How do conspiracy theories move from white supremacist minds to Māori mouths? Tina Ngata, a researcher and scholar, looks at the rise of Billy Te Kahika and his New Zealand Public Party, and why far-right, white-supremacist agendas are finding favour with many Māori.
Donald Trump winning the US election is one of those “what were you doing when . . .” moments.
I was living in Ruatōria at the time — and it all felt very surreal. For days afterwards, I was left scratching my head. I didn’t understand how people could support such a patently racist, greedy, and misogynistic candidate. I understood the US electoral college made a difference, but there was, undoubtedly, also strong support for Trump, especially among the working class and middle America.
Predictably, straight after his election, Trump went about removing protections to native estates and national parks, defunding or disestablishing environmental regulatory units and research programmes, and approving pipelines and deregulating the oil, gas, and plastics industry.
As I watched the multitudes of working class people proudly sport their red MAGA caps and swallow the conspiracy theories and Trump’s promise to “drain the swamp”, I never considered that the same thing could happen here.
Little did we know that more immediate horrors were to eventuate as Covid-19 took hold. Last week, the US was no longer reporting deaths per day, or even per hour. They moved to reporting per minute. The poor, the Indigenous, and the communities of colour are being hit the hardest. From all the way over here, in our safe little bubble of Aotearoa, Trump’s America seems a million miles away.
You’d be forgiven for thinking we’d all like to keep it that way.
Yet, 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.
Minor party campaigns which are driven by fear and conspiracy aren’t new, but the rise of the global right has given new life to the role of “fake news” — and particularly conspiracy theories — in our politics.
Of particular note this election year is the rapid rise of the New Zealand Public Party, led by the charismatic Billy Te Kahika, a once relatively obscure blues musician who’s managed to carve out a political spotlight for himself through online videos that largely target the government for nearly every conspiracy theory that’s out there.
Billy TK’s suspicious reckonings so far seem to centre on the “Agenda 2030/Agenda 21” theory, which suggests that the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals Programme (also called Agenda 2030) is actually a hidden plot by the global elite to establish world control.
The Agenda 2030 conspiracy theory is a meta-theory, which means that it acts as a parent for a wide range of other conspiracy theories, such as 1080, 5G, and water fluoridation. Apparently, they’re all tools of population control in pursuit of Agenda 2030.
There’s a Covid-19 conspiracy, too, in the mix — it’s all a hoax perpetrated by international organisations and governments to strip us of our freedoms. Which also pivots across to: it’s not a hoax, but a bioweapon purposefully manufactured by the Chinese government.
Like conspiracy theories themselves, Billy TK’s rise has depended heavily on popularist story tropes (such as The Matrix) and the relative ease and speed of information-sharing through social media. He heavily critiques globalism, and speaks extensively about the need to protect New Zealand from overseas interests “like the Chinese Communist Party”.
But these claims stand in stark contrast to his overinflated misrepresentations of military and police involvement, his efforts at courting endorsement from Helen Clark and the United Nations Development Programme for previous projects, and his sustained pursuit of international trade opportunities (particularly from China).
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Billy TK has gravitated towards another controversial figure in New Zealand politics — Jami Lee-Ross, a former National MP with a casual approach to the truth and a penchant for positioning himself as a reluctant hero of the people.
Electoral success for this coupling may seem a remote possibility, but I no longer laugh at what seems like absurd political scenarios. That was before Trump, and before the dumpster fire that’s been New Zealand politics 2020.
If the past few months has shown us anything, it’s that New Zealand politics can be extremely unpredictable. Certainly the NZ Public Party’s rise illustrates a politicising of the distrust of state, media and science that warrants deep discussion.
But what concerns me more, right now, is the outright manipulation of our people for an agenda that ultimately exploits the marginalised. It’s a strategy that’s being orchestrated and advanced by the alt-right, and it deliberately places brown, black, and poor people at its forefront.
And that’s not restricted to just the NZ Public Party, or its leader.
Conspiracy theories and the alt-right
It seems counter-intuitive for the alt-right to want to start conspiracy theories, right? Why would they want to rock the boat that privileges them in the first place?
To understand why the alt-right favours social discord, we first need to appreciate the political spectrum as a horseshoe rather than a straight line. The far-right is therefore just as likely to feel as ripped off by centrist governments as the far-left.
