Chantelle Baker has turned the support generated at the Parliament protests last year into a donation stream that has funded her new career. But how did she become the queen of New Zealand’s alternate-reality ecosystem, asks David Fisher.
Chantelle Baker got to Hawke’s Bay before the mud had dried and quickly found familiar faces.
“Out with some local legends that I met a year ago at the amazing Parliament Protest,” she wrote on Twitter, posting a photograph of herself with a group of women pitching in. “So wonderful to connect with loving people who are now getting stuck in and helping out Hawke’s Bay.”
Baker entered the disaster zone in the wake of a fundraising campaign to get water to Wairoa, despite relief organisations urging people to send money and stay clear of the area.
In two days, Baker’s media company Operation People stated $13,565 was raised and published invoices showing about $750 went on water with the remainder spent on containers in which to store it (about $1700) and helicopters to fly it in. By the time it got there, military desalination plants were producing around three times the amount of water daily.
Baker posted about the success of the water delivery then set about telling stories of the disaster, as did fellow conspiracy influencers “Farmer James”, Lingo Lewi and Mana News Live.
These were also familiar faces from the protest at Parliament. During the 23 days it lasted, they produced footage and stories from inside the protest - a place traditional reality-based media struggled to report from with Covid-19 spreading and where wearing a mask could earn a death threat and a physical confrontation.
Baker’s empathetic broadcasts from outside the Beehive saw viewers flock to her 100,000-follower Facebook channel. Across that month, more people watched her videos than two mainstream media outlets combined. On the final day of the protest Baker’s livestream views soared to one million.
Stand by to see - and particularly hear - more of Baker. The network Voices for Freedom, which pushes conspiracy theories, has launched Reality Check Radio with Baker as one of its main stars, along with former Act leader Rodney Hide, former Radio NZ newsreader Paul Brennan and former TVNZ newsreader Peter Williams.
It is the New Zealand evolution of an alternate-reality ecosystem seeded before Covid-19 then super-charged by the pandemic.
In the year since the protest at Parliament, Baker has turned the support generated there into a donation stream that has funded a new career.
“Your help has enabled me to leave my full-time job, get better equipment and fly around our country filming important stories,” she told donors mid-year.
That was shortly before jetting to Europe with camera operator and partner Jacob White. There, they went to the $700-a-head Better Way Media Conference in Vienna, the latest in a series of “Better Way” branded conferences described in Vice News as a “who’s who” of “global anti-vax influencers”.
“We really wanted to connect with other like-minded people but also to learn a lot off other people as well,” Baker said in a video shot at the conference. “(We’re going to ) connect with people, build some strong relationships internationally.”
Baker travelled across Europe interviewing those whose views aligned with the broader alt-right conspiracy movement. Among those was Thierry Baudet, a Dutch nationalist politician whose beliefs include the conspiracy the September 11 attacks were carried out by the United States, that the world is controlled by a secret reptile race and that Russian leader Vladimir Putin is “a hero we need”.
“I think it’s fantastic Putin exists,” he tells Baker, casting the war in Ukraine as Russia standing against globalism.
From there, Baker and White went to Ukraine on a quick visit during which she spoke about the fashion worn by women there, nail salons and restaurants. She was seeing a different Ukraine than that depicted in the media, she said. It was a broadcast taken by some to be pro-Russian, which Baker has denied she is.
While in Europe, Baker and White got engaged, capping a life-changing year.
So here she is in 2023 as one of two full-time staff employed by Operation People producing what looks like news and sounds like news.
Rather, Chantelle Baker has carved out a niche for herself pushing conservative and alt-right talking points from the United States.
And that’s the baggage that travelled with her to Hawke’s Bay where disaster had struck and the alternative-reality media flocked to join those others reporting on Cyclone Gabrielle.
If you’re looking for a difference, no one in mainstream media was telling disaster-struck, anxious and fearful Hawke’s Bay residents to arm themselves with firearms against looters.
Two days after arriving in Hawke’s Bay she advised people on how to get through the disaster: “You need a firearm (or two) [because] desperate people will act desperately. Looters often work in crews and if they see you have something they need you are in danger. NZ makes this very difficult however personal protection is essential.”
