Jacinda Ardern will need special police bodyguard protection well beyond the end of her time as Prime Minister even as new figures show the extent of the abuse she faced.
Security and disinformation experts spoken to by the Herald say there would be cause to maintain protection after Ardern steps down and into the future.
It comes as University of Auckland researchers dive into data showing Ardern was the target of consistent abuse and threats well beyond others.
Those researchers pulled posts relating to Ardern and six other bureaucrats and politicians from some of the internet’s less regulated regions - 4Chan, 8kun, Telegram and Reddit - and found 93 per cent of abusive, angry or threatening messages were aimed at the Prime Minister.
The Herald’s own investigation into the online targeting of Ardern has discovered threats of rape and murder, her portrayal as demonic or “evil”, depictions of her as Adolf Hitler and other extreme messaging.
Those include false claims Ardern had broken international law and would be brought to justice - then executed when found guilty.
At least eight people have been charged with threatening to kill the Prime Minister during her term. The Herald is aware of evidence to emerge in other cases showing violent intent towards Ardern, including a video in which her image was repeatedly shot at close range by someone using a silenced rifle with telescopic sights.
The Disinformation Project director Kate Hannah, who studies the impact of false and misleading information, said the online abuse aimed at Ardern did not just come from the darker corners of the internet.
Rather, she said abuse was also prolific on mainstream social media channels with a scan of Facebook after Ardern’s resignation revealing untoward comments from people she considered regular citizens.
That included caricatures of Ardern which might not be considered abusive by some. “The long bow from ‘Cindy’ to the c-word - for me, that’s one step away from the next c-word.”
Part of the culture of abuse included statements that attempted to normalise the way to which Ardern was referred or attempted to contextualise it as part of a Prime Minister’s lot.
“Male leaders need to stand up and say this is happening, it’s real and it’s unacceptable instead of dithering about whether it is real and that it’s just part of the job.”
Hannah said the aftermath of March 15 saw Ardern wearing a hijab and was then followed by prompt action to ban military-style semi-automatic weapons. “That’s when things started to significantly shift in how she was described.”
She said those targeting Ardern included people who had been led by others to form the views they held or who phrased opposition in ways that had been encouraged or established by others with more extreme positions.
“I think there’s a lot of people who don’t realise how manipulated they have been.” Hannah said the polarisation in our communities and the abuse aimed at Ardern - and other female leaders - “doesn’t exist in a bubble”.
Intelligence analyst Dr Paul Buchanan of 36th Parallel Assessments said the events of March 15 and Ardern’s response “galvanised the most retrograde elements of the far right”. “Then the pandemic hit.”
“This is about being young, female and successful. It’s a whole different level of vitriol.”
Buchanan said he expected police would extend Diplomatic Protection Service cover for Ardern beyond her time in Parliament, offering an “unprecedented level of protection”.
“She’s going to want to be able to be a private citizen in New Zealand and regain her life as a Kiwi. She deserves to reclaim her life as a private citizen.”
Global Risk Consulting director Chris Kumeroa, a former NZSAS trooper whose specialisations included counter-terrorism, said he expected intelligence gathering relating to risks faced by Ardern would continue by the NZ Security Intelligence Service and police.
“We know women in power are under threat. That threatening rhetoric … may subside and reduce as she steps down.”
Kumeroa said it was possible those who had targeted Ardern would shift to other individuals such as new Deputy Prime Minister Carmel Sepuloni.
He said the targeting of abuse was an issue of importance to New Zealand. “What does it say to other young women? ‘For the sake of your own safety, don’t put yourself up?’.”
Like Hannah, Kumeroa said there was a role for men to speak up against misogynist abuse.
The data showing the 93 per cent focus on Ardern was part of research being carried out at the University of Auckland.
Politics and international relations senior lecturer Chris Wilson, also director of Hate and Extremism Insights Aotearoa, said the data was pulled together to stack up against anecdotal stories on online abuse.
He said he hadn’t expected the enormous gulf that was apparent in abuse received by Ardern and the six other politicians and bureaucrats included in the study as points of comparison.
“The hatred wasn’t focused on particular events. It was focused on her.”
Wilson said this was reflected through abuse ebbing and increasing according to public exposure as occurred with the other individuals while that targeting Ardern was constant and - since the middle of last year - increasing.
“We can’t say exactly why but she just became a lightning rod … she’s become a lightning rod for everyone’s grievance. To me, if I was in that position, I’d be like, ‘what the hell?’. It would be bloody trying and hard to work if you were that person.”
Wilson said he expected the intensity of focus on Ardern would subside as did much of the heightened tension when lockdowns and most mandates came to an end.