13 Nov 2021

David Farrier: examining conspiracy culture in New Zealand

From Saturday Morning, 4:05 pm on 13 November 2021

Donald Trump made a smart political move when he redefined 'fake news' as a term to discredit any mainstream media content, says journalist David Farrier. Now he's no longer POTUS, and we're stuck with the fallout.

"We've got to the system now where you can kind of create your own reality. If you're unhappy with how your life is and what you see around you and you feel stressed out, you can point to a big bad [entity of some kind]… and that's the reality that explains the world you're in."

MPs are often treated poorly by protestors. One insult is so common it has its own academic description. Logicians describe the fallacy of comparison with Nazis as 'reductio ad Hitlerum'.

A protest banner depicting New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern altered to resemble Adolf Hitler Photo: VNP / Phil Smith

This week, Trump supporters, people opposed to the predator control toxin 1080 and critics of the government's proposed Three Waters reform were seen in a Wellington crowd protesting New Zealand's Covid-19 vaccine mandate.

These are the usual suspects for Farrier, who has come to specialise in unravelling the complicated web of conspiracy theories in his newsletter Webworm and the podcast Armchaired & Dangerous.

He speaks to Kim Hill from the quiet East Los Angeles suburb of Eagle Rock.

New Zealand's anti-vax groups, such as Brian Tamaki's Freedoms & Rights Coalition, are taking the lead from their American counterparts to a disturbing extent, Farrier says.

One example is the Kiwi conspiracy show Counterspin Media which runs on GTV - an alternative news platform founded by former Trump advisor Steve Bannon.

Although many of New Zealand's anti-vax leaders also ask for donations, Farrier says these people actually believe they're doing good and their bad decisions are based on bad sources of information.

"I think they are all entrenched in this belief system so strongly that they believe it fully and that's what makes them so good at spreading misinformation.

"It would make more sense - in the way that I understand the world - if they were just making it up or being delusional but I think they've spent so much time with these bad news sources… we have to reckon with the fact this is a real belief these people hold."

New Zealand journalist David Farrier recording an episode of the podcast Armchaired & Dangerous

New Zealand journalist David Farrier recording an episode of the podcast Armchaired & Dangerous Photo: David Farrier / Instagram

Once belief in a conspiracy has taken hold in someone's mind, it is very difficult to address with rational arguments, Farrier says.

If you believe someone in your life is dangerously misinformed, it's easy to get frustrated but cutting them out of your life won't accomplish anything.

"Try and stay in people's lives and try and be a tiny bit compassionate because some information [from you] might get through… hopefully at some point they'll pull out of that really damaging belief system."

To gently yet directly challenge a belief someone is holding, the technique of steel-manning (devised by American philosopher Daniel Dennett) can be effective, Farrier says.

"Go and learn about that conspiracy theory as much as you can. Dive into Wikipedia, google it, learn what the arguing points are. And then in a very simple way, when you meet your friend, just tell them you want to understand what they believe. Then you can explain that stuff back to them better than they know it.

"You'll find a lot of people espousing [misinformation], they can't argue. They know the headline of the thing that they believe but they can't go through the points… Asking them questions, not in a confrontational way, but just as a conversation… can sometimes start to show [them] how utterly unhinged [their belief] is."

While it's easy to point the finger at New Zealand's outspoken conspiracy theorists such as Billy TK and Brian Tamaki, Farrier is personally more alarmed by the "large group of mainly middle-class white people" who are jumping on board the conspiracy train out of sheer terror.

"[These people] have been top of the food chain as far as race and privilege goes, and I think this is the first time and they're shocked that they might have to change the way they do things and life might not be going back to how it was.

"We are going through a world-changing event and that is making people who haven't typically struggled… struggle in an entirely new way."

Farrier finds these people selfish for overestimating the importance of their own personal freedom.

"[Covid-19 is] not make-believe. It's not something that's going to magically go away. We're living with this now and I think our aim is to save lives. That is going to come with a certain amount of sacrifices to your life that you have been living."

In Los Angeles, carrying your face mask and vaccination card is now just part of daily life, Farrier says.

"I don't like going for a big hike with a mask on but everyone here has kind of got on board with it. A lot of people look to America and think of Florida where everyone's flouting every mandate and being kind of crazy. whereas in California, which is obviously a much more liberal place, people are being polite and getting on with it. And to be honest, it's kind of great."

With everything going on, it's quite a fascinating time to be alive, Farrier says.

"Whether it's Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook branding the metaverse and wanting us all to live these online lives or just this idea that the truth is what you want it to be. That idea isn't going away and it's working for a certain number of people. People are making money out of it.

"[The power of misinformation] is bizarre and it's maddening and I want to try and understand it. So that's what I'm attempting to do, through things like the podcast and my newsletter."