The ‘river of filth’
Chantelle Baker was one of the “Disinformation Dozen” identified by The Disinformation Project, an academic research group that tracks false and misleading claims.
Those dozen alt-news outlets produced 73 per cent of false or misleading New Zealand-based content found on Facebook during the 23-day occupation. On some days, alt-news views equalled or exceeded the views on reality-based media.
By February 2022, Covid-19 mitigation measures such as closed borders and bans on gatherings such as funerals caused anguish to many, exacerbated by conspiracy theories claiming none of it was necessary.
When the convoy turned up at Parliament, there were many genuine, everyday citizens who wanted the border opened, mandates dropped or change on issues. Among them were less palatable protesters whose aims were less clear. Cabinet minister Michael Wood used the words “river of filth” to describe the white supremacists, anti-Semites, Islamophobes and those inclined to violence.
It’s a coalesced group which maintains today, says Distinguished Professor Emeritus Paul Spoonley, co-director of the Centre of Excellence for Preventing and Countering Violent Extremism.
Spoonley describes the evolution of the protest movement as one built on rejection of society’s academic, media and political structures. As a result, it has since developed its own story-tellers, experts and leaders.
“There’s a new side-stream (rather than mainstream) media economy that’s been established. The person who is most astute and skilled in terms of public-facing media presence is Chantelle.”
Spoonley puts the presence of such alt-news actors in Hawke’s Bay as evidence of genuine concern but also a reflection of the need to find a new cause or a way to create a fresh momentum as Covid-19 as an issue fades.
“The question for me is what would keep that broad spectrum together. I think the general election this year will be a real test of the stability of these politics.”
The development of the New Zealand alt-news ecosystem is an extension of what has happened internationally as those with views at the fringe sought to adopt what Massey University associate professor Sean Phelan calls “the legitimacy of journalistic totems”.
By adopting traditional media terms such as “holding power to account”, Phelan says it allowed those pursuing a particular cause to use the language of accountability, openness and transparency to justify their practices. Such could be seen in the United States with the growth of far-right media outlets “where judgments about who or what should be ‘held to account’ follow a culture wars script and playbook”.
“(Those journalistic terms) can give a veneer of legitimacy to even the most reactionary ideas, as if to appeal to the common sense notion who could be against accountability and transparency.
“In some ways, the people that are now most fixated on the virtues of a traditional model of journalism are on the far-right.”
University of East Anglia political scientist Professor Alan Finlayson studied shifts in content and style of political rhetoric across an expanding digital landscape. In a recent research paper, he said connectivity and technology had changed the way political ideas and ideologies were produced, distributed and received.
Into that space were what he called “ideological entrepreneurs”. The monopoly on politics held by traditional politicians had been broken by social media meaning “ever more people may audition for and get the part”.
Finlayson pointed to research on how social media algorithms filtered what people saw or did not see, funneling the online audience to content similar to that which they had previously watched. While other researchers have critiqued the pathway as one towards radicalisation, Finlayson said it “enables otherwise disaggregated political constituencies to take definite shape”.
In doing so, it expanded “the range of publicly effective political ideologies bringing what were extremes into the mainstream”.
YouTube - on which Operation People has a channel - had seen “the emergence from political fandom of new kinds of ideological entrepreneur, branded by their political character and able to sell directly to whatever publics they can find, cultivate and retain”.
For those who did so, he said it was possible to make a “professional” living from politics while staying “independent of a party or professional media and so free from the accountability and regulation these entail”.
The consequence was “radically changing” who could operate in the public sphere, “what they can say, who they say it to, how they say it and why”.
In a research paper, he wrote: “These ‘ideological entrepreneurs’ can cater to all kinds of niche political taste at low cost with potentially high rewards if they can cultivate and keep an audience, stimulating enthusiasm and participation.”
Baker’s ‘full on confidence’
“I don’t think I’m ever one of those people that is really really liked. I don’t think I’ve ever been like that ... I think my confidence is quite full on,” Chantelle Baker said in 2015.
