There seems to be a nobody’s-going-to-win situation in Wellington. It’s an interesting situation. I participated in a lively debate at Smash Palace on Thursday night amongst a group of vaccinated patrons. There were some who felt the right to protest was paramount. There were others who are appalled with what is happening. It was very much a “it’s not the winning, or the losing, it’s the taking part” debate! Some felt it was a left-right divide.
For every right, there is a responsibility. It’s fine to demonstrate. I’ve done that more times than I care to remember. However, this is not a left, or right, matter. This is an issue of public health. This is a community mandate which the greater proportion of us have complied with, including those who were debating on Thursday night. Just as we comply with mandates about wearing seat belts in cars. They save the public health system massive costs.
If we were to comply with the wishes of those at parliament, we could be staring down the barrel of thousands of people dead and our health system, which is already underfunded, lying destroyed in the corner. In my opinion, these people are just completely wrong.
The best column I read in this this week was by Bernard Hickey. I am printing what he wrote in full.
Our heads are in the sand of the high road
Taking the high road is admirable in most cases and something any successful mainstream politician learns to do with grace and forbearance. But sometimes it’s actually dangerous to ‘let it slide’. Not responding encourages some to test the boundaries even more, and for the most extreme to act on some wildest accusations and threats.
Turning the other cheek was what British civil society did during and after Brexit, and what US civil society did before and during Trump’s nomination, election, and attempted coup on Jan 6. It was as if no one thought the worst could happen. That this rag tag rabble of incoherent grievances would go away once it was clear they couldn’t get their hands on the usual levers of political power. After all, it worked with the Occupy and Arab Spring sit-ins and protest movements. Once the initial enthusiasm was spent and there were new things scrolling through their Facebook and twitter feeds, these groups faded away.
It’s only now dawning on many that this was a mistake that has cost both countries millions of lives, years of economic growth and potentially could destroy the oldest democracies in the world.
- Firstly, those fundamental grievances about losing livelihoods and futures through 30 years of welfare-choking economic reforms and globalisation needed to be redressed.
- Secondly, the assumptions about the societal, political, and legal norms being enough to protect health and stability were tragically wrong.
British MPs have been murdered. The Capitol was stormed. Protestors and police died. Trump’s supporters tried to mount a coup, and were not that far away from achieving it. The United States is far from out of the woods, and neither is Britain.
But we’re different. Aren’t we?
Aotearoa-NZ’s modern history of political protest and democratic activity has been largely peaceful and eventually progressive. Aside from the Springbok tour clashes and the riots on waterfronts before and after the first and second world wars, our political movements have not disrupted national security in any immediate or existential sense.
But that was before we all had smart phones in our hands…
Now, a significant portion of the population get most of their information and have most of their public debates in toxic online landscapes of extreme misinformation, disinformation, and hyper-emotional shouting matches. These debates are often purely performative demonstrations of tribal fealty and rarely become genuine attempts to understand and come to some new joint position.
This is no accident. The algorithms developed by Facebook and Google’s Youtube are designed to amplify the most ‘engaging’ comments, news and videos. These the ones that attract the most likes and shares. The most hate and love. The most extreme positions. It has only taken a decade since the widespread distribution and adoption of smart phones for the public debates of most western countries to become ever more extreme and just plain stupid.
Apparently normal, functional people who would seem rational colleagues and family members appear to slide down holes into extreme and plainly wrong views about politics, health, technology, and science. It is a collective descent into madness, that often goes in tandem with and can worsen mental illness.
So why do we tolerate and enable these algorithmic amplifiers of poison?
New Zealand’s civic society has made no serious attempt to understand or regulate these algorithmic rivers and sprinklers of hatred and misinformation. Other democratic, western countries are stumbling around trying to regulate and control the social media platforms and the algorithms. We have done nothing.
