White Supremacist, Extremist, and Conspiracy Spread Around the Aotearoa New Zealand Elections

A data-driven study of harmful content spread between and beyond fringe online platforms

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

This report, a collaboration between SMAT and Tohatoha, investigates the online spread of white supremacist, extremist, and conspiracy content during the 2020 New Zealand elections and the ways in which this content may have affected the offline world. This report was prepared as part of a submission to the NZ 2020 Election Inquiry in Parliament in which we also gave oral remarks in the Beehive. In preparing this report, SMAT analysed around one billion posts originating from fringe platforms such as 8kun (formerly 8chan), 4chan’s /pol/ message board, Parler, and Telegram to examine how these platforms influenced mainstream discourse, both online and in-person, during the NZ election period. We focus our study on fringe platforms specifically because it has been shown by Hine et al. that this corner of internet discourse has a disproportionate and harmful impact on the mainstream Internet. For example, both the Christchurch shooter’s manifesto and the most recent New Zealand mosque threat were found on these forums. These particular fringe platforms have had, and continue to have, real-world consequences in New Zealand. It is impossible to perfectly quantify the ways in which the online discourse of fringe white supremacist and conspiracy networks impacts the real world (both second and third-order impacts) but we hope to help translate the ways it which it seems to be occurring.

Our initial research suggests that:

  • There is clear evidence of election-related mis- and disinformation spreading, much of which included hate targeted at marginalised communities.

  • At least two persons claiming to be New Zealand election officials were involved in spreading conspiracy theories on fringe platforms.

  • Conspiracy theories related to the January 2020 attack on the US Capitol, including those spread by hate groups, are cross-pollinating with New Zealand specific content.

  • Covid-19 and conspiracy theories related to associated public health measures are also influencing the discourse on electoral processes.

  • Fringe conspiracy content is spreading into the mainstream and influencing in-person actions.

Based on our analysis, we believe New Zealand has the seeds of further conspiracy theory inspired violence such as was seen in the US Capitol attack, as well as other white-supremacist linked attacks in New Zealand and the US. These threats also pose risks to democratic processes including voting and the transition of power.

Introduction

Content Warning note: this report contains extreme, and possibly triggering, content. Please read with the understanding that this report grapples with difficult themes including racism and violence, and troubling language is included only where necessary to provide representative samples of the studied material. Also note that, where possible, we have omitted linking and similar reference to alt-platform content so as to not direct traffic (and advertising money) to their server hosts. All referenced alt-platform content has been verified by SMAT and is available for additional verification through the SMAT API.

This report utilizes data from SMAT and expertise from Tohatoha in order to generate data-driven analyses of white supremacist, extremist, and conspiracy threats to democratic processes in New Zealand, especially around the 2020 elections. 

Methodology and Data collection

SMAT is an organisation that assists researchers and journalists in their analysis of the far-right and harmful misinformation-driven conspiracy theories by making approximately one billion posts from fringe forums available for data visualisation and analysis. For the purposes of this report, we have focused on posts from relevant platforms made between 27 January 2020 and 30 November 2020. The exact numbers of posts pulled from each platform varies as do the methods of isolating New Zealand specific content. For example, on 4chan /pol/ and 8kun we can isolate the posts where users report that they are in New Zealand, whereas platforms like Parler and Telegram require more different measures such as searching for key terms in comments or author bios. This report uses an exploratory approach including both qualitative and simple quantitative measures.

General Themes from the Data

These are the high level themes we found within the data:

Empirically False Claims of Election Fraud: There are three main categories of New Zealand election fraud conspiracies identified in our dataset. The first are claims of problems with ballots. The second are variations on the Qanon “Dominion” conspiracy theory about voting machines that has been shown to have originated in part with the hosts of 8chan (and now 8kun). The third includes claims that the election was actually a fraudulent coup orchestrated by Labour.

Sinophobia/Anti-Asian racism: We found evidence of the spread of racist conspiracy theories targeting China generally, the CCP specifically, as well as Asians as an abstract category. This content was not directly rooted in any real world political situation, but appears to be first and foremost an expression of racial animus. This was complicated by extensive conspiracy propaganda from Falun Gong and Epoch Times on multiple platforms targeting the CCP and supporting pro-Trump election fraud narratives.

