Originally published on The Spinoff.Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air.
As Aotearoa scrambles to reach a 90 per cent vaccination rate, the spotlight has turned on those resisting the jab. In the latest instalment of IRL, Dylan Reeve goes inside the online groups contributing to this resistance, and meets some of their members.
"You know, I never used to be like this." Jen's voice is raised to near breaking point, at the beginning of an intense 70-minute phone conversation. "I used to believe everything the government said."
A mother and grandmother living in West Auckland, Jen faithfully followed the government's rules and advice during the first lockdown in 2020. At the time, a friend warned her that Covid policy was part of an international, elite plan to revoke individual freedoms, claims she initially brushed off. But when Auckland entered level three again in August 2020, his warning started to resonate with Jen. "He said, 'Now do you believe me?' and I said, 'Well, I'm beginning to.'"
Following that conversation, Jen began exploring Facebook groups dedicated to challenging the expert consensus on Covid-19, groups she now visits daily. She could hardly be described as compliant now. "How dare somebody tell you to have a vaccine when you don't want to? I'm not an anti-vaxxer. Never have been," she says emphatically. "All my children got vaccinated when they were babies."
But Jen has no intention whatsoever of getting the Covid vaccine herself, stating resolutely that it's "my body, my choice".
With the Covid-free days of "elimination" seemingly behind us, and first-dose vaccination rates struggling at around 80% of the eligible population at time of writing, all eyes are turning to the hard-to-reach remainder, especially those resisting or outright refusing vaccination. According to the most recent data from regular surveys by the Ministry of Health, about 20% of respondents not already vaccinated say they are unlikely to get the jab, and of that group, 10% will "definitely not" get vaccinated.
Epidemiologists have established that our best protection against Covid is widespread vaccination, especially as endemic spread looms, and there's a clear consensus among scientists that the vaccines are safe and effective. Billions of people have heeded the call: 47.6% of the world population has received at least one dose, with an additional 23.41 million doses being administered each day. "The evidence could not be clearer," director general of health Ashley Bloomfield said last month. "In countries with high vaccination rates, Covid-19 has become an outbreak, a pandemic, or an epidemic of the unvaccinated."
Why, then, are so many choosing to remove themselves from the vaccinated and rule-abiding "team of five million", the path of least resistance on Covid? Why are people like Jen dabbling in online spaces widely derided as "anti-vaxx", facing potential bans on social media and risking relationships with family and friends? And will anything change their mind?
As with Jen, the entry point down the rabbit hole is often a loved one's influence. "It's an absolute cliche about us being social animals, but it's also absolutely true," says Victoria University professor of psychology Marc Wilson, who studies conspiracy theory beliefs. If someone in your circle believes vaccines are dangerous or that Covid policy is sinister and authoritarian, and that person is "more immediate to you than this epidemiologist on the television", he continues, "then it makes sense why you might listen to them."
This was also true of Dianne*, a business administrator in her 30s from West Auckland. During a lengthy, chatty phone call, she explains how, after a friend shared links to a number of Facebook groups raising doubts about Covid vaccines and data about eight months ago, she followed the trail. She's maintained an interest in these groups since.
"I'm not an avid scroller," she clarifies, sounding upbeat and confident about her stance. "If a post comes up that catches my attention … I'll have a read, and then a read through the comments. But I do take everything with a grain of salt."
While she weighs up what she reads online, though, Dianne's putting off getting vaccinated. She hasn't ruled out the possibility of getting the jab, but at the moment she's not convinced she should – and in the online spaces she frequents, she claims to be finding plenty of reasons not to.
Simon* is 40 years old and living in the Waikato district, with a background in science marketing. He describes himself as "quite an analytical person" who likes to question things, and lately he's been questioning Covid policy.
"I think we've brainwashed ourselves into believing that vaccines are a panacea for solving all our problems," he says in a measured voice over the phone. "If I'm going to take a vaccine I want to know what's in it and everything about the risks, and I want that information from an independent resource."
