Why are conspiracy theories dripping in racism?

"Let me be very clear here: You don’t have to be white to be racist." Webworm talks to researcher and scholar Tina Ngata.

Hi, friend.

Sometimes I’m reminded that New Zealand is an objectively weird place.

Peter Thiel was granted residency here, despite only setting foot in the country for 12 days.

We obsessed for years over Shrek, a sheep who hadn’t been shorn in six years. For some reason, we flew him onto an iceberg to shave him a second time.

It’s home to Kim Dotcom, enemy of Hollywood film studios, dance music enthusiast, and founder of the now defunct Internet Party.

So maybe it should be no surprise QAnon and its myriad of constantly shifting conspiracy narratives have reached our shores.

It’s just another fucked up thing we have to deal with, like Peter fucking Thiel.

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I was reminded that QAnon was here when I saw this man over the weekend, having a smoke. In true kiwi fashion, he’d turned the Q into a kiwi bird. Creative.

The man — grey, grizzled and grim — was observing a gathering in Aotea Square (Auckland’s version of Times Square lol), which appeared to be half anti-mask/lockdown protest, half Billy TK Jnr rally.

I’d briefly forgotten Billy TK Jnr existed, along with his unhinged political party he leads in New Zealand with disgraced MP Jami-Lee Ross.

Billy TK Jnr fell down the COVID-19 conspiracy rabbit hole quickly: over the course of several months. I wrote about this over the weekend.

Somewhat ironically, he got red-pilled over New Zealand’s first lockdown. And here we are, in September, with a very new Billy TK Jnr.

As I wandered into the square, he was on the mic, accusing the media of covering up the truth — while also proudly stating conspiracy theories weren’t rubbish because they’d gone “mainstream” in the media.

Floating beside Billy’s head was a giant Q.

Totally normal. Everything is fine. Nothing to see here.

I keep thinking this stuff only exists in America. Trump’s America. Land of the free, home of the brave.

Over the weekend, Time magazine published a piece with the truly alarming headline “How Conspiracy Theories Are Shaping the 2020 Election—and Shaking the Foundation of American Democracy

It was an alarming headline with some alarming content, as it profiled various conspiracy-minded Americans:

“Frank says she spends most of her free time researching child sex trafficking, while Arthur adds that she often finds this information on the Russian-owned search engine Yandex. Frank’s eyes fill with tears as she describes what she’s found: children who are being raped and tortured so that “the cabal” can “extract their blood and drink it.” She says Trump has seized the blood on the black market as part of his fight against the cabal. “I think if Biden wins, the world is over, basically,” adds Arthur. “I would honestly try to leave the country. And if that wasn’t an option, I would probably take my children and sit in the garage and turn my car on and it would be over.”

Another paragraph reminded me of something I’ve written about previously: how perhaps the appeal of QAnon is the fact its logic echoes that of an ARG (Alternate Reality Game):

“After yoga in the morning, Ferro says, she often spends hours watching videos, immersing herself in a world she believes is bringing her ever closer to the truth. “You can’t stop, because it’s so addicting to have this knowledge of what kind of world we’re living in,” she says. “We’re living in an alternate reality.

She’s living in an alternate reality… game.

Except she believes that game is reality.

And here in New Zealand, we do, too.

Looking around, I saw the Tino Rangatiratanga flag flying, and plenty United Tribes flags.

And I realised that as white person, I was in the minority at this event. A rarity for a white guy.

I was reminded how weird all this was: how this conspiracy shit which is ultimately steeped in white supremacist, anti-Semitic rhetoric is taking off in non-white communities.


No-one has more accurately captured the rise of Billy TK Jnr than researcher and scholar Tina Ngata, who wrote an excellent piece called “The rise of Māori MAGA.”

“Just a few short years after the US voted in Trump, I’m watching a New Zealand political candidate spread misinformation and conspiracy theories, buy support, and openly praise Trump. And our own Māori communities are responding in much the same way as the mid-west US responded to Trump in 2016.”

I decided to reach out to Tina, because she’s the only writer in New Zealand who’s managed to really capture what’s going on with New Zealand QAnon politics.

I was interested in why these deeply racist conspiracy theories are finding favour amongst Māori

But I also wanted to address something I’d written about previously: “Webworm talks to the man who started the COVID-19 outbreak rumour in New Zealand.

That piece saw Webworm interviewing a white male who had seeded misinformation on Reddit that turned into a racist conspiracy theory targeting a South Auckland family.

The whole time I was writing, one of my main aims was to make it clear the person we were interviewing wasn’t the same person who posted the racist post on a racist Facebook page.

That informed my framing of the piece.

But what I realise in hindsight is who I wasn’t thinking about enough: the young woman at the centre of the rumour and conspiracy theory.

So that’s where our discussions started.


Tina, thank-you for this.

Since covering a racist conspiracy theory that got out of hand in New Zealand — a lot of people have said to me, “Er, why is that racist?” 