LGBTQ+ Hate: Common across the platforms were endorsements of violence against the LGBTQ+ community and expressions of concern about the community’s political and electoral impact.

Islamophobia and Antisemitism: There were extensive conspiracies about, and evidence of, desire for violence against Muslims and their community infrastructure (such as mosques) in New Zealand. Occurrences of Islamophobia often pivot or are directly linked to antisemitic conspiracies and slurs. Both of these forms of religious hatred were framed in the context of the targeted populations’ influence on New Zealand politics.

Misogyny: Misogynistic content is heavily featured in the relevant data, frequently targeting Prime Minister Ardern.

Anti-Maori and Pasifika sentiment: Virtually every mention of Māori and Pasifika communities on these fringe platforms was in relation to racist conspiracies and white supremacist plotting against Tino Rangatiratanga in the context of Aotearoa’s electoral politics.

Anti-Black: The studied platforms hosted significant amounts white supremacist content geared towards attacking the political influence of movements such as Black Lives Matter, as well as frequent use anti-Black slurs and content.

Anti-immigrant Xenophobia: Immigrants were scapegoated throughout the collected data, especially those from India and the Middle East. Xenophobic concerns about immigration policy, including those directly seeded by white supremacist groups, warped interpretations of the issues facing New Zealand in the elections.

Amerikatanga: We found a significant amount of demonstrably false pro-Trump narratives, as well as QAnon conspiracies and reinterperetations of conspiracies created around the US elections that were contorted to fit the New Zealand context.

Evidence of Cross-Tasman Links: There was overlap and mutual support between conspiracists in Australia and New Zealand, such as mutually commenting, developing, and supporting each other’s content. 

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern: At the center of New Zealand conspiracy theories about the election is a flood of vicious and empirically false propaganda related to the Prime Minister.

5G Misinformation: Mis- and dis-information related to the roll-out of 5G technology is a recurring thread on these platforms. 

Red Scare vs Fascism vs Neoliberalism: We found evidence of the spread of the idea that New Zealand is at-risk of a political takeover by a combination of New Zealand communists, fascists, and neoliberal “globalists.”

COVID-19 Disinformation: The data showed frequent expressions of resistance to public health and safety measures related to the COVID-19 pandemic such as the COVID-19 alert levels and vaccine rollouts.

Nazi Germany Comparisons: There are extensive, harmful, and wildly unfounded comparisons between either New Zealand’s elections or its COVID-19 response and the historical policies of Nazi Germany. 

Great Reset / Agenda 21 / Bill Gates / Soros / etc.: A plethora of other niche conspiracies were being heavily spread in the lead up to the election which could have contributed to a sense of existential threat in the form of international efforts to implement totalitarian mind control and commit genocide. SMAT discusses Agenda 21 in particular in their first scholarly article.

Claims of Silicon Valley Interference: There were a number of claims that “Big Tech” was trying to shut down conservative voices. These included claims of censorship of Billy Te Kahika Jr by Facebook following Facebook’s removal of the Advance NZ page on the grounds that it was spreading COVID-19 misinformation. 

Mainstream Platforms and Offline Actions

There have been a range of different studies on the impacts of social media on the real world even though exact quantification of second and third-order impacts is considered an open research problem. There is additional evidence that the conspiracy theories espoused on fringe platforms are not staying there, but are spreading to mainstream platforms where they exert greater public influence.

One of the most prominent examples we found of fringe to mainstream spread via the internet was the spread of the Dominion voting system conspiracy. This conspiracy was launched from 8kun to Twitter and was shown by Bellingcat and SMAT to have interacted with the discourse influencing the siege on the US Capitol. In this report we found this same Dominion voting system conspiracy being referenced but with New Zealand specific twists. One example can be found in one user who writes anonymously on 8kun:

“New Zealand is one of the 5 [Eyes] and NZ prime minister invited Biden to visit after 2020 election but in 2016 didn’t invite Trump. She also got in with a huge landslide don’t know if NZ uses Dominion too?????”