If anything, sadly, it has been enabled by both sides of politics here. They have enthusiastically adopted Facebook’s hypodermic needles of information flow direct to voters and free of the usual gatekeepers in the mainstream media. The Government has made Facebook Live a semi-official tool to distribute official information and engage with the public.
Government departments employ hundreds of social media specialists and spend tens of millions of dollars on Facebook and Google advertising services. On occasion, the Government has even partnered with them on technology investment projects. There has been no serious attempt to try to control the spread of this misinformation and the use of these platforms to organise threats to our national security.
Even after the Christchurch Attacks, little has been done to protect our national security and health. Initially, the PM rightly condemned Facebook and Google for enabling and allowing a domestic terrorist to amplify the terror attack on their platforms. But that was as far as it went. The Christchurch Call has dissolved into a Davos-style talkfest for world leaders and tech execs to shoot the breeze and avoid regulation or any meaningful change whatsoever.
We are not immune. At all.
I have watched dumbstruck over the last five years as extremists have harassed and attacked journalists and public figures personally and viciously, including those I work with. I’ve seen death threats delivered to homes by mail. I’ve watched camera operators being spat at and shoved. I’ve seen nooses paraded in front of Parliament.
This has to stop and we have to take it seriously. Others are starting to.
The Department of Internal Affairs commissioned a report last year from the London-based Institute for Strategic Dialogue and CASM Technology on the online activities of extremists with a demonstrable link to New Zealand, as well as the digital platforms connecting New Zealand to an international extremist ecosystem.
Here’s what it found (bolding mine):
Exploring far-right, Islamist and far-left extremism as well as the growing grey area between conspiracy theories and extremism online, the research draws on data from social media sites including Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, a range of ‘alt tech’ platforms, including Parler, Gab and Telegram, alongside data from stand-alone extremist websites and forums, with over 600,000 posts collected from over 300 extremist accounts from New Zealand.
Our research sheds light on how extremism manifests online in New Zealand, the platforms where it spreads and key differences in how each are used. We look at the scale of mobilisation in both absolute terms – compared to mainstream social media use – and in contrast to extremism in other contexts around the world.
We analyse how the Internet allows New Zealand extremists to be influenced in ways that are profoundly international, whilst remaining rooted in domestic contexts. We also show how extremism online relates to phenomena such as hate speech, disinformation and conspiracy theories. ‘
Focusing on data gathered from 2020, our research also looks at how offline events impact online extremist activity, from the captive audiences provided by Covid-19 lockdowns to increased polarisation around elections in New Zealand and the United States.
Overall, our research shows that New Zealand is not an exception to broader international extremism trends. A concentrated but engaged core of online activists in New Zealand are intimately plugged into international extremist subcultures which draw New Zealanders away from the protective factors around them – such as a long history of liberal values and strong institutions – and surround them with the polarising grievances raging on the other side of the world. To a lesser extent, international extremist subcultures are also plugged into New Zealand and discuss the people, places and issues of the country at some volume, especially the Christchurch attack itself.
There are real world consequences happening right now
I have sat on my hands too for the last two years, expecting the temperature to cool naturally and for the ‘kiwi’ way to resume. I was jolted out of my complacency for the final time on Tuesday in the middle of the post-Cabinet news conference when it dawned on me the Government had decided not to use schools as mass vaccination sites because of the danger of violent attacks on teachers, students and vaccinators at the schools. This has not been reported widely and I don’t understand why.
Here’s Education and Covid-19 Minister Chris Hipkins talking in that news conference when asked about why schools weren’t being used as mass vaccination sites to accelerate the vaccination rollout (bolding mine):
“There is no question there are strong levels of support for tamariki to be vaccinate, but there is also some concern that schools can and have become the targets of some pretty aggressive and, in some cases, very nasty anti-vax sentiment. And so we have to just tread that line very carefully, and that has been a recurring theme in that conversation. So I think schools will want to be involved. They want to be supported but they don’t want to find themselves targeted.” Chris Hipkins in the news conference (Beehive transcript)