Aged 22, she was one of four “Ladies of NZ” taking part in a reality TV-style week-long encounter organised by ZM FM.
Baker was not long back from living in Melbourne and running a fashion store she part-owned in rural Rangiora. Called CRI Boutique, it ran under the company name Le Dernier Mot Ltd, the French meaning “the last word”.
Baker was a 20 per cent shareholder with Canterbury stalwart Catherine McMillan holding the balance of shares. “I had an interest in fashion,” said McMillan. “Chantelle was working in fashion. I decided I’d have a bit of a ‘play’, I suppose you’d call it, in the fashion industry.”
McMillan knew Baker from childhood through her parents. “She was good in the shop. She was lively, fun, very personable and helped people.” It lasted a year, brought to an end by a personal event in McMillan’s family. The resulting voluntary liquidation reports show balanced books.
McMillan sits as a director on boards, contributes energy and time to community endeavours and worked as general manager at Environment Canterbury. She describes herself as having a passion for people “finding their space and being who they want to be”.
It was a characteristic McMillan saw in Baker “and she brought that to helping people choose the right clothes”.
The boutique reflected, the Herald was told, Baker’s interest in being stylishly dressed and presenting well. And she had big ambitions for the shop - organising fashion shoots and modelling some of the clothing herself.
“She was obsessed with appearance and how she looked,” said a friend from the time.
Life then and in the years following was a carefree mix of searching for a career and socialising in a way that diverged from her conservative religious upbringing. It wasn’t any different from others her age and generation but it was a different life than that her parents lived.
Baker went from working for herself to working for others - GJ Gardener Homes and then Aurora Financial, an investment advice company. One friend from the time described Baker as chafing at the restrictions imposed by her positions and roles, often seeing a larger role for herself in a task than her employer might.
And while she always had her parents’ support, the life she was leading and the lifestyle they advocated was different.
The friend said it had been a surprise to see over the last 18 months “she was supporting some of her father’s beliefs”.
“She disagreed with a lot of her parents’ views.” In doing so, it meant Baker struggled to integrate her life with her family roots.
The friend said Baker’s broadcasts - from the first one with Leighton Baker in mid-2021 - would have been a welcome embrace. “She used to be the black sheep. Now she’s the golden child.”
In an interview with the Herald, Baker’s dad Leighton - a former New Conservative’s leader - doesn’t describe it exactly that way. It’s the nature of growing up that children go off and find their own way in the world, he said. “You just carry on that relationship and it gets closer again.”
He doesn’t recall Baker having an interest in media growing up. “She always had a great eye for layout and what works.”
Baker’s path to “news personality” - as she describes herself - began with a video broadcast hosted by Leighton Baker during an August 2021 lockdown. In it, Baker ranks Covid-19 as equivalent to the flu. At the time, the more virulent strain Delta was driving up hospital admissions across the world.
She said: “Then I thought ‘why would our government, or any government - Australia or otherwise - want to shut down our whole country when we’re looking at a death rate that is so small’.”
Baker’s answer was to string together a theory based on speculation about Britain’s Covid pass and China’s social credit system which allows or disallows certain citizen rights based on metrics developed by the government.
“The whole point of this is that they can give us all a social credit rating, and then change our life choices and dictate where we can live, where we can travel, who we can be, based on this credit system. It is terrifying.
“But we’re not allowed to talk openly about it ... and you and I have both seen multiple pages shut down that have been speaking truth about this. I don’t know how a government is justifying doing this to its own people.”
By December 2021, Baker was doing her own videos. In the first, she talks of fear she would lose her job because of the video broadcast with her father, explains that the job keeps her from full-time broadcasting while berating people for not being “braver” and doing interviews with her.
“I’m so gutted that this is happening, that people are segregating, that friends and families are turning on each other.” Baker stops, choking back tears. “This just isn’t the country that we signed up for.”
On January 10 2022, according to a later broadcast, Baker quit her job to focus full-time on broadcasting. She joined the Waitangi weekend convoy as it passed through Christchurch, arriving at Parliament grounds with those who had travelled south from Cape Reinga.
And there they stayed for 23 days with Baker livestreaming, building a profile and gathering followers.