This user seems to be implying completely unfoundedly what became a recurring thread in our findings that New Zealand was somehow involved in Biden and Jacinda’s non-existent “coups” in their respective countries. Other users state:

“President Trump , Sir, I pledge my loyalty to the United States , and its great President D.J .Trump , all the way from New Zealand. You have thousands of loyal NZ Patriots here who wish you were Our president , instead a of [sic] Communist CCP handled U.N Agenda 2030 pushing , traitorous Jacinda Ardern Do you know DOMINION waa used to cheat the New Zealand election also ? The NWO arw [sic] trying to keep their place holders in power. G-d bless you President Trump.. MAGA ( Make Ardern Go Away )”

Users refuse to believe that New Conservative party could have just lost and instead insist that “it must have been the Dominion machines:

“Wow. Makes me wonder, was the Dominion also used in the NZ election? I can't believe Labour received so mamy [sic] votes and that NC didn't make it into parliament. Much more enthusiasm for NC over the last couple years.”

The conspiracy theorists then argue, still without evidence, that actually New Zealand was the test roll-out for the later coup attempt involving Dominion machines in the US stating, “NZ election was a test election for the corrupt election in America.”

The work of this report builds upon the frequently-confirmed finding that platforms like 8kun are spreading white supremacist conspiracy content to broader social media ecosystems as well as influencing violence. Despite propagating in the annals of 8chan/8kun, the Dominion and Qanon conspiracies have led to real world political violence.

Spread to Mainstream Platforms

Facebook post spreading election fraud and communist infiltration conspiracies.


This Facebook post is using a story about 48 people voting more than once as evidence for the conspiracy theory that Labour won the 2020 election through fraud, which they portray as an example of communist infiltration. The post also includes a picture of a hat that claims that the 2020 election was rigged and falsely presents itself as being a hat created by the Electoral Commission.

Facebook post advertising an Auckland anti-lockdown rally.

This is a Facebook post that is an advertisement for an Auckland rally that opposes government lockdowns, coerced vaccines and vaccine passports (despite the government not having made policies about either). The post also reworks Unite Against COVID-19 branding to reflect opposition to Jacinda Ardern.

Tweet sharing misinformation about mask use.

This is a tweet by a local anti-vaccine group sharing video from an American conspiracy theorist outlining their opposition to face mask use, with the misinformation that masks aren’t an effective form of protection from COVID-19. 

Spread Beyond the Internet

Action Zealandia poster on top of a wall of Jacinda Ardern’s electorate office.

This is a poster put up by Action Zealandia in front of Jacinda Ardern’s electorate office that pins COVID-19 on multiculturalism and China. Action Zealandia are seeking to take advantage of rising anti-Chinese racism and COVID-19 misinformation to gain new members.


No UN Agenda 21/30 banner at an Auckland anti-lockdown rally.

This is a banner opposing UN’s Agenda 21/30 held by Advance NZ supporters at an anti-lockdown rally in Auckland that they participated in. Conspiracy theory driven opposition to the UN was one of the major planks of Advance NZ’s platform.


Anti-Jacinda Ardern placard at an Auckland anti-lockdown rally. 

This is a placard by a protestor at an Auckland anti-lockdown protest that demonises Jacinda Ardern as both a globalist and a fascist that must be removed to reclaim New Zealand from both. While the term fascist is used by the broader far-right to condemn Ardern, both the broader far-right and fascists use ‘globalist’ as an insult against Ardern and other politicians they oppose. 

Platform By Platform

Timeline of Posts

The New Zealand 2020 elections took place during the turmoil of the global COVID-19 pandemic. There was an announcement on January 28th that the election would be held on September 19th. It was subsequently delayed on August 17th. The election took place on October 17th. The election included multiple referenda, the results of which were released on November 6th. A full timeline is available from Radio New Zealand. Rigorous “hard and early” public safety measures and collective participation in national mitigation efforts have kept New Zealand largely free of COVID-19 infections and health impacts. Despite this achievement, in the face of massive danger and uncertainty NZ was also subjected to a wave of conspiracies and far-right activity that resulted in public acts of endangerment and the spread of misinformation.

Before beginning our content analysis on individual platforms, we can observe some high level trends and peaks in activity mentioning the phrase “New Zealand'' on various platforms. This search can be replicated (with the addition of Gab) on the SMAT app with one click. We will first briefly represent the timelines of activity related to these terms on Parler, 8kun, and Telegram.

Parler “New Zealand” activity peaks at June 4th, July 15th, August 14th, October 17th and November 12th.