What the right and far-right are keenly aware of, though, is that where social discord happens, they’re far more likely to come out on top, because the ultimate power over military and police might is held within a white supremacist structure.
We’ve seen this play out in many instances. White supremacist groups can rally without police brutality, whereas Black Lives Matter protests are responded to with state violence. And in Aotearoa, Covid-19 has provided more evidence that Treaty compliance and tangata whenua rights become optional during times of crisis.
Whereas Black Lives Matter protesters call for a revolution to end white supremacy, far-right extremists believe that there’s simply not enough white supremacy, and that social discord will provide the opportunity for white supremacist structures to be reinstated and strengthened.
“I’m a Leninist,” Bannon proudly proclaimed.
Shocked, I asked him what he meant. “Lenin,” he answered, “wanted to destroy the state, and that’s my goal too. I want to bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment.”. . . He included in that group the Republican and Democratic Parties, as well as the traditional conservative press.
Unsurprisingly, this approach has also been favoured by Trump:
“A lot of people live better without having a job, than with having a job. I’ve had it where you have people and you want to hire them, but they can’t take the job for a period of nine months because they’re doing better now than they would with a job.”
“You know what solves it? When the economy crashes, when the country goes to total hell, and everything is a disaster, then you’ll have riots to go back to where we used to be, when we were great.”
Bannon was also behind the Trump campaign strategy of characterising Hillary Clinton as part of a global conspiracy made up of the political, financial and media elite. This played on the disenfranchisement of the poor and working class. And, to be fair, the classist, elitist nature of modern politics makes this an easy picture to paint.
The problem is, once you hook people with the partial truth, it becomes so much easier for you to extend that into whatever falsehood you want them to believe. This way, when the press expose the flaws of your man, you can paint that as a tactic of the corrupt press.
QAnon is a far-right pro-Trump movement that heroizes Trump by placing him as a force in opposition to an international “deep state” bureaucratic conspiracy. The original individual or group known as “Q” make continued references to being ex-military, with intelligence experience, and having contacts within the military and government that provide them with “inside information” about covert plots and subterfuge. Sound familiar?
Many of the paranoid fantasies are fed by incel culture, the self-described “involuntary celibates” who spend the majority of their free time in online games of warfare and espionage. They obsess about Matrix-themes of mass control and needing to “wake up” and be “redpilled”. Increasingly, the lines of physical and virtual reality become dangerously blurred. The theories generally centre around world domination, a new world order, and elitist plots to eradicate most (if not all) of humankind.
Most of the current conspiracy theories about 5G and Covid-19, 1080 and human eradication, vaccinations and “Agenda 21”, have either come directly from QAnon or the far-right sites they inhabit — such as 4chan, 8kun and 8chan.
8chan may be particularly familiar to Aotearoa because it’s where the white supremacist murderer responsible for the Christchurch mosque massacres in March 2019 posted his manifesto and the link to the video footage he took of those massacres.
While it’s not necessarily the case that the NZ Public Party is knowingly supporting white supremacist agendas, there’s no escaping the echoes of MAGA in their campaign rhetoric. Those echoes can be heard as well in Hannah Tamaki’s Vision New Zealand party.
The crossover into te ao Māori
So how do these conspiracy theories move from white supremacist minds to Māori mouths?
Well, first it’s important to realise that, ultimate agendas aside, the audience for the rhetoric is not the right or the left. It’s the disenfranchised — those who feel that their rights have been taken away from them and who have an inherent distrust of the state and media, along with a distaste for authorities telling them what to do.
These theories aren’t a big stretch for a group who’ve had 180 years of the state riding roughshod over their rights.
Indeed, there’s little doubt that some government legislation had a devastating impact on Māori, as shown by this excerpt from the Hansard reports, the transcripts of parliamentary debates, from the late 19th and 20th century.
“I believe we could not devise a more ingenious method of destroying the whole of the Māori race than by these (land) Courts. The natives come from the villages in the interior, and have to hang about sometimes for months in our centres of population . . . They are brought into contact with the lowest classes of society, and are exposed to temptation, and the result is that a great number contract our diseases and die . . .” (Robert Bruce, New Zealand Minister for Parliament, 1885, who was speaking against the Native Land Court bill.)
Given our history and more recent behaviour from our government targeting Māori for surveillance and persecution, it’s not too difficult to convince Māori that the state is out to kill us.
