Cabinet minister Andrew Little is no shrinking violet. He has history as a pugnacious union leader who doesn’t back down and a reputation as a hard man to budge on a point of principle.
“I’ve had moments in the last couple of years where I’ve felt less safe than I have before,” he says when asked about the rising tide of anger in New Zealand.
That increase in anger was such that security agencies this year said they couldn’t separate those who were just shouting from those whose anger is such that they want to harm and hurt. As a result, the NZ Security Intelligence Service has released a guide to identifying signs of violent extremism.
“There’s no question more people are feeling a lot more pressure,” he says. For context, he says, it seems people have had their “lives disrupted way more in the last few years than since the Second World War”.
We’ve been on this track for a while, as has the world, and the current level of unsettled anger has many roots. The strongest, most obvious of those is thought to be the global financial crisis (GFC) of 2008.
And then came Covid-19, slipping a chisel into society’s cracks and hammering it with restrictions on freedom, isolation from others and the ever-present threat of contracting a disease that has now killed 6.6 million people across the world.
In the 32 months since that 2020 lockdown, New Zealand and the world have seen a rising tide of anger.
Now we face an election year that has prompted concerns over escalating anger and a threat of violence. The Herald understands those involved in protecting our politicians have sincere concerns they may face violent physical attacks.
Throughout this journey, politicians have become a focus for expressions of anger. British Labour Party MP Jo Cox was stabbed to death in 2016 by someone seeking to advance the cause of white supremacy and Nazi-style nationalism.
In 2019, Green Party co-leader James Shaw was punched repeatedly by a man upset over abortion policy. Deputy Prime Minister Grant Robertson now has a security detail where predecessors did not.
In the United States last month Paul Pelosi, the husband of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, was severely beaten with a hammer. Attacker David DePape told police he was sick of “lies coming out of Washington DC”.
The attack led to President Joe Biden telling the US it was engaged in a battle for the “soul of the nation”. He described the Republican Party and former President Donald Trump as representing “an extremism that threatens the very foundations of our Republic”.
In the wake of the attack on Pelosi, Biden said: “There’s too much violence, political violence. Too much hatred. Too much vitriol. What makes us think it’s not going to corrode the political climate? Enough is enough is enough.”
The root of our anger
There are difficulties in talking about where this anger has come from. The reasons for it are complex and some of the threads and connections sound far-fetched until you sit down and track the pathway from its origins.
For example, it might sound like a conspiracy theory to suggest Russia has influenced the social media landscape, yet there is evidence it manipulated US views on vaccines before the pandemic and maliciously influenced New Zealand audiences during it.
There is also difficulty because the feared “endpoint” of the anger also sounds like over-reach. Biden has spoken of how the “extremism” driving the anger could undo the ties that bind the US together. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has offered similar warnings, saying “disinformation corrodes the foundation of liberal democracy”.
As far-fetched as that might seem, the disinformation-peddling Voices for Freedom urged followers to seek public office in recent local body elections and work towards making the country “ungovernable”.
There is some clarity to be found in seeking markers prior to the pandemic. The “Brave Project” - a European think-tank called Building Resilience against Violent Extremism and Polarisation - published a report in 2019 describing Europe’s growing polarisation.
It found the GFC at the heart of a decade-long path to a polarised Europe. The austerity policies which followed led to many becoming disillusioned with the political parties and practices they associated with financial insecurity and declining living standards.
It cited research showing how such problems encouraged voters along the political spectrum to the far-right where they encountered previously marginal views on issues such as immigration, identity and law and order that then became mainstream, or normal, parts of the discussion.
Traditional media exacerbated polarisation with coverage that itself leaned towards highlighting extremes, Brave found, and a focus on “risk narratives” around migration and refugees, welfare and security.
Brave pointed to research that showed the emergence of “trigger events” in which mainstream media coverage of a specific situation became supercharged once in the hands of social media. In that sphere, those “trigger events” would be “catalysed by social media to recirculate alarmist or outright false news, creating [mis]information or filter bubbles that reinforce polarisation”.
People consuming that content would be steered to more of the same by the algorithms used by social media companies. That grouped people into communities of interest where an “echo chamber” effect “constructs the appearance that fringe views are mainstream”. It’s a process that shares common ground with brainwashing.