“Obviously something deep inside me knew that I need to have my full-time job being making videos and speaking to you guys even though, of course, at the time it felt like a really big step,” she said later, looking back on 2022.
“Because the...livestreams I did had a really big impact on the amount of people came and had a big impact on how the public managed to see the Parliament protest and the protesters.”
She faced a question: “What is my role in this? How can I best serve New Zealand and what would that look like?”
It looks like this - Baker’s rhetoric is largely anchored in conservative right-wing talking points from the United States. Those include abortion, transphobic statements, describing drag queen readings to children as “grooming” and perversion, an anti-abortion stance centred on mental damage to women who choose abortions and endorsing gun ownership for personal protection.
There’s also been the pushing of far-right claims about secret US bioweapons labs in the Ukraine, calls to restrict immigration from Muslim countries, claims the Pfizer vaccine is “experimental”, that Covid is being used to control populations, claims the government is restricting free speech, doubt cast on virus mortality figures and regular attacks on The Disinformation Project.
And always there was her base - those who protested at Parliament. As Baker said in one broadcast, “I thought they need someone to stand up and defend them, someone who was more balanced and reasonable ... who realises these people are not scum of the earth”.
She distances herself from the talk of violence in an environment in which police became increasingly involved in death threats against politicians, from 38 cases in 2019 to 101 in 2022. Threats against former Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern went from 18 in 2019 to 60 in 2022.
But Baker says people should be able to make the threats. In an interview with Pat Brittenden for his online Big Hairy News show, she said: “I don’t think this government or the media respects the amount of pain everyday citizens have been put through. People are allowed to say unvaccinated people should die. That’s been the rhetoric when the vaccine first rolled out.
“So people are allowed to say that but the unvaccinated aren’t allowed to say “screw you” or “I wish I could put a bullet through Jacinda”, which I agree is terrible to say and I would personally never say it, but I support their right to say it.”
Is Chantelle Baker a journalist?
Chantelle Baker doesn’t consider herself a journalist. In the interview with Brittenden, she said: “People call me that but I don’t think I’ve ever called myself that.”
In a 2014 defamation case, former Whale Oil blogger Cameron Slater was ruled by the High Court as qualifying as a journalist. The basis for the finding was Slater received and disseminated news on a regular basis through his outlet and derived revenue as a result. The judgment offered no finding on the accuracy or quality of Slater’s work.
AUT senior journalism lecturer Dr Greg Treadwell sees Baker as an “activist”. “I don’t think she’s a journalist.”
The difference, he says, is an activist would be “certain they’re right and this is what drives you ... if you don’t want to hear the other side of the story, if nothing will change your mind”.
“She doesn’t appear to me in any way to be interested in the other side of the story. The reason I could never be an activist is because I could see the other side of the story.”
Treadwell said a “central function” of journalism is verification. “If your mother says she loves you, check it out,” is the maxim delivered to students.
The question of who is and isn’t a journalist is increasingly complex, he said. As the means for gathering and distributing information increase, more people find themselves in a space where the label “journalist” becomes meaningful.
Among the range of principles of journalism is a nine-step code quoted by Treadwell. It states journalism’s first obligation is to the truth and its first loyalty to citizens. From there, verification, independence, holding power to account, allowing public criticism, reporting news in a proportional way that makes the significant interesting while allowing for the exercise of the journalist’s conscience.
In news organisations, it’s a framework that settles across editorial offices where, said Treadwell, a “socialisation” effect reinforces ethical and professional responsibilities.
“There’s a lot of things that look like journalism but aren’t. Public relations is one of them, propaganda is another.”
In July last year, Baker and others from the alt-news crowd headed to Dunedin where The Disinformation Project director Kate Hannah was speaking to an Otago university science fair crowd at a ticketed event.
Work monitoring disinformation networks has seen security become a constant feature of Hannah’s life with those wedded to false and misleading narratives seeking to take their frustration out on her. That includes being on the receiving end of death threats.
Wearing a mask and a baseball cap pulled low, Baker and Phil Shaw, a former soldier who owns a third of the Operation People company, sat in the front row. Behind the pair was someone who filmed throughout despite a clear request at the beginning of Hannah’s talk not to do so.
