Security agencies will be publishing a guide to help the public identify potential terrorists after a dramatic increase in violent talk online has made it difficult to spot those who pose a genuine danger.
It comes after our nation's counter-terrorism specialists raised concern over "anti-authority" narratives in the Covid-19 protest movement leading to increased online rhetoric seeking to justify violence against those leading our pandemic response, including the Prime Minister and director general of health.
The increase in violent language is driven by a sharp growth in false information. Research by The Disinformation Project shows the top dozen fake news distributors were getting as much engagement on social media as 85 mainstream media accounts.
In the wake of the protest at Parliament, Jacinda Ardern highlighted false information as a significant factor in motivating people to join it.
She told the Herald this week she had asked for options to address it in New Zealand.
"Government agencies are working together to look at how we can better combat the spread of mis- and disinformation and it's very clear that it's a whole-of-society approach that's needed."
NZ Security Intelligence Service director general Rebecca Kitteridge told the Herald a declassified version of its Indicators of Violence guidance would be released in a few months to help the public recognise someone who might be preparing to carry out a terror attack.
"We think it will be really helpful for the public to help them to help us effectively by identifying where someone is on that track of a real-world attack.
"I think anybody would be horrified to think that they had stood by or not done something that could have prevented something ghastly happening - people being killed or attacked. This is not about low-level narking. This is about how we encourage people to understand that NZSIS can't do this alone."
Kitteridge said examples of "indicators of violence" included someone with an unusual interest in a crowded place or symbolic location or who was seeking explosive material, firearms or knives without good reason.
Kitteridge said the disinformation and misinformation environment had increased "online noise" and the use of "violent language in a really casual way". She said freedom of expression was a human right, but when linked to violent extremism, or when driven by a hostile foreign state, "disinformation may be a national security issue".
She said it was increasingly difficult for NZSIS to separate those with intent and capability to carry out an attack from those "using violent language in a really casual way".
She said the increased use of violent language "is a real concern for us as a society".
"My concern is that it normalises it. What would be more of a concern is that leads to a real-world attack."
She said anyone aware of a specific threat against an individual or an imminent attack should call police on 111.
Kitteridge said the number of people the NZSIS was investigating had held steady at between 40 and 50. If an attack took place, it was most likely to be a lone actor using easily obtainable weapons who hadn't come to the attention of security services.
Those weapons range from a car to a knife or "there are still many guns that are obtainable".
"And that is a concern that if a person is tipped into that intent to do something in the real world; it is not a difficult thing to do."
The current terrorism threat level was "medium", meaning it was "feasible and could well occur". The most recent Combined Threat Assessment Group (CTAG) report said violent rhetoric was "likely to normalise and encourage violence as a legitimate response to public policy".
It assessed a terrorist attack to be "unlikely" from a movement it describes as "overwhelmingly peaceful" but "cannot discount the possibility of violent protest or sabotage against targets representative of the Covid-19 mitigation programme".
Asked about the Prime Minister and director general of health being named as the focus of violent talk, she said: "For individuals who are connected with politically motivated violent extremism, they may have a whole range of different targets that they hope will achieve their ends.
"The whole definition of a politically motivated violent extremist is a person who wants to achieve their political ends in a violent way. And that's not just about people. That could be infrastructure as well."
The release of the Indicators of Violence guidelines follows similar moves in other countries in the Five Eyes alliance of which New Zealand is a member.
Security agencies in the United States released an expanded version of its "Mobilisation Indicators" report last year saying changes in the threat environment had led to a "heightened threat" of domestic terrorism in Western nations.
Kitteridge said there had also been a shift here from extremists with a clear ideology and purpose to being influenced by a range of "ideologies and groups and beliefs online".
Traditional divides of extremism along faith, identity or political lines had shifted to overlapping and sometimes contradictory ideologies, she said. And in that overlap were politically motivated extremists - such as those opposing Covid-19 mitigation measures - attracted to "anti-authority rhetoric and conspiracy theories".
A spokesman for Meta - the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, which collectively have four billion users - said investments and policies had been introduced to stop the spread of Covid-19 misinformation but "we know this is an adversarial space".
It monitored the Wellington protest, removing groups and content breaking its policies, including those carrying "calls for violence".
Researchers at The Disinformation Project - part of the academic Centre of Excellence, Te Pūnaha Matatini - had tracked the surge in disinformation and misinformation. The project's lead researcher Kate Hannah said the protest at Parliament "irrevocably changed the information landscape".
Hannah, along with fellow researcher Sanjana Hattotuwa, told the Herald of concerns that the Government had yet to grasp the seriousness of the situation or how to best manage it.