Covid-19 and the Alt-Right Media Ecosystem

Screenshot_2020-04-07 What is the coronavirus 5G conspiracy The dumb theory circulating the internet rn

Image from The Tab.

This article will be published in Fightback’s upcoming magazine issue on Media. To subscribe click here. NOTE: While NZ is under lockdown, print issues cannot be sent out, however e-publications are being sent out, and we will print and mail issues when it becomes possible.

“A mainstream media article, written by an academic from Massey university who has not gulped down koolaid to fawn over the government? We are taken aback, greatly.”

That was how the New Conservative Party (New Zealand) introduced an opinion piece by Steve Elers that was published on Stuff, New Zealand’s largest news website, stating the country should have closed its borders in February. The fringe right-wing party, outside of parliament and polling around 1%, has spent the past year telling their Facebook followers-  an audience comparable in size to the following of more mainstream political party pages- to distrust mainstream media and academia.

“Time to get rid of the China virus that’s infected our government. #chinaliedpeopledied”, comments one of their followers, a man with a profile picture proudly declaring hs support for the party. Another man comments with a link to a YouTube video claiming that telecommunications workers destroyed a cellphone tower to warn the public about 5G. “5g being set up during LockDown!!!! I do not consent to radiation”, comments a woman with a “top fan” badge.  “UN agenda 21 can only be implemented in a climate of fear”, states another follower.

While some comments are supportive of the government’s decision to place New Zealand on lockdown, closing all but essential services and banning gatherings of people in an attempt to stop the spread of Covid-19, the above comments are not atypical. For some followers, the New Conservative praise for Steve Elers isn’t convincing: “If you take a closer look at this guy, he is an Alt left Maori activist.”

Posting a link to an RNZ article about coming job losses at NZME, Stuff’s major rival and owners of the New Zealand Herald, a New Conserative follower comments “bye bye fake news.” While a number of NZME’s redundancies are occurring at Radio Sport which has ceased broadcasting as globally the pandemic puts a halt on sporting competitions, the email to staff from NZME Chief Executive Michael Boggs indicates a reduction in the number of news journalists is coming: “The ongoing decline in revenue caused by the impact of COVID-19 continues to be significant. This is uncharted territory, and no one knows when that will change.

We must now make changes to the scope and scale of our business and do so quickly. This will inevitably result in job losses.”

The pandemic is speeding up the decline of professional journalism, already well underway in New Zealand as elsewhere. Traditional media has struggled to maintain advertising revenue, in particular due to the shift in advertising to Facebook, which has become one of the primary platforms for the spread of misinformation.

In March, Wired published an article headlined Coronavirus Conspiracy Theories Are a Public Health Hazard “Anti-vaxxers think the virus is an effort to force vaccines on them, possibly orchestrated by Bill Gates. Others blame 5G networks”, writes Wired’s Emma Grey. Ellis, showing linking the virus with 5G conspiracy theories is not unique to the supporters of a fringe right-wing party in New Zealand. In the UK people influenced by conspiracy theories claiming symptoms of Covid-19 are actually caused by 5G mobile towers have abused technicians and even destroyed telecommunications infrastructure.

There has also been a documented increase in racist incidents against Asians and Chinese in particular in a number of countries, including New Zealand and Australia. In February, before New Zealand had any confirmed cases of Covid-19, parents of children at a Canterbury school received an email stating “our Kiwi kids don’t want to be in the same class with your disgusting virus spreaders”. In Western Australia, shoppers who appeared Asian were removed from a supermarket, and in Tasmania a student from Hong Kong was assaulted by a man who first shouted “you’ve got the virus” and “go back to your country”. Notably these incidents occured after headlines like ““China Virus Panda-monium” and “China kids stay home.” appeared in mainstream Australian newspapers in January. Politicians and pundits have continued to racialise the the virus with terms like “China virus” “Wuhan virus” and “kung-flu” the latter appearing in the title of an Australian alt-right podcast episode in February.

While new Facebook pages have emerged to take advantage of growing Sinophobia, other far-right pages have used the pandemic to spread false information about their usual targeted groups. A page primarily Islamophobic in nature has repeatedly claimed Muslims “were the first to bring the plague to NZ from Iraq” possibly confusing Iraq with Iran, where an infected New Zealand citizen returned from (notably neither the ethnicity or religion of this woman is publically known).

