Fears that NZ Parliament protest turning into political ‘free-for-all’

People could be fooled
People only present "in front of the Beehive" could be "fooled into thinking that this is about balloons and children .... and good vibes." Image: Samuel Rillstone/RNZ

By Jake McKee, RNZ News reporter

Misinformation researchers are concerned the protest at New Zealand’ s Parliament is becoming a “free-for-all” as the idea of any leadership within the blockade area slips away.

In recent days, the messaging among the occupation has noticeably fractured and with a number of people joining in, including influential personalities such as yachtsman Sir Russell Coutts, singer Jason Kerrison, and New Zealand First Party leader Winston Peters.

Kerrison did a series of Facebook Live videos on Tuesday, where he said he was capturing his own experiences — noting he did not “quite know what’s happened”.

He later ended up on Molesworth Street, where a man was earlier arrested for driving a vehicle towards a line of police officers, stopping just before he would have hit them.

Other than being aware of a “commotion”, Kerrison instead referred to an incident from Monday where police officers had human faeces thrown over them, claiming it did not happen and that people should stop being “hypnotised” by mainstream news and “that stupid scripted rhetoric”.

Kerrison is correct when he suggests throughout his livestreams that there are calm people in the crowd.

But Te Punaha Matatini misinformation researcher Dr Sanjana Hattotuwa said the presence of extreme or far-right views could not be ignored.

It was more noticeable in online channels connected to the protest, Dr Hattotuwa said.

‘Gone in a bad way’
“And I empathise with individuals who don’t know that because it requires a certain degree of subscription to, and connection to and engagement, with the online fora to realise the degree to which this has gone — and gone in a very bad way.”

He said people only present “in front of the Beehive” could be “fooled into thinking that this is about balloons and children …. and good vibes.”

Dr Hattotuwa wanted to know who, from the protest and their supporters, could “distance themselves, disavow and decry the violent ideation online”.

“Those two things, we haven’t seen to date.”

RNZ has spoken to a number of protesters in recent days, and asked if they thought it was okay to be in a crowd that was not necessarily as peaceful as it preaches.

There are signs targeting politicians, media and scientists.

Some did not like that there were death threats. One woman said those people “needed to go” and another said it was “terrible” to get personal and attack politicians.

Others not bothered
But others were not bothered (“That’s all around us mate, that’s every day. You can go to Auckland or Christchurch, or a little town – Eketahuna, you don’t know who’s around.”) or said the threats did not exist (“We haven’t seen anything like that. Everyone’s peaceful, when you go inside there, all you feel is love, all you feel is the emotion of the passion of the people.”).

These fractures appear to be growing in the increasingly individualised crowd and disinformation researcher Byron Clark said it was “becoming a free-for-all”.

Police have acknowledged there was no real leadership, and Clark said there was also more conflicting information and ideas among protesters.

“It makes it very difficult because it means that there’s not really anyone who police can negotiate with or if any politicians were to come out and meet the protesters, there’s not really anyone who can truly claim to represent them.”

He said people were being influenced on mainstream social media, like YouTube and Facebook, before migrating to platforms with less moderation, like Telegram and Rumble.

“So I think social media has been been slow to act and it’s the case now of we probably can’t put that genie back in the bottle. And we have to find other ways to deal with the issue of misinformation online,” Clark said.

This article is republished under a community partnership agreement with RNZ.

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