Originally published by The Spinoff
A contestant on the new season of The Bachelor has apologised for 'controversial' social media posts comparing mask wearing to 'slavery' and for questioning the scientific consensus around Covid-19. Stewart Sowman-Lund reports.
Shivani Pragji is – according to her LinkedIn profile – a solicitor working for the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, a government department responsible for 18 ministerial portfolios and overseeing our managed isolation system.
The 26-year-old was selected for the first single date of this season of TVNZ's The Bachelor on Wednesday night, dominating screen time alongside suitor Moses MacKay.
Screenshots provided to The Spinoff show another side of Pragji who has, in the past year, posted on both Instagram and Facebook to push back on mask wearing and question the legitimacy of Covid-19 vaccinations.
In one post on her Instagram story, Pragji compared mask wearing to "slavery".
"To me, this is not 'just' a mask," she wrote. "This is a loss of freedom and identity."
In a post on her Facebook, Pragji shared a Change.org petition advocating against the Government's Covid-19 Public Health Response Bill – the main piece of legislation used to counter the pandemic.
Other posts show Pragji accusing Jacinda Ardern of removing "freedom of choice" and sharing memes that go against scientific evidence on Covid-19 tests. One, shared by a page that has recently called vaccination "the biggest crime against humanity" and labelled vaccines and fluoride "chemical weapons", questioned the legitimacy of Covid-19 testing.
The page has also had at least one post flagged as Covid-19 misinformation by Instagram.
The Bachelor hopeful also follows the Instagram accounts of known conspiracy theorists, such as pseudoscientist Shiva Ayyadurai and New Zealand Freedom Keepers – a group connected to an international network of anti-vaccination campaigners.
In a statement to The Spinoff, Pragji said she deeply regretted sharing the posts and apologised to anyone who might have been offended.
"These do not reflect my current views on politics or Covid-19. My intention, at the time, was purely to engage in discussion with my peers and to provide a different viewpoint," she said.
Since sharing the posts online, Pragji said more research on Covid-19 has come out and her understanding of the virus and the Government's actions has changed.
"Covid-19 has shaken up our whole country and at the time these were posted I had a lot of questions about Covid-19 and our approach to this pandemic," she said.
"By profession, I am trained to look at all sides of an argument and engage in debates of various discussions. Social media provides for a group of like-minded and different people who have completely different perspectives, but that is what I enjoy. I welcome any viewpoint, and any discussion that is not considered to be the 'ordinary' point of view of your normal average person."
Pragji said while the posts are "controversial" and "may have been portraying my views strongly," she no longer holds those views after having done independent research.
"I apologise for this and the way it may have offended people, but we live in a beautiful country where freedom of speech is celebrated and honoured. These photos do not reflect my actual views currently."
A TVNZ spokesperson said they were "unaware of these social media posts when casting and filming The Bachelor NZ". The opinions did not inform any part of the programme and do not reflect TVNZ's position on Covid-19, they said.
Pragji isn't the first Bachelor contestant to face criticism over Covid-19 opinions expressed online.
Season two contestant Naz Khanjani said on Instagram that lockdowns, travel restrictions and quarantine were not "necessary" and the virus was "just like any other flu".
Project lead at the Disinformation Project, Kate Hannah, said there was no set type of person that falls down the rabbit hole – anyone is able to be influenced.
"What happens is that a conspiracy narrative always has a kernel of truth to it. Somebody who is well-educated and working in a place where they would be exposed to a good information environment; if they've clicked into these ideas around self-actualisation through health and wellness, that's a really hard narrative to shift."
Hannah said conspiratorial opinions usually came from people's lived experiences or those of their loved ones. There had been, she said, a crossover between the health and wellness community and anti-Covid views.
"What we've seen is there is a confluence of those older ideas that people might think of as being slightly 'hippy-ish'… meeting up with a modern discourse that if anybody works hard enough, they can be fit and good-looking and 'well'."
The wellness narrative could intersect with ideas around the unreliability of science and the medical profession, Hannah said.
This week on The Bachelor, Pragji shared a weight-loss journey driven by Samba dancing.
"People can quite easily go from working hard at the gym and thinking about what they eat to narratives around functional wellness and functional healing and self-healing," Hannah said. "Those are some of the ones that we see promulgated quite often on Instagram."
The Bachelor was, Hannah said, almost the pinnacle of that kind of narrative: "That you can, by working really hard in the gym and at your job, transform yourself," she said.
Journalist David Farrier, who has extensively covered conspiracy theories throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, agreed.
"There's an increasing number of health and wellness influencers sharing blatantly incorrect information and scaremongering on social media, under the guise of 'just asking questions'," he said.
"It gives dangerous ideas an innocent packaging."