I mean, to be clear, that toxic Facebook post was racist because it was loaded with language that painted a very specific picture of who the alleged “outbreak” family was: “South Auckland family”, “criminal behaviour” and “known to police…”

In short, it wasn’t exactly shouting “white family from a rich fancy neighbourhood!”

But a lot of people on my Facebook didn’t see why that was a racist post.

Does that surprise you?

Nope, doesn’t surprise me.

New Zealand doesn’t have a great grasp on racism in general because we don’t have a lot of great education resources out there and even our Human Rights Commission is woefully under-resourced to be able to produce better resources.

Most people think that racism looks like people with white pointy hats holding burning crosses, or someone saying the “n word”.

The vast majority of racism is very subtle, and systemic.

Racism can also be evaluated in terms of impacts, not in terms of intent, but again, I think many in our country are fixed on a very limited definition of racism which revolves around intent, consciousness and observable interactions. 

I guess in my mind, it was racist because of the framing. It didn't say it was a family from Herne Bay (for Americans: Beverly Hills!) did it? It all paints an image, right?

It plays into the very way that systems have defined and shaped us along racial lines.

Racism shapes our Pacific policy, our immigration policy, our economic, housing and criminal justice policy, to provide the template for that narrative.

And all it takes is for someone to make the inference — and from that point on it’s pretty much paint-by-numbers. 

In the conspiracy content you have observed, how much of it do you think has racist undertones?

There is a lot of it that banks upon disenfranchisement so any time I see that, I see racist undertones because race and disenfranchisement go hand in hand.

The “take over” theme is a big red flag.

Anything along the lines of another group trying to “wipe us out” or “take over” in a very abstract sense is tapping into historical injustice to recruit our trauma, so there is an element of racism in that as well as an element of xenophobic racism as well.

The COVID conspiracy theories have some very overt racism (like when they call it the “China virus”) but even the 5G conspiracy theories feed a narrative of “them trying to wipe us out” - without saying who “they” are, who “us” means, or to what ends.

Ultimately it engenders xenophobic anxiety about a naturalised population being replaced by “others”.

Of course, there is no analysis carried out about who counts as naturalised, and what other stories about colonisation, or belonging, or dispossession, are being erased in that narrative.

Why is racism creeping so heavily to conspiracy theory narratives we see? Is it as simple as the far right being the main perps of this stuff?

Race is a very dependable trigger for those seeking to engage in fear.

It’s why it always features in electoral campaigns, it’s why when the chips are down, NZ First throw immigrants, Maori or Pasifika under the bus.

People know on conscious and subconscious levels what they can say that will be believed, because racist media and policy have primed our social psyche to receive it.

It’s encoded in our speak so that, as you so rightly pointed out, we don't have to explicitly say it any more.

That makes it so much easier to convey, and there are so many more ways to convey it.

How much of that is the theory itself — and how much is it the Facebook pages sharing it? For instance, a conspiracy theory that on the surface seems not overly racist, becomes so when it’s shared on a clearly racist Facebook page — and acts as a gateway to completely racist ideas.

I’d say both are true: Some are concocted entirely within white supremacist sites, but they are opportunists so when they see something that works for them, or fits with the narrative they are peddling, they will happily platform it. 

I think what we are seeing — and what you have written so fluently about — is someone like Billy TK Jnr being a conduit for a lot of dangerous conspiracy thinking. For spreading lies, essentially. And yet he is not a white dude. He is not Trump. This is confusing when we are saying the messages are racist, right? What are we seeing here?

Let me be very clear here: You don’t have to be white to be racist.

Brown people can, and do, peddle racist lies.

Candice Owens is a great example of that, overseas, and Winston Peters and Shane Jones are excellent examples of that, locally.

Lateral and internalised racism are common phenomena — and while women can participate, it’s very common for men to participate in it because colonial racism also correlates with colonial patriarchy.

I don’t want to comment on what Billy’s intent is here, but what we are seeing is, at the very least, opportunistic behaviour that capitalises upon white supremacist power rorts and exploits Maori trauma.

Winston and Shane have been doing that for a long time, many in Te Ao Maori have, and Billy is no different there.

Something I’ve been reflecting on since my piece with Dylan, where we talked to the man who “started” the conspiracy off.

I think we were very fair, if not sympathetic to him. The angle of our piece was looking at the mindset of someone putting out some dumb “facts” into the world, and it getting out of hand.

But on the other end of this is a woman and a family who are hurt, and a giant bunch of racism coming out, because of what that person started.  I am aware I am a white journalist writing about this stuff.  Is that in of itself an issue?

Is that something I need to clock more?

Yes.

You know — in one of my many jobs, I got to read a lot of police interview transcripts.

Reading your interview reminded me of how police engage with white suspects.

It’s very different to how they engage with brown suspects. It was really triggering in that sense.

I think Emmaline Pickering-Martin’s piece in E-tangata expresses this very well.

I understand the desire to be fair, but I don’t think the level of reassurance was necessary, and the absence of questions about race both subtly suggests that it is not an issue, whilst also leaving it unexplored.

Um — is this going to get worse? I was a bit dismayed when some New Zealanders I spoke to didn’t recognise that racist Facebook post as racist! When the fuck are we going to wake up? 

