COVID-related disinformation and extremism is on the rise in New Zealand. What are the risks of it becoming violent?


The last weeks COVID manifestation outside parliament served as a warning that New Zealand is not immune to the types of anger seen abroad. As Labor Party Whip Kieran McAnulty said, “I think everyone needs to be aware that things are starting to escalate.”

McAnulty himself had been mistreated by some with strong anti-vaccination views, and there have been more and more violent rhetoric directed against government politicians and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. As a result, the safety of Members has been intensified.

As the recent report from the Te Pūnaha Matatini research center showed that there has been a sharp increase in the “popularity and intensity of disinformation specific to COVID-19 and other forms of” dangerous speech “and misinformation, related to far-right ideologies “.

The analysis noted a broader threat: “that COVID-19 and vaccination will be used as a sort of Trojan horse for norm-setting and entrenching the norms of far-right ideologies in Aotearoa in Nova Scotia. -Zeeland ”.

Terrorist threat: medium

Last year, New Zealand’s Security Intelligence Service (SIS) warned of the “realistic possibility” that continued COVID-related restrictions or new vaccination requirements could trigger an act of violent extremism.

The country is not alone in this case, of course. COVID-19 saw dissent and angry protest increase globally, with inevitable concern at an increased risk of terrorism or violent extremism.



Read more: Demonstrating during a pandemic: New Zealand’s balance between a long tradition of protests and COVID rules


Currently, New Zealand’s official terrorist threat level is rated as “medium”, meaning an attack is rated as “”doable and may well happen”.

In contrast, Australia’s threat level is set at “likely“and Great Britain to”severe”. According to his Department of Homeland Security, the United States “continues to face a diverse and difficult threat environment as several religious holidays and associated mass gatherings approach.”

Riot police were deployed to Melbourne in September when protests against compulsory vaccination of construction workers turned violent.
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The lonely actor problem

A SIS terrorist threat assessment Starting in February this year, coupled with a Combined Threat Assessment Group “Threat Overview” in November 2020, divided potential terrorists in New Zealand into three groups based on faith, identity and politics. What they share is a willingness to use violence to achieve their goals.

The most likely scenario involves a lone actor, inspired by any ideology and probably using an unsophisticated means of attack, without any intelligence warning. However, a small anti-government cell was also seen as a realistic possibility.



Read more: Treating New Zealand far-right groups like terrorist organizations could make monitoring extremists even more difficult


The SIS assessment noted that there are almost certainly some individuals who advocate the use of violence to promote racial or ethnic identity beliefs, as well as individuals potentially prone to violent faith-based extremism. On the side of politically motivated actors, the SIS was more reassuring:

While some individuals and groups have legally advocated for meaningful change in current political and social systems, there continues to be little indication of a serious intention to engage in violence to effect that change.

The February report is heavily written, so it should be placed next to the November Threat Insight. This report noted a “realistic possibility” of terrorist acts depending on how COVID-19 and the associated economic and social impacts have played out, and how individual extremists might be affected. He concluded:

The situation in New Zealand over the next 12 months is expected to remain dynamic. There is a realistic possibility of other restrictions or potential vaccination programs […] could be triggers for violent extremists based in New Zealand to commit an act of terrorist violence.

Still a peaceful place?

If there is one solace to take, it may be that New Zealand has risen in the Global Peace Index 2021, placing the country just behind Iceland.

This represents a return to relative normality after the Christchurch terrorist attack in 2019 saw New Zealand lose 79 places in the Global Terrorism Index 2020 (ranked 42nd, just behind Russia, Israel and South Africa).

But if there are other reasons for hope, especially New Zealand relatively weak and apparently reduce number of homicides – there are still reasons for concern. Of Lynn Mall Terrorist Attack until murder of a policeman or the tragic shooting of a innocent teenager, serious violence is not uncommon.



Read more: Vaccination mandates for New Zealand’s healthcare and education workers are now in effect – but has the law struck the right balance?


There was also a increased gun injuries, many (but not all) linked to gangs. Figures released under the Official Information Act show police face increased risk: Between March 2019 and July 2021, officers had guns pointed or shot at them 46 times.

New Zealanders can have some confidence in the system, however. Two potential shootings, including one involving a school, were foiled by the police. The New Lynn extremist was already the subject of surveillance so tight that he was shot within 60 seconds of launching his attack.

Security intelligence too spying detected in the military and was instrumental in New Zealand cricket cancel his tour from Pakistan due to a plausible terrorist threat.



Read more: COVID vaccines do not violate the Nuremberg Code. Here’s how to convince the skeptics


A culture of “seeing something, saying something”

All of this highlights the need for everyone to do what they can to combat alienation and disinformation in the community, rooted in tolerance, respect and civic behavior. And it also requires that people be prepared to report suspicious activity or threats of violence (online or not).

As the Royal Commission on the Christchurch Terrorist Attacks noted, the thing most likely to have prevented the tragedy would have been a ‘see something, say something’ culture – a culture where people could safely do share their concerns with the competent authorities.

“Such a report”, the commission concluded, “Would have provided the best chance of disrupting the terrorist attack”.

As the pandemic stretches over the next year, possibly with ongoing restrictions and unforeseeable complications, this remarkable phrase is worth remembering. This suggests that the best defense against extremism lies within ourselves and in the strong and secure communities that we must create.


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