White supremacist sites and groups are well aware that Māori, and communities of colour, have picked up on their theories and are now fronting them in many spaces. This works fine for them. It accelerates their agenda of social discord and distrust in the state, without any white bodies being in the line of fire.
Racist nationalists have never had to stretch too far to trigger Māori into unwittingly supporting them, as is evidenced in the harmful, racist rhetoric spread by Brian Tamaki and his supporters, and the racist campaign rhetoric of Hannah Tamaki’s Vision NZ party.
The fear of outsiders making an even greater claim on what’s already been taken from us is easy pickings for psychological manipulators. Australian KKK founder Peter Coleman once boasted that the New Zealand KKK would be “packed with Māori” because Māori are also concerned about being taken over. He backed up his claim by pointing to Winston Peters and his anti-immigration stances.
While the numbers are debatable, it’s a fact that Māori trauma over colonial invasion, and political dispossession, can ferment into xenophobic anxiety.
This can subsequently be exploited by white supremacists who erase their own position of coloniser to engage our fear of others taking over. It’s proven only too easy for Māori to move from seeing the primary issue as “who decides what immigration should look like” to the fear-ridden narrative of “keep the new arrivals out or they will take over”.
So some Māori are very open to suggestions that there are larger forces at play. In addition to this, Māori have been continually misrepresented in mainstream media as promiscuous, thugs, poor parents.
Our distrust of the mainstream media has come pre-packaged for white supremacist groups like QAnon to take advantage of. Poorly referenced fake media is then able to take its place, and the subsequent “infodemic” takes a hold.
For this to then become politicised, all that’s required is a “hero” figure who will take the half-truths of the white-supremacist sites and interweave them with Māori discontent for the system, along with evidence of ongoing state disservice to Māori (which is never hard to find). They can then present themselves as the people’s champion — the antithesis of the political elite — who will “drain the swamp”.
With a hearty dose of pseudo-intellectual language, more than a little audacity, and the illusion of a following (which can be easily bought these days), you have enough to set the train in motion for a Trumpian movement.
To be clear, I’m not suggesting the NZ Public Party is knowingly supporting white supremacist groups. What I’m saying is that their rhetoric both originates from, and serves, white supremacist groups.
It also appears that servicing white supremacy is not really a concern of theirs. Billy Te Kahika has already openly voiced his support for Trump. Opportunists are just that — they focus on the opportunity, not the agenda.
What to do?
So what can we do about it in Aotearoa? Well, first of all, we all need a bit of a reality check about who’s responsible for this.
The mainstream media, while it can play an important role in holding government to account, are vulnerable to accusations of being corrupt precisely because they’ve also promoted racist tropes about Māori.
The partisan Westminster parliamentary system of New Zealand government, while they’re not out to control us with microchip implants, is an illegitimate power structure that has failed, in both red and blue colour schemes, to address the longstanding injustice of Māori political dispossession. It has increased wealth and poverty gaps — and it is dominated by privilege and remains vulnerable to corrupt influence by corporate elites.
The strength of these misinformation campaigns is fundamentally underpinned by distrust in the system — and the system needs to respond to that rather than just dismissing or blaming those whom it has failed.
At a time when we have a systemic review like constitutional reform on the table for Aotearoa to consider, the pathway of a Tiriti-centred constitution that will shift our entire way of making decisions gains another layer of value and importance.
The other thing we can do is educate, educate, educate.
The digital divide, and in particular the lack of digital literacy and critical analysis of information, is a central issue here.
Since 2014, Finland has been committed to closing the digital divide and educating everyone about misinformation, starting at primary school. Consequently, the infodemic has NOT taken hold there in the way it has here and in other places.
While the New Zealand government has yet to respond as decisively to misinformation, it’s clear that good information played a significant role in our relative success in fighting Covid-19.
There’s also nothing to stop any of us from educating our own whānau on misinformation, how it works, and how to counter it.
Yes, it’s work that shouldn’t have to be done, but when we consider the connections between misinformation, white supremacy, and acts of extreme violence, we can’t overlook its importance.
Tina Ngata (Ngāti Porou) is a researcher and scholar, and the author of Kia Mau: Resisting Colonial Fictions. Her work involves advocacy for environmental, Indigenous and human rights. This includes local, national and international initiatives that highlight the role of settler colonialism in issues such as climate change and waste pollution, and which promote Indigenous conservation as best practice for a globally sustainable future.
(This piece was updated at 11am on August 12, 2020.)
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