All of that information is provided by the Ministry of Health, but that won't satisfy Simon, who doesn't trust official sources. "The government has lost perspective," he continues. "It's less about the virus now and more about control."
Simon hasn't always felt like this. He was supportive of government measures early in the pandemic, but says he is increasingly seeing sinister undertones, likening the Covid response to "1930s Germany". He views platforms like Telegram, an instant messaging system where messages are heavily encrypted and can self-destruct, as precious oases of free speech in a desert of censorship and conformity.
It's difficult to get a precise sense of how many New Zealanders are participating in the online groups frequently visited by the likes of Jen, Dianne and Simon, or how seriously they're taking the unsubstantiated ideas spreading within them. Various Facebook and Telegram groups boast thousands (sometimes tens of thousands) of members, and even more can be found on niche platforms like Gab and Rumble. But due to significant crossover of membership, potentially large numbers of overseas participants, and the comparatively low levels of engagement in many of these groups, the displayed membership numbers don't determine much.
Reaching out to the community to get a better picture of the participants isn't easy, either. Members often distrust the media because it's commonly (and incorrectly) assumed journalists take orders from the government or are knowingly complicit in a larger conspiracy.
One thing that is clear, however, is the community isn't homogenous. The people who connect on Facebook and Telegram groups are incredibly diverse, coming from all corners of the country, with varied ages and political opinions. Far-left anarchists find themselves co-mingling with New Conservatives voters. Many members lean toward eco-friendly ideals and natural health, while others would rubbish such ideas in any other context. Without the commonality of their Covid views, members might have never encountered each other online.
But their beliefs and arguments are neither uniform nor consistent. There is no commonly accepted explanation for what's really happening; the only consensus is that the information coming from official sources is not what it seems. That something is being hidden.
"The level of censorship now – there's been very little open free debate about anything in society," says Simon, the 40-year-old science marketer. "Even challenging lockdown now is heresy. You're not even allowed to talk about it."
Jen, the grandmother based in West Auckland, concurs. "Free speech is going to go out the window shortly, if not already," she warns. "You're not allowed to say things … It's really terrible. I like listening to what people are saying, so that's why I join these groups."
Many of those suspicious of vaccines and Covid policies are well aware their views make others think less of them. They see the social media posts writing them off as "mental" "idiots" and feel the outrage and condescension directed their way by journalists and politicians.
But for most, it's a price they're willing to pay to stand up for something they strongly believe.
"My fear is what will happen in the future if we … don't stand up and be counted," Jen says, her voice tinged with strong emotion. "I'm not going to roll over and play dead and accept what they say. No, I'm going to fight and I don't care. I'm not the only one that will do that. I believe in my freedom and freedom for my children and grandchildren."
Many, maybe even most, people in Jen's position appear to be motivated by a sincere concern that official Covid policies will cause serious harm to individuals and society. Exactly what harm isn't always clear – or some of them would argue isn't yet known – but they want to avoid it. That's why their resistance to lockdowns, masks and Covid vaccines can seem so evangelical.
"They see this existential crisis and they feel a responsibility to try and raise awareness," says Wilson, the psychology professor.
The tragedy, of course, is that this compulsion only risks causing real harm to themselves, their loved ones and the community at large.
The government is keenly aware that conspiracy theories and misinformation are taking hold on platforms like Facebook and Telegram, but its attempts to intervene can end up fuelling the fire. For example, in March 2020, Jacinda Ardern told New Zealanders, "We will continue to be your single source of truth." It was a small line in the context of a larger statement to the media, but it's often seized on by these groups as an example of how authoritarian they believe the government has become.
Mike, an Auckland pensioner in his mid-60s, makes no bones about the fact that he doesn't trust official sources. At the very beginning of the pandemic, he says he immediately sought out "other news" from friends and non-expert YouTube videos to counter the government's messaging. "I'm a person who does research," Mike continues. "When someone says, 'We should be your single source of truth', I'm not going to listen to them, I'm going to listen to others."