Dunedin bar owner Dudley Benson was in the crowd. He knew of Baker through her past friendship with one of his sisters. “She had the image of a party girl. Chantelle has craved attention. That hasn’t changed but the way she is seeking it has changed.”
When Hannah’s talk ended and she called for questions, Baker “put her hand up, was given the microphone and said she was Chantelle Baker”. “There was a palpable shock that she was there.”
Benson alleged Baker used a false name to access the event and that she disguised herself with the cap and mask. Baker has been asked for comment and not responded.
By Benson’s assessment - and Hannah’s - Baker was less interested in questions on topic than making a statement and quizzing the academic on where her funding came from. Currently, The Disinformation Project is philanthropically funded but its past research contracts have been painted by alt-news as a taxpayer-funded plot to restrict free speech.
Hannah had already spotted “Farmer James” and “Lingo Lewi”, two conspiracy influencers, sitting in different parts of the room. When Baker identified herself, she knew there were conspiracy-courting individuals in at least three parts of the room.
Benson put his own hand up, interrupting Baker. “I’ve got an actual question,” he said. Hannah answered it and set out to continue with the question-and-answer session when concerned security called the event to a close. “The security team had control of overall safety,” she said.
Benson struggles to align the younger Baker as a retailer selling fashion in Rangiora with the Baker “at the Parliament protest dressed like a Fox News presenter”.
“She hasn’t always been this way. This is something that has turned in her in the year leading up to the Parliament protest.”
Baker produced a video from the Dunedin ambush titled: “Why did she run away?” In her commentary accompanying the hidden camera footage, Baker told viewers that Hannah had left when confronted and extrapolated her exit into government shutting down unwelcome conversations.
She then said: “You say there is disinformation but where are the examples of it? I’m waiting. New Zealanders are still waiting for these terrible examples of disinformation.”
It’s well-known Baker falsely stated on the day of the protest that police caused the fires which filled the air with black smoke. She corrected the claim later that day.
Also somewhat infamous was Baker’s video monologue claiming the government allowed special rules for Maori and had created “the Maori wards so now people are going to be treated differently based on the colour of their skin when they go to hospital”.
Later on Twitter, Baker said she had misspoken and had meant to refer to the Maori health authority rather than physical hospital wards.
These missteps are not uncommon. In another case, she mistook the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet (the central wheelhouse of the public service, bound by the public servant’s code) for the Prime Minister’s Office in the Beehive where staff work for the politician.
These small errors and missteps are easy to pick up on. The broad brush claims are less straight-forward because, as Benson says , “talking to her it feels like you’re in the face of a strong wind”.
It wasn’t hard to identify potential misinformation beyond the obvious false claims about the seriousness of Covid-19, vaccine injury and claims the pandemic was being used to push digital currencies and population control.
The Herald provided examples of major broad-brush claims to Baker, fact-checked and shown to be wrong. She did not respond to the email or multiple requests for an interview.
Those included claims from an Operation People “investigation” in April 2022 that former Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern had been caught lying about Covid-19 vaccine passports.
Introducing documents obtained through the Official Information Act showing a vaccine passport was in development, Baker said: “They show that, per the timeline, Jacinda Ardern was lying to the public when she said they had not been looking at a passport system.”
A video clip of Ardern was used to support the claim. In it, she did not mention the vaccine passport system, which had actually been forecast since February that year and was not secret. Instead, the supporting comment Baker relied on featured Ardern saying vaccination would not be mandatory - which it was not.
In another instance, a month after Russia invaded Ukraine, Baker told her audience “there’s something more to the Ukraine situation”. She then talked about what she claimed was a Pentagon admission that the United States had built biolabs on the Russian border.
“This is why people should not believe fact-checkers because fact-checkers are terrible at their jobs and they lie and they don’t research,” she said.
The Pentagon statement on which Baker relied didn’t confirm any biolabs. It actually said the opposite by explaining its involvement in an arms control programme in effect since the fall of the Soviet Union. At the time, it was a popular conspiracy theory.
