When Byron Clark’s book Fear appeared on bookshop shelves, the researcher into New Zealand’s alt-right movements left his home and his work to disappear from sight amid talk of an assassination plot.
Clark had been a thorn in the side of the alt-right for years. The events of the Christchurch mosque shootings on March 15, 2019, turned a hobby into a job. He catalogued and monitored those whose online behaviour he found disturbing.
Those he watched also watched him. They knew where he lived and worked and made sure he knew that. One person - Lee Williams - even visited Clark at his workplace.
And then promotion for the book started and it became deadly serious.
“We did catch wind of a supposed assassination plan when the book comes out. For that reason, the publisher decided not to have a launch. I have a whole safety plan in place.”
That includes staying away from usual haunts - like home and work - and carrying a personal alarm. Police were told and put in place steps to respond rapidly if needed.
“I’m hoping in a month’s time I will feel I was unnecessarily paranoid.”
This is Clark’s world now. The cover line for the book describes it as a look into “New Zealand’s hostile underworld of extremists”.
The result is an artful indexing of what Clark says would later be described as the “River of Filth” - the oft-misquoted phrase from Cabinet minister Michael Wood’s speech.
During the protest at Parliament, Wood spoke with empathy for the large group of protesters outside as confused, hurt and scared. They were, he said, “people who I think we all feel for” - those who were “hurt by the Covid response” and there are “genuine feelings behind that”.
“But underneath all of that, there is a river of filth. There is a river of violence and menace. There is a river of anti-Semitism. There is a river of Islamophobia.
“You couldn’t call it a far-right protest but a protest with far-right elements to it.”
Clark says he thought about calling the book “River of Filth” - “I have talked about (these groups) as tributaries (leading) to the River of Filth”.
That phrase in Wood’s speech to Parliament became one of the commonly-misrepresented phrases of the protest movement. It’s useful to those seeking to add fuel to the fire because, Clark says, they can “probably say ‘this is what the government or elites think of you”.
“But they’re ignoring the whole other part of the speech - that people have been hurt and people care about that. The far right is trying to say ‘you’re with us because the state sees you as part of the River of Filth” although that’s not what Michael Wood was saying.”
Before the book, there was a YouTube channel. Clark’s political development is reflected through a smattering of decade-old videos focused on the Occupy movement. About three years ago, he went from explaining and recording those with which he was aligned to investigating and debunking those to which he was opposed. The switch was prompted by the March 15 2019 terror attack in Christchurch with Clark’s content explaining far-right conspiracies and disinformation.
As far-right adherents shifted to incorporate the changes wrought by Covid-19 on our lives, so did Clark, explaining how and why this was happening. There are explainers on 5G, how masks work to protect against the virus and it highlights those in the cracks and corners of our political system who sought to frame events in ways that appeared contrary to facts.
It was a developing expertise that meant when the protest at Parliament happened, he was well-suited. As people gathered and settled at Parliament, Clark saw familiar faces, movements and beliefs that were coming together.
An example, he says, was the belief “a small group of global elites is trying to reshape global society for their interests” or “that Covid-19 is a hoax or a deliberately created bioweapon”.
“They broadly all fit in with this conspiratorial world.”
And these beliefs defy the common phrasing of the “anti” movement as “far right” and “alt-right” because, Clarks says, it includes those from the left of politics or those pursuing causes that sit outside the traditional political spectrum. For this reason, such scenes as Māori activists tied to the He Whakaputanga cause can be seen marching alongside white supremacists.
The movement has leaders and motivators and it is these Clark hones in on with Fear. Motive is often difficult to discern and Clark believes there is a mix of factors from financial to political ambitions. “There’s probably some who just like the popularity.”
Clark points to Lee Williams as a case where his racist online behaviour has led to him being a recognisable figure within a community that supports his views and embraces the stance he has taken.
Williams was sacked from dairy company Synlait after a public campaign against racist statements he made on his YouTube channel which the social media company then deleted. “For him, that’s his community now. I think for him it’s having that community of like minds.”
For Williams and others in the anti-movement, Clark became somewhat of a lightning rod for their frustrations. Williams visited Clark at his workplace, giving a false name at the front door and slipping past reception. Once inside, he filmed himself approaching and quizzing Clark.
It’s a troubling crossover from online interaction to what Clark saw as real-world intimidation. The online reaction to it also showed Clark how much of an iceberg of support existed for such antagonistic behaviour.
“Probably the majority of people in this space would not commit violence. Even something like what Lee Williams did coming to my workplace is something very few would do.
“But they were all pleased Lee Williams would do that - and they probably want someone to do something even more violent.”
Clark - like the security services - says the worrying individuals are not those with a public profile like Williams but the quiet, virtually unknown people who sit on the fringes of these communities. Someone such as that could see violence “as a way to endear themselves to this community”.
He is expecting the release of the book to increase the risk he faces. It wasn’t really known it was in the works until an interview with Kim Hill on Radio NZ and that started online chatter in the internet’s darker corners.
It was from there that talk of Clark’s murder emerged. “And what they were talking about is whether it’s a good idea to kill me or if it would hurt the movement.” Talk of whether it was morally acceptable wasn’t part of the conversation.
Social media has given these movements fertile ground in which to grow. The industry remains slow to respond, despite efforts such as the Christchurch Call. The March 15-inspired movement did well in removing purely terrorist content but less so with stochastic terrorism - that being demonisation and incitement of violence towards beliefs, groups or people.
While some of the change has seen that ugly community step out of mainstream social media, it’s not one-way traffic. Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter turned it from being perceived as a “left-wing place” to “a real cesspit”.
Clark’s book not only maps the tributaries that make up the River of Filth but it charts our course into the future to deal with climate change, which Clark calls “the greatest challenge humanity has encountered”.
The path he has charted to the future is fraught with disinformation and the groups polarised by it. Those groups - spelled out in chapter after chapter - have been made susceptible, or more so, by Covid-19 and are ready to take on the latest, most divisive, society-threatening conspiracy theories.
“There’s talk that climate change (is) either a hoax or deliberate modification and the elites are using it to reshape the world.
“Now there’s an audience that came through the anti-vaccination stuff that can now be influenced by this.
“Unless we’re conscious about the disinformation about climate change, we will see a repeat of what we’ve seen in the early 2020s - but potentially more severe.”