Then along came the biggest “trigger event” of all - Covid-19 - and people became more polarised. And they got even angrier.
Difficult times for NZ
“We’ve been through some very difficult things as a country,” says NZSIS (New Zealand Security Intelligence Service) director-general Rebecca Kitteridge, describing the backdrop of our lives.
The GFC was well under way when the Christchurch earthquakes happened. Then there’s the Pike River disaster, the March 15 attacks on two Christchurch mosques, the pandemic, the deaths on Whakaari/White Island.
And then events across the rest of the world, such as the war in Ukraine. “It feels like there’s something of an inflection point,” she says - a point in time where significant change is taking place “where the post-WWII world order is being contested in a way we haven’t seen before.”
There are other changes within our society too, says distinguished professor Paul Spoonley, co-director of the newly established Centre of Research Excellence for Preventing and Countering Violent Extremism.
How we work and where we work is one of those transformative events. Other stressors include an increasingly ageing population and the lack of offshore labour in a country that had come to rely on a migrant workforce.
Technology changes saw growth in social media accompanied by a rise in disinformation and the ecosystems in which it flourishes. “Good democratic process requires good information,” Spoonley says. “We’ve been very slow to understand the deliberate feeding of disinformation from hostile foreign countries.”
Amidst this is a growing regional divergence. There are parts of the country doing well and parts of the country that are not - and they know it.
“One of the things that drive people to more extreme viewpoints is a sense of economic uncertainty,” he says, in an echo of Europe’s Brave report from 2019. With that, he says is a “sense they’re not being listened to or reflected in politics”.
Think of the time we are living in as a landscape, says Kate Hannah, director of The Disinformation Project, an independent research group that started studying false and misleading information in February 2020.
Events such as Covid-19 and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine are “once-in-a-lifetime flood events” which washed over a landscape already suffering erosion in the form of disenfranchised people, critical infrastructure requiring investment and other societal ills.
Those huge events - say, the pandemic - showed “we hadn’t planted enough trees” to protect against erosion, or whatever the societal mitigation factors were.
Working on these pressure points are social media channels in which anger and violence thrive.
Asked about comparative time periods, Hannah offers two that match Kitteridge’s reference to an “inflection point” - points where the tectonic plates of history shifted.
Hannah puts forward England’s Chartist Reforms of the 19th Century in which the masses sought suffrage. Her second offering, and one which inflames opposition to her work, is 1930s Germany and the rise of the Nazi Party to power.
That latter example highlights the exclusionary nature of today’s anti-authority movements. Social media channels for those groups lean heavily on dogma which aligns the shift far to the right described in the pre-pandemic report from the European think-tank Brave. Woven through it are white supremacist touchstones, such as homophobic, racist and transphobic slurs.
Hannah describes it as mirroring the pathway that took Germany to genocide. It starts by pointing at groups as saying: “These people are not allowed to be in my community.” It shifts to: “They are not allowed to be in my country.” Finally, it says: “They are not allowed to be.”
It is a conversation loaded with language that dehumanises those who are excluded and desensitises those who speak it to the concept of violence against those opposed.
With an election year coming, it creates a charged and volatile atmosphere in which anti-authority groups will seek to be involved. “They want to make the country ungovernable. They’re going to get involved. They’re going to disrupt.”
Expect to see organised and pointed heckling, intimidation, and increasing use of false and misleading information to cast doubt on the legitimacy of the electoral process.
“MPs’ and candidates’ safety should be much more closely thought about and planned for which will feed into narratives about a lack of transparency.”
The physical threat will not come from those groups but from individuals drawn to those groups and compelled by their dialogue.
If there is violence, Hannah’s view is that the attacker will be a young man, likely with a history of mental health issues. He won’t be the motivator of the group. He will be the person at the edge of it.
“He won’t be the person talking the violence. He’s the person who will be thinking it.”
In line with Hannah’s description, others interviewed for this piece rejected the term “lone wolf” to describe these solitary actors. It’s a term that was in vogue to describe people such as the Christchurch mosque attacker or the Norwegian terrorist who was an inspiring force but one which overlooked the connection those people had to a supportive ecosystem.