Parler activity peaks include June 4th, when Prime Minister Ardern announced the conditions for Alert Level 1; July 15th, when Ardern announced the conditions for future localised lockdowns; August 14th, when Ardern announced the extension of Alert Level 3; October 17th, the day of the New Zealand 2020 general election; and November 12th, when there was a rise in community transmission linked to a managed isolation facility hosting Russian and Ukrainian fishermen. On November 12, one user wrote “Yes! New Zealand is building concentration camps, right? Who else?” while another user claimed that the elections in New Zealand were rigged and that it wasn’t possible to know how many votes each candidate received.

8kun “New Zealand” activity peaks at November 6th and November 22nd.

8kun activity peaks include November 6th, during the immediate days after the 2020 US presidential election, and November 22nd, when Donald Trump requested a recount in Georgia. 

SMAT’s Telegram activity for the term “New Zealand” peaks at June 8th, August 11th, August 14th, August 27th and October 17th.

Telegram activity peaks include June 8th, when Prime Minister Ardern announced that New Zealand would enter Alert Level One at midnight on June 9th; August 11th, when four community transmissions in New Zealand were detected; August 14th, when Ardern announced that Alert Level Three would be extended for a fortnight; August 27th, when Chris Hipkins announced that three million masks would be distributed; and October 17th, the day of the general election.

Common themes in the activity peaks across Parler, 8kun and Telegram include changes in alert levels, lockdown conditions, new cases of COVID-19 community transmission, the day of the New Zealand general election and events around the US 2020 presidential election. 

Parler

SMAT authors Emmi Bevensee and Max Aliapoulios co-wrote the first scholarly paper accepted by ICWSM 2021 on the Parler platform, outlining both our data collection architecture and the conservative and conspiracy biases of the website. On the platform Parler, which was itself deplatformed by internet infrastructure providers following its role in the US Capitol attack, we found 16,394 posts containing either the terms, “NZ”, “New Zealand”, or “Kiwi” in the target date range. Around 700 of these also mentioned the word “election.” Our Parler analyses showed a wide range of extreme and concerning hate and conspiracy content specifically related to the election. We had an exceptionally large number of Parler posts to sort through for this period (more than 167 million posts). This was the platform where many of the far-right, white-supremacist, and conspiracy narratives were most thoroughly elaborated upon and then spread to more mainstream conservative audiences which gave them a greater impact on real-world communities.

One of the most prominent features of this data subset was the prevalence of US-centric pro-Trump propaganda and its New Zealand related content. These findings included content from fringe online platforms connected to the violent occupation of the US Capitol in early 2021. Furthermore, the most popular hashtags co-occurring with the original New Zealand specific search terms in our current findings were mostly Trump-related. SMAT helped to show that Trump used these platforms to promote election fraud material. A SMAT collaboration with USA Today showed how Trump used platforms to incite the siege on the US capitol and was ultimately cited as evidence in one of Trump’s impeachments. This current report shows that these very same networks are interacting with related variants local to New Zealand.

The related hashtags can be seen here:

Picture of results of Parler hashtags by local far-right figures using original NZ specific search terms

Upon further drilling down of the data to only hashtags that co-occurred with the Parler hashtag, “#NZ” we begin to see a more conspiratorial tone emerge: 

Picture of results of Parler hashtags that co-occurred with #NZ

This graphic shows the obsession with the New Zealand conspiracy that the country is becoming a communist nation ruled by the CCP. Among the most active users posting about CCP coup conspiracies is a user claiming to have been a Deputy Returning Officer election official who references corrupt “Communist China Masters” without detailing any form of grounded claim. Other posts involving China-related conspiracies were also racist or homophobic in tone rather than factual analyses of emerging events.

Among the most common links shared with the related terms include a link to download the Epoch Times app. Epoch Times is an aggressively marketed pro-Trump and anti-CCP disinformation media outlet run by the Falun Gong movement. Business Insider once interviewed the leader of the Falun Gong movement who according to them stated:

“that David Copperfield can really levitate off the ground, that qigong can cure illness, and that aliens introduced science in the world so that they could use human bodies.” 

Falun Gong has also been accused of homophobia for comments claiming that gay people do not deserve to be human or benefit from human rights. These Parler links include one user who appears to be targeting the propaganda and advertising of the Epoch Times app to New Zealanders. One post bemoans “Well, there goes NZ” in reference to Ardern’s landslide victory just before linking to Epoch Times and encouraging people to download the app. There’s no mention of the corporate relationship to and representation of Epoch Times in this user’s account biography. The conspiratorial bent of these efforts begin to resemble targeted propaganda by a non-state entity that is currently negatively influencing the information landscape surrounding the long struggles against anti-Asian racism and violence in much of the world.

