Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s social media manager.
That means that she saw a ridiculous amount of terrible things online — often directed at Jacinda. I imagine that job would be like my Prani experience, but approximately 10,000 times more intense.
It also gave her some incredible perspective into the temperature of online New Zealand, and what they were comfortable saying.
And so I asked her to write about what she learnt during that very strange job, and what it says about what New Zealand just experienced.
I’ll throw it over to her for a bit.
How quickly we forget
Some perspective from the Prime Minister’s former social media manager
It was Friday, 15th March 2019. I was sitting at my desk on the eight floor of the Beehive, having a pretty chill day by Beehive standards, and still riding high from having delivered a massive project the day before.
I had Twitter open on my screen (because of course I did — I was a social media manager) when a breaking news tweet caught my eye. I decided I’d best pop upstairs to find out what was going on. You already know where this story is going.
It’s the moment New Zealand changed forever:
It’s also the moment I changed forever.
This has been playing on my mind a lot these past few weeks as I’ve watched the Freedom Convoy roll into Wellington, occupy the Parliamentary precinct, terrorise school children, and harass public servants. It feels like the same path led us here.
In the months leading up to March 15, I was fielding many comments and messages about a conspiracy theory regarding the UN Migration Compact. New Zealand voted to support the compact, the first intergovernmental agreement to cover international migration, at the end of 2018.
It immediately drew criticism from people concerned it would compromise New Zealand’s sovereign right to make its own immigration policies, despite the compact not being legally binding. Critics included the National Party who leaned into right wing populism by launching a petition against the compact. You may remember it — it was the one deleted by the “emotional junior staffer” in the aftermath of the attacks.
At the time, I had decided the best way to combat the misinformation was to provide facts — so I painstakingly replied to all comments with links and reasoned arguments. It was hell for two months and then it seemed to run out of steam. I thought we’d moved on to the next issue, another beautiful day in the echo chamber. So when I saw “here’s your migration compact” written on an ammunition clip on that Friday in March, my blood ran cold.
The thing is, when you work in social media, you become desensitised to the worst parts of people. You have to, in order to keep going. Like most social media managers, I had a pretty high tolerance for trolling and bullshit. Death and rape threats were a dime a dozen, and while there seemed to be a steady increase in people wanting to hang the government and US-style freedom rhetoric, it didn’t seem any more plausible than the usual nonsense in the comments. Just social being social.
But now something terrible had happened, and it was directly related to threats I’d been seeing for months. This is what would end up haunting me in the days, weeks, months after March 15.
Had I been too cynical, too dismissive? Had I missed something I should have taken seriously? What had I done?
Fear kept me glued to the social media feeds. I checked Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, refresh and repeat, over and over. It was a compulsion anyone who was with me for more than five minutes noticed. It was the last thing I did at night, and the first thing I did in the morning. I felt an insane amount of pressure to stay on top of every little thing that could be happening. I barely slept. I had panic attacks every morning on my way to work. I cried in the bathroom basically every day. But I couldn’t stop. What if I missed something? What if it happened again? I couldn’t live with myself.
I felt so horribly complicit. Social media was my job. Social media facilitated this terrible tragedy. It radicalised people and then it amplified the message. There was no getting away from that. How could I in good conscience keep working in this space? Platforms were making all the right noises about taking action and the Prime Minister was leading the Christchurch Call but still, I worried.
I promised myself I would never be complacent about conspiracy theories and violent online rhetoric again. I would never treat misinformation and death threats like they were just ridiculous nonsense. I felt as a country that we’d all reached that same agreement at the time. I thought we’d agreed, as the Prime Minister said at the National Remembrance Service, that violence and extremism in all its forms was not welcome here. I thought we’d never tolerate it again.
How quickly we forget.
It has been incredibly disheartening and distressing to watch the chaos unfold in Wellington over the last two weeks. And I mean literally watch. I no longer work at Parliament, but I still have a great view of the lawn from my office — and have had to trudge through the blockade on my commute.
It’s bad enough that the protest was founded on misinformation. Covid and the uncertainty of the last two years has been a hotbed of conspiracy theories. I’ve been following closely as it spread overseas, but to see the damage of it play out in real time is so troubling. It feels like we should have learned this lesson by now. We should have seen this coming.
What makes it worse is that we had to witness vulnerable people getting radicalised right in front of our eyes, on the steps of Parliament, in broad daylight. Extreme ideologies find fertile soil in this pressure cooker environment of us-against-the-world camaraderie, soundtracked by any old random sharing their thoughts on the mic.
No one is denying that there should absolutely be space for peaceful protest, that people are entitled to have their grievances heard, and that some have ample reason not to trust the government. But all of that goes out the window when you welcome far right agitators into your movement.
They spread misinformation, they co-opt people’s anger and they promote a worldview that says the government is out to get you, and the only way through is violence. Your movement is immediately invalidated when you allow things like this:
So, they can stand there and #notallprotesters this all they want, at the end of the day, everyone that supported and participated in this occupation is complicit.
They turned a blind eye to signs calling for the extermination of people, they said nothing when violent rhetoric spewed forth in their comms, they gave known fascists the mic and let them spew their bile at already vulnerable people. They welcomed them, emboldened them, and made them feel important.
They provided a platform for radicalisation and no amount of claiming it’s about freedom, peace and love will absolve them from this. We saw the conclusion of that in the violence and the destruction at Parliament on Wednesday. That’s on them. They did that.
People try to make this into a “freedom of speech” argument. It isn’t. It’s also not about left and right. It’s about putting community first, it’s about respecting basic human dignity. There is no intellectualising your way out of white supremacy and fascism.
If your “information” is coming from fascists, then that’s a problem. If there are fascists at your protest, either kick them out or go home. Because if you’re making excuses for them, well — you’re just another fascist at the fascist protest.
If you want to share this essay, you can. It’s webworm.co/p/lookingback
David here again. Many thanks for letting me share those words. New Zealand has a hard road ahead, addressing these elements in our society.
Jacinda Ardern has already hinted at this — addressing the press shortly after the rioters were sent packing by police last week:
“We are not going to dismiss some of the underlying causes of what we have seen, but nor will we excuse it.
It’s a dangerous place when citizens are led into spaces where they believe so deeply in conspiracy theory that they react with such violence.”
I also think of the words in the essay above:
“I thought we’d agreed, as the Prime Minister said at the National Remembrance Service, that violence and extremism in all its forms was not welcome here. I thought we’d never tolerate it again.
How quickly we forget.”
We’ve got work to do. The question is: How do you cure brain worms that are now so entrenched?
PS: If you doubt the cognitive dissonance we’re facing at the moment, take Exhibit A: former broadcaster — now conspiracy peddler — Liz Gunn: “Sorry, I’m having trouble with my breathing”