New Zealanders may have once felt distant, or above the alt-right in the US and fringe conspiracy theorists, but are we really "better" than that? Los Angeles-based journalist David Farrier writes.
It was 2019 and I'd just come out of watching a movie. A guy came up and started berating me about the evils of 5G.
I'd recently been in a 5G commercial for Spark — and it had made me a target for those who thought 5G technology was a government tool to fry our brains. It was the first time I'd encountered unhinged anger in relation to a conspiracy theory. In this case, a conspiracy theory that had started online years earlier.
In 2016, some speeches regarding the roll-out of 5G were taken out of context, spawning a YouTube video called "The Truth About 5G". Spoiler alert: it wasn't the truth about 5G.
From there, the "5G-will-kill you" conspiracy theory spread from YouTube videos to Twitter hashtags. By October of 2017, it was on a notorious Reddit conspiracy page and by 2018 British conspiracy theorist David Icke was rolling with it. By May of 2018, Alex Jones was talking about 5G daily on his Infowars show.
In 2019, an angry man in New Zealand decided he'd tell me I was part of the plot to depopulate the planet. It had taken approximately three years for the theory to travel from an obscure YouTube video to the streets of Avondale.
One of the great joys and curses about being in New Zealand is that we're always a little bit behind. Don't take this the wrong way — we're ahead in so many ways: we gave women the vote before others. But it also takes a while for some things to reach us. Like culture. Before streaming, we'd have to wait months for films to be released. Vanilla Coke took some time to get to us, and we're still waiting on Dr Pepper.
Conspiracy theories are no different — we lag behind. By the time they reach us, many think they're fresh ideas — exciting to play with; a counter-culture explanation to the crazy stuff we're seeing play out in front of us. But these ideas are already worn out and drooping everywhere else.
Remember when some New Zealanders decided to set alight 5G cell towers? That was already happening in Britain and the United States way before anyone here picked up lighter fluid and matches.
Back in 2020, as Covid conspiracy theories started to merge with 5G conspiracy theories, I started documenting conspiracy theory culture on my newsletter, Webworm. It was my way of staying sane and processing what I was seeing around me. Watching Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern give those early press conferences two years ago, the comments rolled in underneath: "5G is the cause of Covid-19!" said one. That theory came and went, and ideas like "shedding" and "Covid isn't real" took their place.
There's also this idea that New Zealanders are practical beasts: No. 8 wire maestros. Masters of our own destiny, incapable of being influenced by outside ideas.
But when it comes to bad ideas, we soak them up from overseas like a sponge. The pandemic didn't help this phenomenon. Locked in our homes during that first month-long lockdown, we were glued to our Facebook pages, watching terrible ideas from America wash in. "Plandemic" was shared by your annoying uncle, or maybe your parents. A slick piece of propaganda — playing on all the documentary tropes we've learnt from Netflix — became many people's reality.
I documented in real time Billy Te Kahika jnr's Facebook posts over that time. Originally supporting Jacinda Ardern's reaction to Covid, within several months Billy became an entirely different beast, spouting conspiracy theories galore. He went into politics, failed miserably, and today is mostly raving about aliens on Facebook. Now Sue Gray — a more accessible, white face to the crazy — screams about dead children and vaccine deaths.
Many of our biggest pentecostal and evangelical churches also drank the Kool-Aid, taking their adherents down an anti-science route that questioned whether Covid was real, or if masks worked. It's one thing for a church to deny evolution, it's another for it to deny modern science that will affect public health outcomes. "All those needles going into the arm, it's like they're trying to wear me down!" said the leader of one megachurch. "We do know it has not been fully approved by the FDA ..." he raved on. He was wrong.
The media tended to focus on Destiny Church's Brian Tamaki, as he was the loudest and strangest, but it was City Impact Church pastor Peter Mortlock who drove to the Wellington "protest" to livestream his thoughts.
The protest itself was just another example of borrowed ideas. Canada had done it first with their trucker convoy and the truckers had swiped their playbook from the American alt-right. In all "protests" — American, Canadian and Kiwi — images and references to the Nuremberg trials, calls to put journalists in nooses were in plain sight. One lunatic may have put those signs up but I didn't see any of the protestors rushing to take them down. As police moved in and rioters lit fires, conspiracy theorists streamed it all. "Antifa lit the fires!" they yelled, more Americana on their lips. "They're using microwave weapons against us!" We even stole Havana Syndrome and made it our own.
The fact is, every bad idea dreamed up in American conspiracy theory culture makes its way to New Zealand eventually. Underground tunnels, children drained of their blood for adrenochrome, Sovereign Citizens, the political and entertainment elites in on the plan. There are no fresh ideas in Aotearoa.
Rewind five years, and no one knew what a crisis actor was. The idea that a tragedy like a school shooting could be labelled faked was unheard of. Then Alex Jones started talking about it all the time and "crisis actor" entered the mainstream vernacular. Fast forward to this year, and the families of Sandy Hook successfully sued Jones for spreading lies.
Years later, New Zealand decided to jump on our own false flag theories. Suddenly Aotearoa's own version of Infowars appeared — broadcast on Steve Bannon's network, of course. It praised an upcoming documentary positing that the Christchurch terror attack was a false flag operation. That the victims were crisis actors. Even the trailer — illegal to watch in New Zealand as it contains some of the shooter's footage — borrows stylistically from American documentary Loose Change, released in 2005.
Loose Change went viral before YouTube had entered our consciousness, making popular the idea that 9/11 didn't involve terrorists hijacking planes but that explosives had been planted in the towers by the US Government. The planes? Holograms. Now, 17 years later, New Zealand is getting its own Loose Change.
I talked to a professor from Miami last year, who specialised in tracking the spread of conspiracy theories. At one point he started yelling at me about modern conspiracy culture: "Make up something f***ing new, so that I can actually give a s***!"
Bill Gates may be the current bogeyman but before him it was George Soros and the Rockefellers, Freemasons and the Rothschilds. It's all the same stuff, recycled — as people desperately look for a "big bad" to explain all the stressful problems they face.
And the past few years have been incredibly stressful. Conspiracy theories offer a simple (and sometimes exciting) explanation. Suddenly you can be drawn into your own action film, solving puzzles online with your Facebook, Gab and Telegram buddies. It's the Da Vinci Code but worse — a mess of misinformation written in real time by a swarm of armchair detectives.
I've written hundreds of pieces now, much of it focused on the United States and Aotearoa. And not once has New Zealand beaten the US to a bad idea in conspiracy land. We put our own spin on it (I think of that woman ranting about her dead lamb oozing black goo) but there's no originality to be found.
For the past few months, I've had an anonymous Covid denier regularly email me expletive-fuelled diatribes about my collusion with the Government. He ticked off every recent Covid conspiracy theory under the sun. He also called me every insult under the sun, mostly relating to genitalia.
I found out who he was: an older white man who was a Hare Krishna. I wrote about him on Webworm (calling him by his Hare Krishna name, so he could avoid public embarrassment). He wrote to me shortly afterwards. "Am I ashamed at my own behaviour? I've been way too consumed by the goings-on over the last two years. I haven't stepped back for a breather."
It's my hope that New Zealanders who have fallen down the rabbit hole can step back for a breather. They've been inhaling largely American ideas via algorithms and chat apps for years now. It's enough to make anyone lose their mind. Many of them will never trust the media again.
But I have some small hope that some of them will pause — perhaps putting down Facebook for Wordle and solving puzzles that don't involve a worldwide conspiracy. And I hope they will realise, and be grateful, that New Zealand — in light of recent world events — is actually pretty darn free.
David Farrier is the editor of newsletter Webworm.