When policy changes, when legislation changes, when we properly fund and resource education around it.

For a supposedly progressive country, we are behind other OECD countries when it comes to addressing racism.

Even the USA and UK have mechanisms for recording race based hate crime.  We don’t.

Our Human Rights Commission/Race relations budget could be at least doubled to enable them to both respond to the race based complaints as well as generate more resources, hold more gatherings and support more projects.

Just finally — do you have a simple, master theory on why New Zealand is getting on board this train of brain worms so quickly? I am still amazed by how quick we are to jump to belief in this stuff here.

I’m not amazed at all.

We were one of the last countries to sign up to the Declaration for the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

We have received scathing reports from the United National Center for Elimination of Racial Discrimination.

We imprison Maori at higher rates than any government imprisons any other ethnicity in the world.

We just spent a year investing tens of millions of dollars commemorating James Cook in the same year of the most violent white supremacist act in modern history, without a hint or mention of the irony.

We do all of this while presenting ourselves as extremely progressive to the world.

We are exceptional at blindspots and low on critical analysis for race, which makes us very attractive to conspiracy theorists.

Thanks, Tina. You’re great.

I wandered back from that gathering in Aotea Square, thinking about how much misinformation and disinformation had been spewed out in my city.

There was even a diatribe about the evils of Bill Gates.

Eventually, Billy TK Jnr and other protestors marched down Queen Street.

Billy put his arm around Lee Williams, a kiwi Islamophobe and YouTuber who is a proponent of the (very racist) Great Replacement conspiracy theory. Video essayist Byron Clark captured the moment.

Thumbs up.

When I got home, I took a look at the press coverage of the event — and it was pretty bleak. Especially stories like this:

This piece is a perfect example of how not to report this stuff.

I’ve included the article below — and just notice how it’s framed in a way you’d almost forget it’s about a bunch of conspiracy theorists spouting disinformation and misinformation.

Spouting things that are provably incorrect.

It mostly just reports what was said. Barely any context, just parroting.

To make matters worse, it almost semi-legitimises the group by simply referring to them as “Anti-lockdown protestors”. As opposed to, say, raving conspiracy heads.

The protest itself is called a “Rally for Freedom” march, which makes it sound almost reasonable — ignoring the fact there are a bunch of “Q” and “Save Our Children” signs held by people shunning masks. Again, no context.

This is an election year, and this is just horrible shit to see.

Anti-lockdown protestors take over Auckland's Aotea Square in '‘ally for Freedom’

Anti-lockdown activists have once again taken over Auckland’s Aotea Square in a protest against New Zealand’s COVID-19 restrictions.

The National Rally for Freedom, organised by political party Advance NZ and the Liberty March movement on Saturday, saw a major turnout by protestors enraged at what they see as infringements on their rights.

“We are asking thousands of New Zealanders to turn out to call for a halt to Labour and National's failed lockdowns strategy,” Advance NZ co-leader and rally organiser Billy Te Kahika said in a statement.

“New strategies show we can and must learn to live with the virus as a nation, just like we do with every other seasonal illness that comes our way.

“We ask fellow New Zealanders whether they are prepared to endure years of this strategy, or do they want to rally together to say we have had enough.

“Freedom, liberty, and human rights are not luxuries that we give away to Government whenever we are told to.”

A photo from the rally shows over a thousand people gathered at Aotea Square, many holding large banners and signs.

“NZ has been subjected to socialist brainwashing,” one sign read.

New Zealand's strategy of elimination - clamping down wherever the virus rears its head in an effort to prevent wider outbreaks - has been hailed by global health officials, and seen us record some of the lowest per capita infection and mortality rates in the world. 

But the lockdown wasn’t the only thing protestors took issue with, with some holding signs against vaccines and 5G.

“There will never be a safe vaccine,” one person's sign read.

Another warned that 5G caused “DNA damage, cancers, fatigue, headaches, insomnia, depression, infertility”.

Okay, so there’s also one line after some “related news” advertisements (about, funnily enough, why conspiracy theories thrive in times of crisis):

One line, easy to miss entirely, after paragraph upon paragraph amplifying what the protesters said: “These conspiracy theories have been debunked countless times.”

Of course most people will dismiss it all immediately. But to those already down the rabbit hole, this article just informs them about what their hero Billy TK Jnr had to say.

Here are a variety of responses I’d like to gift any newsroom that’s thinking of covering and contextualising what is essentially a QAnon rally:

Where do we go from here? I’m not sure.

There’s an election in New Zealand on October 17th. Make sure you vote.

There’s an election in America on November 3rd. Make sure you vote.

David.

PS: Please do read Tina’s piece, “The rise of Māori MAGA”.

PPS: I really enjoyed this tweet from a local QAnon account this week:

Human or bot, you always have to appreciate a surname which is just a bunch of numbers. Always a sign of quality.

Also:

  • I haven’t worked for Mediaworks since 2016

  • I worked for Netflix over two years ago before “Cuties” existed

  • I don’t have a wife