According to Wilson, it makes sense for "people who have a predisposition to be distrusting" to prefer information that paints the government as sinister and untrustworthy. "They're thinking to themselves, 'Well this sounds like the sort of thing these evil bastards would do'," he says.
Among Māori communities in particular, the long history of oppression by the Crown means suspicion of authority is both prevalent and justified. "The damaged Māori-Crown relationship and injustice of colonisation means that the misinformation has more 'landing pads' for Māori than other groups," says indigenous rights advocate Tina Ngata. "One of the really important things a lot of people seem to be missing is just how deeply uprooted the Māori world is by colonisation."
This dynamic is familiar around the world, Wilson says. "The research shows that people who are members of status- or power-minority groups are more likely to be concerned about conspiracies, usually against them," he explains. "For example, a significant percentage of African Americans believe that medical treatments for things like HIV/Aids are actually experiments on them." He says if that strikes outsiders as odd, they should consider the Tuskegee syphilis study — a sobering and very real example of callous medical experimentation on unwitting Black subjects.
The way the concerns of people like Jen, Dianne and Simon are addressed by the people in their lives can make a huge difference to how their attitudes develop. Contempt and scorn can back the vaccine hesitant into a hardline, anti-vaxx corner.
Mandy, a North Shore resident in her 50s, has had epilepsy since childhood, and suffered a full-body rash in reaction to a flu vaccine in the winter of 2011, an experience that put her on edge. Now she feels genuine medical concerns about vaccines are being ignored in official communications about Covid. (On the Ministry of Health website, vaccine side effects and reactions are clearly laid out.)
When Mandy tried to voice these concerns with her family, they shouted her down and cut off communication with her. The approach was counterproductive, to say the least. Rebuffed by her family, Mandy turned to Telegram groups, where she found people willing to entertain, and entrench, her concerns. "I used to be totally on the other side, I used to be very much pro-vaccine," she says. "Now I'm quite the opposite."
On the other hand, Brittany, a Mangawhai resident who didn't want to reveal any other identifying details, had her concerns about the vaccine met with compassion and understanding when she shared them in a private non-Covid-related Facebook group of around 1,500 members. "Can I be honest? I am terrified. I don't want to get it," she wrote in a comment. "I have anxiety and I catastrophise everything."
Brittany wasn't bombarded with unverified anecdotes of adverse reactions, nor was she belittled by smug pro-vaxxers. Instead, non-judgmental members engaged openly with her worries. Among those who responded was an Australian epidemiologist who previously worked in New Zealand. "Even though the vaccines seem to have been developed quickly, the technology has been researched for many years," he wrote in a reply.
Armed with that information, Brittany sought further details from sources she was comfortable with and that assuaged her concerns. She recently got a reminder for her second vaccination, which she's planning to get this weekend.
If good-faith, informed debate was typical among the many Facebook and Telegram groups dedicated to challenging Covid policy, that would at least be constructive. Instead, they most often serve to entrench oppositional views. In the worst cases, inquisitive people with sincere, thoughtful questions find themselves drawn in by alarming ideas that transform personal concerns about Aotearoa's Covid response into an existential battle for the future of our country, or even the world.
"They want to control everybody," says Mandy, the North Shore resident in her 50s. "They control people with the [tracing app]. They control them with the masks. They control them with the social distancing. I personally see World War Three coming."
Ultimately, the idea that Covid policy is part of an all-encompassing, evil plan can be more reassuring to some than the messy truth, which is that world leaders and scientists are responding on the fly to a new virus they can't entirely control or predict.
"There's research around paranormal belief that says that it's tremendously disturbing to live in a world that appears to be against you, in which bad things happen," Professor Wilson explains. "And if that's because of chance, then that's psychologically really disturbing, because it can happen to anyone and it can happen repeatedly.
"What people do is try to seek order," he concludes. "People go looking for explanations for these things."
*Names have been changed for privacy
Further resources from Siouxsie Wiles and Toby Morris