New Zealand anti-vaxxers fall into Russian misinformation ‘tsunami’


Russia’s ‘fire hose of lies’ has hit the New Zealand conspiracy fringe, with pro-Putin misinformation now a mainstay in anti-vax forums, reports Marc Daalder

The Russian invasion of Ukraine is one of the two dominant topics in New Zealand anti-vax forums, according to a disinformation expert, and the discussion is uniformly pro-Putin.

Sanjana Hattotuwa, who monitors more than 100 Telegram channels and dozens of Facebook, YouTube, Instagram and Twitter accounts run by New Zealand’s ragtag anti-vax movement daily for The Disinformation Project, told Newsroom of the rapid emergence of Ukraine as a major narrative. unlike anything he’s seen before.

“All the people who are part of [New Zealand’s misinformation community] now offer and promote a very pro-Kremlin content framework. The second biggest signing at the protest – which is really quite extraordinary, when you think about it – aside from what was happening in front of the Beehive, was Ukraine.”

As the narrative around the protest becomes more fractured, Hattotuwa thinks Ukrainian discourse could become the dominant narrative on New Zealand’s conspiratorial fringe – or certainly the prevailing one, given the “deluge” of messages relating to the conflict. Already, New Zealand conspiracy theorists almost unanimously support the Russian invasion and create or spread conspiracy theories about biological weapons facilities and pedophile cabals linked to Ukraine.

This is new for these communities, which The Disinformation Project has been tracking since the outbreak began in Delta in August 2021. They had never expressed an interest in foreign affairs and it is now the second most discussed issue. , even as anti-vax protesters brawled with cops outside Parliament.

“To be honest with them, we’ve never had a crisis that would have propelled that kind of attention from New Zealand. But we’ve never, ever had a signing that comes close to that kind. of interest, emphasis and projection and also engagement with a very partial perspective around invading a country,” Hattotuwa said.

“There are very clear signatures around Russian disinformation. There are now disinformation signatures that have traditionally, academically been associated with Russian disinformation, [which we are now seeing] here.

He is quick to clarify that there is no sign that New Zealand is specifically targeted by Russian disinformation.

“There is nothing to suggest that New Zealand is exceptional. What we have studied is evidence that RT News was very interested in promoting protest executives – and supporters of protest – before the invasion of the Ukraine. It was, at the time, an unusual interest. It’s in the air why it was.

This coverage by one of Russia’s state-owned media reportedly gave the protests some legitimacy, at least among RT News’ domestic and international audiences.

“RT News has distribution channels on Telegram, which number in the hundreds of thousands, and it has a global ecology that amplifies it to hundreds of thousands more,” Hattotuwa said.

What is certain is that New Zealand is part of the larger community of Western democracies caught up in this an earlier report described him as Russia’s ‘firehose of lies’.

“Russian propaganda is produced in incredibly large volumes and is broadcast or otherwise distributed through a large number of channels,” this 2016 report found. Sputnik.

This mirrors what Hattotuwa says he saw in the New Zealand space.

“It’s flooded with content that’s partisan to the Kremlin. It doesn’t need to be consistent. Anything that sticks, sticks. It’s just a tsunami, a deluge, every day,” he said. declared.

“It very quickly went from imported to locally produced [content]. The middle thrust might be anti-vax, but at the end you’ll find a very anti-Ukraine and pro-Putin statement. It’s like, what’s going on here?

“New things are happening and the effort seems to be to occupy attention and win it back. Attention to the landscape we studied has been gripped by a very partisan, statist, anti-Ukrainian, anti-Semitic view , harmful, toxic, and virulently violent commentary around this original content. The pro-Putin and pro-Kremlin content is indistinguishable from the QAnon conspiracy.

These intertwining misinformation and misinformation networks have also formed a kind of ouroboros, with the Russian government now amplifying QAnon and anti-vax fringe conspiracy theories on its own official channels.

For example, a conspiracy theory that incorrectly posits that Russia invaded Ukraine to eliminate US-run bioweapons labs developing the next pandemic pathogen is adopted by Russia. On Monday, the Russian Foreign Ministry tweeted that Russian forces had found evidence of a “military-biological program” funded by the US Department of Defense.

“That [conspiracy theory] came to the United States and was intertwined with QAnon and the far right. We are in uncharted territory where you now have official Russian state sources saying the same thing which has also been debunked by fact checkers and mostly produced by QAnon conspirators outside the US,” Hattotuwa said. .

Asked by Newsroom, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern declined to comment on any specific misinformation she was made aware of.

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