About two weeks ago, I was trying to finish whatever needed to be done before Auckland's level 3 restrictions kicked in.
My cousin had been unexpectedly admitted to hospital (she's fine now). I wanted to get to her, check in on the kids, and run my own errands before the Wednesday noon deadline set in.
In the context of 2020, there was nothing particularly remarkable about the morning's activities. What does stand out is a series of messages I received from an acquaintance. We'd met a while back through work and he's what I'd call "good people". Despite a tough few years of job uncertainty, made worse by the pandemic, he'd continued to work at improving his corner of the world. I liked his take on things, and we'd stayed in touch over the years, catching up sporadically.
That morning he messaged about the shift to level 3, then pivoted to a theory from Billy Te Kahika Jr of the New Zealand Public Party (NZPP). It predicted a lockdown before the election would be in the interests of the current government and Prime Minister. According to him, today's events further validated information Te Kahika had been promoting.
There was no anger or emotion in the messages. In fact, the tone was similar to many of our other exchanges - matter of fact and direct. Only this time, it made me sad. His messages hung around in my head for the rest of the morning. Eventually, they settled into one overarching question: What happened to you?
If only it was that simple.
Since the Covid-19 pandemic began, the popularity of conspiracy theories has soared. Ideas that used to be assigned to "the fringe" have spread rapidly online and captured tens of thousands of believers. Te Kahika has been particularly captivating. Through social media platforms, he's built a large following which regularly sees him run through ideas related to the pandemic, state control, health measures and the list goes on. They seem to be anchored in the Agenda 2030/Agenda 21 theory, which claims the UN Sustainable Development Goals Programme - also called Agenda 2030 - is a secret way for the global elite to control the world.
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Yes, it's hard to get my head around all of that without spinning into a tizz. However, this year, it's become acutely clear that some understanding of what conspiracy theories are about is important. Why? Because they're starting to land in my lap, move through people I know and make their way into everyday conversation - and not in a funny way.
So, in an effort to reconcile how someone I'd known and respected for years had become part of that, I went over some of our more recent communications. Truthfully, the information coming from my end was pretty dire. The first mention of NZPP was a request I attend their Auckland launch. He outlined why the party was important to him, mentioned his normal aversion to backing politicians, and outlined why this was different. Promises to secure the Treaty of Waitangi in a constitutional framework, and a less divisive political structure were highlighted. They were earnest comments and I failed to respond with due courtesy. I said I was busy and would not be attending but was keen to catch up in the near future. Notably, I made zero effort to address any of the political talk.
The next exchange which stands out is around queries regarding coverage of NZPP and Te Kahika in the mainstream media. He believed he was getting a rough time and wanted to know what I thought. Again, I declined to engage and dismissed the subject by saying I hadn't caught up with the coverage. In fact, I changed the topic entirely by following with a message asking where we should go for coffee.
In hindsight, it was not the right thing to do. Declining to engage because of my own disdain for Te Kahika did not help the situation. Tina Ngata, a researcher whose work crosses heavily into conspiracy theories, articulates the difficulties well. She believes those who can be engaged in a productive discussion about extreme beliefs should be. "If it's somebody very close to me…. I'll probably engage with them a little bit. I'll just say, 'You know, I love you and I say this with love. But what you're saying here, what you're suggesting, does not mesh with my understanding. And I actually think it's harmful,'" she told RNZ.
Staring at my phone that day, I couldn't help but think I'd missed the boat. I'd spent three months avoiding any substantive conversation and was now being confronted with real opposition to public health measures for the current Covid-19 cluster. In a long message, I set out the evidence for restrictions, steering clear of any politicians and politics. I touched on harm from misinformation and referenced public health experts. Most of all, I hoped it was enough. Because if someone ignored genuine questions I'd been asking for months, I know how difficult it would be to take anything they said seriously if it came only as the timing suited them. It's a mistake I won't make again.