Another post on the same page claims a private jet owned by a Saudi billionaire, which landed at Christchurch airport to repatriate Saudi citizens, was there to bring COVID-19 “to the hookers and street workers of Christchurch” adding “No one else can travel to NZ, except Jacinda’s wealthy handlers”. One commenter suggested the plane was there to pick up the Christchurch shooter, who according to a baseless conspiracy theory pushed by the tiny One Nation NZ party was not part of the far-right, but actually a Muslim convert. One Nation NZ stood in a by-election in 2018, but otherwise barely existed beyond Facebook page- which has since been removed for violating policy of hate speech and graphic violence.

”All over the world, from Iraq to the United States, people have been spreading anti-Semitic memes and messages suggesting that Jews, or Jewish stand-ins like George Soros, the Rothschilds, and Israel, are to blame for the outbreak” writes Ellis in Wired “In the internet’s darkest corners, the scapegoating is being used to stir a movement that is less conspiracy theory than actual conspiracy”.

According to Oren Segel, vice president of the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, white supremacists have discussed deliberately infecting ethnic minorities and exploiting tensions between ethnic groups to hasten “the boogaloo” an alt-right slang for race war. In the USA the FBI stopped a man who was planning to bomb a Missouri hospital treating COVID-19 patients. NBC News reported that he had done so to further the goals of his white supremacist ideology, and had told an undercover FBI agent he had chosen a hospital as a target due to “the increased impact given the media attention on the health sector.”

In the USA, polls showed that 42% of Republicans were “very worried” or “somewhat worried” about COVID-19, compared to 73% of Democrats. 83% of Republicans who consumed only a diet of outlets with right-leaning audiences believed the news media had exaggerated the risks of the virus. Comparable poll data is not available for New Zealand, but clearly a similar far right echo-system exists, though its reach has not been adequately investigated.

In Australia, the far-right have used the government’s Covid-19 response to stoke distrust in state institutions and encouraged mobilisation and violent action as a response to the crisis, according to Sydney based think tank The Lowy Institute. In the lead up to the first anniversary of the Christchurch shooting, Australian counter-terrorism police in New South Wales arrested a 21-year-old man for an alleged terrorist plot. The man had allegedly tried to buy military equipment and firearms and was planning to blow up an electricity substation.

“The situation is ripe for exploitation by the far right,” Cynthia Miller-Idriss, American University sociologist and expert on the far-right, told Al Jazeera “the uncertainty the pandemic creates creates fertile ground for claims about the need for change or the solutions the far right purports to offer.”

This is certainly evident in recent Facebook posts from New Zealand’s alt-right adjacent New Conservative Party, such as a picture of laughing women captioned “when someone who wants open borders sounds worried about the coronavirus spreading” and a screenshot of a BBC headline about the EU closing borders to non-citizens  with the comment “so nationalism is back and borders are good?” (This rhetoric ignores the fact that the borders of Europe were far from “open” prior to the pandemic- last year, over a thousand migrants drowned attempting to enter Europe on their southern sea border).

But New Conservative are, relatively speaking, moderates. On a page run by a Christchurch based man who in the months following the Christchurch shooting threatened to “destroy mosque after mosque until they take me out” an article from a known fake news website, alleging that France is not subjecting predominantly immigrant neighbourhoods to quarantine is shared with the comment “r@pe and sickness are just a part of the rich diversity pill we are all going to have to swallow.” (The @ replacing the a is likely an attempt to avoid Facebook algorithms removing the post).

Misinformation and conspiracy theories can move quickly from the far-right fringes to more mainstream social media with larger audiences. In April Buzzfeed reported that numerous lifestyle and parenting influencers on Instagram were “seamlessly weaving in evidence-free far-right conspiracy theories that are usually found in the significantly less Instagrammable parts of the internet, such as 4 and 8-chan, in between their usual idyllic family snaps”.

With millions of people confined to their homes there is also concern that more people will be susceptible to the kind of online rabbit holes that lead people to the far-right. Mak Kapetanovic, a young man who had previously been influenced by alt-right narratives encountered on 4chan and has since left the right, told Time of his concerns that the pandemic could lead people down the same path. “Feelings of isolation, anger, grief and frustration, all of those things are happening. A lot of people are scared, and people are not sure what to think.”

“It is the far right who always seem to take advantage of these insecurities”

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Racial populism and the 2017 New Zealand General Election

winston peters immigration

By Ani White.

The celebrations among many New Zealand leftists are understandable. After 9 years of Tory brutality, a change of government can feel like a breath of fresh air. However, the morning after the celebrations, we must take stock and critically evaluate the makeup of the next government, so we know what battles await us in the coming years.