How anger works
Rising levels of anger in the community can be pinned to “prolonged stress” brought about by Covid-19 and measures to manage it, says Victoria University of Wellington clinical psychologist Dr Dougal Sutherland.
“Anger is a natural human emotion. It’s giving us a message - something is irritating us that might be threatening us. There’s nothing wrong with the emotion itself. It’s the behaviours that can get us into trouble.”
If it were war, then the anger would be directed at an enemy. With a pandemic, people can’t see a virus and a virus doesn’t care if you’re angry or not.
“So our anger gets redirected towards those we believe are responsible.”
The nature of conspiracy theories is they offer explanations for otherwise random events. Instead of prompting the question, “why me?”, they offer answers. Many of the conspiracy theories about Covid-19 focus on the supposedly secret motives of those in power.
For those who have embraced such fantastical theories, there is support in finding others who hold the same or similar beliefs. Says Sutherland: “Often when we share an emotion and have it validated by other people, it can keep it going. If you find other people who are also angry about the same thing, that magnifies it for everybody.”
And now, in our constantly connected world, it’s easy to find others who share your anger - or “prompts” in the world to keep it going. “You don’t get the opportunity to come down off that wave because there are constant triggers.”
With Covid-19, the daily 1pm briefing would provide a daily anger top-up for those angered by the pandemic or the restrictions that came with it.
If the anger is linked to the pandemic, then it will maintain as long as the trigger issues are present. “If you’re associating the Government or Prime Minister with it then as long as she is around, it doesn’t allow you to forget because she’s a reminder.”
Grievance is an important concept to grasp, says forensic psychiatrist Dr Justin Barry-Walsh, who is co-leader of the Fixated Threat Assessment Centre, a new agency formed to identify people who might harm those who work in, or for, Parliament.
“At an individual level, these people develop over time a sense of profound injustice and increasing anger over something or someone.
“Instead of letting it go, they tend to fester on it … their thinking about it becomes disproportionate and it takes over their lives. It consumes them, makes them unhappy, they lose friends.”
And yet, those living with this don’t see they have fallen out of kilter. Rather, as Barry-Walsh says, there is “social currency in being the whistleblower” and “the person who stands for justice”. These people construct a narrative in which they are the hero, he says, and often portray a smugness rooted in their belief they hold the answers.
‘Why don’t you care?’
“Why don’t you care?” was the angry accusation posed by a grandmother to her daughter as the pandemic ground on.
In this family, the anger and polarisation that has rifted our society have pushed children, parents and grandparents apart.
In the months after the pandemic hit, the daughter told the Herald how she watched her mother fall down the conspiracy theory rabbit hole.
“She started posting things about the Prime Minister. She went hard on Facebook.”
It wasn’t the political difference but the way her mother was speaking that shocked her. Instead of referring to Ardern by name or job, her mother used increasingly offensive derogatory terms.
“You look for answers … maybe she’s getting dementia.” Suggesting her mother seek mental health support didn’t go down well. “I didn’t know what else to do. I needed to do something. I was losing her.”
Also unwelcome was rejection of online content she sent from mother to daughter. “I’d say, ‘it’s bulls***’ or ‘it’s a conspiracy theory’ and that would make her angry.” Time between visits lengthened as the daughter sought to avoid confrontation.
When they did catch up, her mother appeared a different woman. “She would be loud, shouting, swearing - ‘why don’t you care?’. I do care about all these things but I don’t believe the elite have a paedophile ring and are trying to take over the world.”
Over that time, she witnessed her mother become ensnared by Facebook - constantly consuming content and sharing it. “Some of those videos were hours long. That’s all she watched.
“That’s when I started to distance myself a bit more. And then I would get angry because of how it affects everybody and everything and how much she has missed of her kids’ and grandkids’ lives.
“There’s been way too much hurt and damage. Now she’s pretty much removed herself from our lives. We hardly talk any more because I’m still too upset. I don’t feel like she deserves to know more about my life at the moment.”
And her mother continues on, “absolutely committed to what she is doing and what she believes”. Radicalised? “Yes, that’s what it felt like.”