And then there was the emergence of monkeypox. Baker picked up on a popular conspiracy theory based on a think-tank’s 2021 tabletop exercise for disaster preparedness which had used monkeypox as the driving force.
A year later, when the World Health Organisation warned the virus was spreading, it did so on the day nominated in the think tank’s fictitious scenario.
Baker: “I just love coincidences like that especially when they seem to be so remarkably accurate.”
The conspiracy was a follow up to an earlier theory around a 2019 tabletop exercise featuring a coronavirus pandemic. Baker linked these with clear scepticism, saying: “Now, of course, they were talking hypothetically, according to them, just like in 2019 they were talking hypothetically.”
In the background were conspiracy theories that Covid-19 and monkeypox were planned releases of the viruses into the world.
In reality, tabletop exercises are regularly undertaken by national and local governments to plan for eventualities. With the Covid-19 exercise, it was an obvious contender as an example with a long-time expectation there could be a coronavirus outbreak. With monkeypox, it was picked to fit the scenario for the exercise.
A ‘useful idiot’?
Chantelle Baker calls herself a “news personality” and has been described by Hannah as having “a Fox News kind of vibe”.
Leighton Baker is naturally fiercely protective of Baker - “I love her passionately and I don’t like seeing her hurt” - and he is also immensely proud.
“I don’t think she was jumping to get into media. She fell into it just by being (at Parliament during the protest) and telling the story. I think people appreciated that.
“She listened to people. Nobody says you have to believe everything everyone says but you should listen.
“It’s a natural progression (to Operation People). She’s just gone about telling the stories - everyone’s allowed their view. Better if you can back it up with a bit of science then it can be debated and discussed and looked at.”
Hannah of The Disinformation Project said Baker presents in a way compelling to people. Warm and genuine with individuals, she comes across as an empathetic conduit who is “just asking questions”.
With this is the buffer from responsibility with a fresh-faced naivety and the wide-eyed innocence of someone on a voyage of discovery.
Hannah, carefully choosing her words, said. “Chantelle Baker operates as a useful idiot. I’m not saying she is a useful idiot but operates as one.” By “useful idiot”, she means someone who pushes a cause without understanding fully who benefits from her doing so.
Hannah said, in her opinion, there were issues on which Baker had “decided to take a strong personal stance on over the last 12 months (that) are indicative of strings being pulled”. Not that Baker might realise that, she said.
And that’s the backdrop against which this sits. While there are grassroots, organic drivers for the protest movement, much of the gas in the tank comes from offshore.
Baker’s talking points - gun rights, anti-abortion, Islamic immigration and so on - are mirrors for the far right in the US. Like here in New Zealand, those issues have genuine campaigns with real believers but there are other players.
Social media monitoring company Graphika has identified Russian disinformation influence operations aiming at the far right of politics since 2020. Networks of fake accounts spread “inflammatory narratives about sensitive cultural and political issues in the US, including vaccines, gun control, racial injustice, and allegations of child sexual abuse”.
It goes further back. In 2018, scientists at George Washington University found debate around vaccines had for years been skewed by Russia-controlled bots and malicious actors whose intent was to sow discord.
And it’s not just fed to New Zealand through the United States. In the months leading up to the protest at Parliament, a Microsoft study found we had been targeted by Russian disinformation.
In New Zealand and Canada, the months before big protests in each country saw a 30 per cent increase in consumption of disinformation found to have come from Russia.
Like the 2018 vaccine disinformation project, the false and misleading information was aimed at finding a crack in our society and driving a wedge into it.
And it’s not just Russia but China is at it too. The Google-owned Mandiant cyber protection company found Chinese social media influence operations aimed to “sow division both between the US and its allies”, and in the midterm elections, with false and misleading information.
That influence operation included impersonation of trusted spokespeople or organisations, altering news articles to convey a slanted meaning all while under the guise of being all-American social media accounts.
It sounds like a conspiracy itself - authoritarian regimes using specially-trained operatives to develop false online personas to carry out online espionage operations with the aim of destablising Western states.
Unfortunately, this conspiracy theory is true.