It’s an unfortunate quirk of MMP that parliament’s chief attention-seeking racist has the power to string an entire country along despite winning less than 10% of the vote. Proportional representation is on balance progressive, despite this misgiving. Originally voted in as a backlash against National and Labour’s neoliberal reforms, the proportional voting system forces the major parties to make concessions. This can benefit the right aswell as the left, with National negotiating deftly in recent years. Further, while MMP is a better representative system than FPP, it’s still representative rather than participatory; the real decisions are still taken out of people’s hands, with negotiations behind closed doors determining the makeup of government.

Anecdotally, some claim that Winston’s anti-immigrant scapegoating is a thing of the past. However, simply searching Winston Peters’ twitter page for the keyword ‘immigration’ reveals a long series of negative tweets (see picture). When the New Zealand Herald published an article saying that Asian immigration numbers have been overstated, Peters responded by pointing out the Asian heritage of the journalists. Reducing immigration was a bottom line in his post-election negotiations. Perhaps Peters’ attacks on migrants are no longer noticed because they are so predictable.

Others who admit Peters’ racism argue that compromise is necessary for the parliamentary ‘left’, with Winston holding the cards. It would be easier to sympathise with this dilemma if anti-migrant populism wasn’t already a common ground between Labour and New Zealand First. This is more of a genuine dilemma for the Greens, who dropped James Shaw’s 1% immigration cap policy after criticism from the membership, had the best refugee policy of any party, introduced the first refugee-background MP to parliament, and generally stood on the most progressive platform of any parliamentary party. For those of us who voted Green in the hope that they would offer a more progressive coalition partner than New Zealand First, this coalition deal is something of a Pyrrhic victory.

Peters is a racial populist, both his long-standing tendency to blame immigrants for all social problems and his opposition to ‘special rights’ for Māori (thankfully, his opposition to Māori seats has not been adopted). Although certain elements of New Zealand First policy can be mistaken for left-wing – particularly the economic nationalism – both his economic and social policy seek to wind back the clock 50 years. Coming originally from National, Peters essentially advocates something like the National Party of 50 years ago, during the heyday of both social democracy and conservative assimilationism. This is far from a forward-thinking programme for liberation today.

Ironically rural Māori are a significant section of his voter base. This reflects an international trend where isolated rural regions, with few migrants, tend to be more anti-migrant. Additionally, many Māori likely support his economic policies. Conversely, support in the Māori seats dropped from 12-14% in 2014 to 7-9% in 2017, likely due to Winston campaigning against Māori seats.

Racial populism often adopts egalitarian rhetoric.  The coupling of racism with economic populism is in some ways even more insidious than neoliberalism, as Indian Marxist Jairus Banaji explained in a commentary on India’s racist ‘communalist’ movement:

Neo-liberalism disarms the working class economically, destroying its cohesion in an industrial, economic sense. Racism, communalism and nationalism… do the same in more insidious ways, destroying the possibility of the working class ever acquiring a sense of its own solidarity and of what it really is.

Racial populism diverts attention from the capitalist class who control resources, towards racialised targets.

A recent Spinoff article on New Zealand First’s national conference noted that much of the membership consider themselves anti-neoliberal, not consciously racist. Bluntly, those who support New Zealand First for economic rather than social reasons are being led down a dangerous blind alley. Jacobin article by the same author asserted that a surge for New Zealand First would be a “significant realignment.” However, New Zealand First’s support has dropped since reaching up to 18% in the 1990s, so their popularity is nothing new.

The party’s determining role in New Zealand politics is less a sign of the times than a continuation of Winston Peters’ long-standing manipulation of MMP, with a similar scenario playing out as far back as 1996 (where the formation of the government took two months). Whereas the similar-sized Greens clearly orientate themselves towards Labour, Peters makes a point of not deciding until one of the major parties offers him a good deal, clearly enjoying the prestige that comes with this role.

Although Winston’s manipulative ‘kingmaker’ game is nothing new for New Zealand politics, it’s particularly important that leftists give New Zealand First no quarter in the age of Trump. Left softness on racist right-wing populists is an example of Conservative Leftism, a tendency which throws oppressed people under the bus for the sake of simplistic anti-neoliberalism (see Daphne Lawless’ Against Conservative Leftism).

You cannot challenge capitalism while excusing racism. Capitalism is racialised; the dispossession of Māori was necessary to establishing capitalism in Aotearoa, and attacks on new (brown) migrants undermine working class unity. Winston Peters’ populism undermines the internationalist alliances needed for a truly liberating politics.