Parler post seemingly advertising for Epoch Times while encouraging a partisan political opinion against Jacinda Ardern’s electoral win.

The second most popular link in our NZ Parler data was to a US-based Fox News reporter complaining that New Zealand’s quarantine measures were draconian and unjustified. The reporter stressed the word “camps” seemingly as an allusion to concentration camps. 

The next most popular link is to a Gateway Pundit article falsely claiming that Prime Minister Ardern supports Shariah Law and alluding to gun grabs and “camps” as part of an allusion to Nazi Germany. The following link is to the anti-vaccination conspiracy site Natural News. This article explicitly claims that quarantine facilities are “death camps” designed to facilitate genocide. These COVID-related conspiracies generally arise in direct relation to false claims that Labour has committed a “coup” of the government through election fraud.

4chan /pol/

From the conspiracy prone 4chan /pol/ forum we isolated ~120k posts whose self-selected country code was listed as “New Zealand” in the target date range. We then further isolated around 1k posts of interest related specifically to the election. 

The content was dominated by racist and xenophobic conspiracies. Particular hatred was expressed at Indian, Chinese, autistic, migrant, and Māori persons. One representative user stated:

“Green is the absolute worst party in nz politics, anyone who votes for them is a massive f----t. I was nzfirst [sic] last election. Keeping it illegal means we have an excuse to lock more maori [sic] in prison”

Other 4Chan users claimed that Prime Minister Ardern is a secret Communist engaged in an election fraud coup attempt and still others demonstrated explicitly white supremacist motivations for voting for NZ First. 

8kun

On 8kun (formerly 8chan) we found 74 posts country-coded as New Zealand. There is likely more New Zealand specific content that is not country-coded. We found self-identified New Zealanders posting in Qanon-related channels. The content included racial slurs and claims that the New Zealand election was a fraud.

Telegram

In our New Zealand specific Telegram collections focusing on white supremacist and conspiracy channels we found 30,577 posts out of the ~400 million posts we gathered. In just focusing on channels with New Zealand related content in their bios we found two specific channels of interest, one related to Action Zealandia, and another more active channel (over 4k posts) seemingly run by members of Action Zealandia.

Action Zealandia had only a few posts mentioning the election. These were mostly links to their podcast episodes about the elections. In these podcasts, Action Zealandia members discuss the then upcoming general election and recommend their audience vote for the Greens. The Green policies Action Zealandia support include reducing the Security Intelligence Service’s powers and lowering the party vote threshold to 4% so that they can more easily engage in activism and run for Parliament in future elections. Action Zealandia also used these podcasts to spread false claims that National, New Zealand First and Labour exist to serve the interests of the Chinese government and are acting against white New Zealanders. They also made claims that the New Conservatives, Advance NZ and Sustainable NZ are controlled by a Jewish elite.

Action Zealandia’s podcasts also use antisemitic, racist, and homophobic slurs to complain of deplatforming by mainstream platforms such as Twitter, Youtube, and Facebook and instead encourage the use of decentralized P2P services.

The unofficial Action Zealandia Telegram account mentioned above also attempts, despite deplatforming efforts, to help organize white supremacists on mainstream platforms. They state, “A reminder - I want to promote you. Have under 5,000 followers? DM me at [redacted but also account suspended] I can provide some followers and some twitter turbo-k***s.” This effort by white-nationalist extremists to propagandise and organise on mainstream platforms, in an effort to impact the real world has extensive tendrils in our findings. While it is nearly impossible to prove direct connections between these often anonymous fringe forums and either mainstream platform posts or real-world actions, we can monitor the exchange of ideas and spillover to the real world by tracking the themes covered in this report.

Conclusions

These analyses illustrate that these are genuine threats to NZ democratic processes and further threats to public health and safety measures as well as to the wellbeing and safety of minorities in Aotearoa New Zealand. It is critical that both the public sector and community organisations work together to strengthen the social cohesion that is at the heart of Aotearoa New Zealand. This hard work will help to prepare not just for the coming challenges but also to help build a society that is culturally rich and politically resilient.