Labour ran on cutting immigration in the 10s of 1,000s. This policy was nonsensical – Labour proposed to cut students and ‘low-skilled’ workers, citing strains on infrastructure – yet students and poor workers are unlikely to use motorways or buy houses. Most likely the policy was less motivated by rational policy considerations than a pathetic attempt to chase the anti-migrant vote, which New Zealand First already has on lockdown.

Policies of cutting immigration face opposition from business, which is unfortunately more influential than opposition from migrant workers and their advocates. Business leaders oppose immigration cuts for the wrong reasons – hoping to access cheap labour – whereas we say that migrants must have the rights of any worker, including the right to union representation.

Even if these nonsensical poll-chasing policies are not implemented, they widen the ‘Overton window’ – the range of acceptable political discourse. They make attacks on migrants more socially acceptable, and pro-migrant reforms less likely.

Labour’s capitulation to xenophobia follows an unfortunate international trend. The UK’s Jeremy Corbyn may have more Social Democratic substance than Jacinda Ardern, but he has unfortunately pandered to anti-immigrant politics (see Daphne Lawless’ article here).

After Labour’s sudden leadership shakeup, Jacinda Ardern’s campaign did not depart in substance from Andrew Little’s rather conservative campaign. She stuck to the policy of cutting immigration, and failed to stand with Metiria Turei against beneficiary-bashing. Despite superficially criticising ‘neoliberalism’, she did not commit to departing from neoliberal fundamentals when challenged. Similarly she talked up the threat of climate change but made no significant commitments to address it.

However, a relatively young, rhetorically sophisticated woman in the leadership was a welcome relief from the pale, stale male brigade that has dominated the Labour leadership for nearly a decade, attracting young liberals to the party. Conversely, Bill English lacked the personality appeal of John Key, leading National to defeat for the second time in his life.

A Labour government is usually slightly better than a National government. Except for the Fourth Labour government, Labour tends to spend more on social services than National, and work more closely with unions, among other social concessions. While this difference is marginal at a macro-level, we can’t totally deny any difference that results in fewer deaths by economic violence. For the anti-capitalist left however, no deaths by economic violence are acceptable, so a Labour-led government is not our horizon of possibility. Even the Greens, the most progressive party in parliament, remain limited to that horizon of possibility. Additionally, with Winston in the government, we can expect renewed attacks on migrants.

Ultimately, the parliamentary parties are all committed to managing capitalism. The left cliché that only collective direct action can stop the racist, capitalist juggernaut remains true. How to put this truth into practice in a principled, effective way remains the question.

Fightback’s election activity: Migrant and Refugee Rights Campaign

Fightback did not endorse any political party in 2017, instead committing to a Migrant and Refugee Rights Campaign (MARRC) alongside other groups. We committed to this because we see the international upsurge of racial populism as a key barrier to class consciousness, more important than party lines.

MARRC supported an independent candidate in Wellington Central: Gayaal Iddamalgoda, a Legal Organiser for FIRST Union.

Gayaal’s campaign offered a relatively mainstream platform to challenge electoral scapegoating of migrants and refugees. The campaign regularly cranked out press releases (see marrc.org.nz/blog), criticising every party, and receiving coverage in mainstream newspapers.

Candidates’ meetings offered an opportunity to publicly challenge the major parties. In an electorate with Green Party leader James Shaw and high-ranking Labour MP Grant Robertson standing, we were able to challenge Labour and the Greens from the left.

One Labour MP, Hutt South’s Chris Hipkins, criticised his party’s policy when challenged by a member of the campaign at a candidates’ meeting.

The Rainbow Forum was the liveliest, with the audience asking challenging questions, shutting down the Conservative and ACT candidates without mercy, and wildly applauded Gayaal for outlining the intersection of queer and migrant rights.

The infamous Aro Valley candidates’ forum was also energetic, as children sprayed candidates with water pistols. Gayaal in the words of the Dominion Post “won cheers from the inner-city crowd with his message of welcoming migrants and ending capitalism.”

MARRC also organised a Migrant and Refugee Rights Forum with Gayaal speaking alongside other candidates. Around 100 attended. Emcee Murdoch Stephens (of the Double the Quota campaign) challenged candidates on the refugee quota, on proposed immigration cuts, and on a Living Wage for migrant workers.

Sponsored Facebook posts received significant interactions, including a campaign video that was viewed over 3,600 times. Unfortunately, the Facebook page also received waves of racist comments, which admins did not tolerate.

Gayaal passed 150 votes, beating the other independents and the ACT Party candidate, a modest victory in a campaign more intended for propaganda than parliamentary purposes. Victoria University’s polling booth had the most votes for Gayaal, confirming international poll results that show youth tend to be more pro-migrant.

We are in discussions about how to carry the Migrant and Refugee Rights Campaign through to 2018. If you would like to be involved or updated, please email us at marrc.aotearoa@gmail.com

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CHCH report: Public meeting against zero-hour contracts

public meeting

Report by Matt Jones, reprinted from Aotearoa Workers Solidarity Movement (AWSM).

Fightback Wellington branch will hold a public forum on fighting zero-hour contracts and poverty wages on Sunday the 29th of March.

Over 50 people attended a public meeting held in Christchurch/Otautahi on the 2nd March to hear from workers and union organisers about the brutal reality of zero hour contracts. Chaired by Jared Phillips of the Dairy Workers Union and introduced by Ben Peterson Organiser of Unite Union we were treated to the stories of Unite Union member Rose Williams from the Wendy’s Restaurant chain and long standing Maritime Union delegate Mike Will.

Ben told us that in 2014 Unite Union asked their members what their life in the workplace was like. Over one thousand responded and the results surprised many. They discovered that the average hours worked was 25 hours at the minimum wage and more than half of the respondents needed 35 hours or more to meet their living costs. Those that were getting more than 40 hours per week were forced to drop their overtime allowance. Overtime allowances kick in when someone works more than 40 hours per week, they should receive their hourly rate plus a further half for every additional hour they work. In reality they are by being told to sign a waiver, or at times by not giving their consent at all, to allow the company to pay them at their ordinary rate. Unite had spent the previous two years fighting for a living wage, forcing the issue onto the front pages, what the survey results were telling the union was that without hours to work, the rate of pay arguably became a secondary issue.

The hours are not scarce in the industries Unite represent. Fast food, retail, hotels, cinema’s and security all suffer from incredibly high turnover rates. Fast food for example churns through 70 to 80% of its workforce on an annual basis alone. Why do the bosses continue to hire if their existing workforce are clambering for more hours? Power, that’s the only possible conclusion – hiring new workers requires advertising, interviews, inductions, training, administration and supplying clothing and equipment, in short it’s not a cheap process. Keeping your work force desperate and fearing to cause a stir by requesting a day off, taking sick days, demanding your holiday entitlement or saying no when you’re called to work with less than thirty minutes notice is exactly how these multi national corporates and franchise operators are running their businesses.

Rose Williams addressed the crowd telling her story of the recent strike held at her store. Wendy’s are in negotiations with Unite Union who took the company by surprise when their only South Island store took to the streets. She described how she was originally taken on as a full time worker, working more than fifty hours a week sixteen months ago. She is now down to 26 and only gets five days a week by working both Saturday and Sunday while having with no consecutive days off. When she works public holidays there is no day in lieu. There is no standard shift and as a result workplace bullying is rife, managers are literally using the rosters as disciplinary tools, baiting workers with the very means of survival.

Mike Will told us of his experiences with the local activist community during the past few years. He spent day and night at the Christchurch Occupy site in Hagley Park and witnessed the possibility of community organizing and direct democracy. He thanked the individual anarchists that were at the heart of the local chapter of Occupy and acknowledged the hard efforts that many from our scene put in during the emergency period of the Canterbury earthquakes. Many ears picked up at his mention of the short lived Otautahi Solidarity Network that was inspired by the Seattle Solidarity Network.

Mike’s words inspired figures from the union movement including Dave Bristow of First Union to stand up and hint heavily that there were early talks of a new way of organising within their union – something the writer of this article will be following up discussions in the near future.

The reality is the businesses that profit from zero hour contracts and paying minimum wage are taking the piss out of their workforce on several levels. Workplace bullying, insecurity and fear is topped off by a gut wrenching weekly phone call to the IRD to declare the inconsistent hours and irregular earnings worked in order to make ends meet. The multinationals make a killing by paying poverty wages and the taxpayer tops up the shortfall. TV3’s Campbell Live made the connection between zero hour contracts and kids turning up to schools without breakfast, lunch or basics such as footwear on the same night as the public meeting.

The floor was opened for people to ask questions and speak their mind. Networking and sharing resources was the theme of the night and the momentum will continue to build. The forum also discussed the idea of establishing a progressive network and regular meeting to discuss local progressive ideas and campaigns. The first Monday of every month at the WEA, 7pm will be the place to hear of the day’s issues and be inspired that you’re not alone when thinking it’s all on its head and the world’s gone mad – the question is, what are we gonna do about it?!

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