Yesterday was New Zealand's January 6. What happens now?

7:49 am on 4 March 2022

Opinion - I watched a mob of angry, disaffected and violent people storm the seat of my government, waving flags and placards and attempting to force change.

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 06: Pro-Trump supporters storm the U.S. Capitol following a rally with President Donald Trump on January 6, 2021 in Washington, DC.

Just over a year ago, America had its own angry protest at the Capitol. Photo: AFP/ Getty Images - Samuel Corum

That was just over a year ago. Yesterday, I watched it happen again.

The riot at Parliament yesterday as police attempted to remove anti-vaccine mandate protesters came almost exactly one year, two months after the attack on the US Capitol in Washington, DC.

Despite the differences in cause and inspiration, they are very much rivers flowing from the same sea of misinformation and fear.

Yesterday was our January 6 in New Zealand. As a citizen of both countries, it has all felt a lot like Groundhog Day. The protest didn't breach the Beehive here, but it came perilously close at times the past 23 days.

They're still cleaning up the rubbish from the streets around Parliament, and people are asking what we can do next. If anything, we don't want to take America's muddled, divided response to their own attempted insurrection as a guide.

The sparks were different - in America, supporters of former President Donald Trump bought into his bogus claims about his election loss and attempted to stop the certification of Joe Biden as the next president, while in Wellington, a more scattered, lengthier protest coalesced around government vaccine mandates, but also sucked in everything from people who deny Covid-19's existence to fringe beliefs about pedophiles running rampant.

Yet both protests ended the same way, with the most violent elements rampaging and people screaming "Let it all burn!" A minority of the population wanted to overturn the majority.

Both protests were fed by the mostly unregulated, unmoderated labyrinths of internet misinformation, and fuelled by the rage of the neglected, the unhappy and those who felt ignored.

That doesn't excuse the action of the protesters for a minute. As many people pointed out yesterday, when you set a children's playground on fire, you invalidate any point you might have.

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Photo: RNZ

Those of us on the "team of five million" who weren't part of the protest felt staggered by the breathtaking rage of the mob as police moved in, as their tent city collapsed and they ripped bricks from the very streets to hurl at police.

I felt the exact same way in January 2021 as a mob of bearded warriors smashed their way into the US Capitol. To see such destructive rage in the home of government feels like, as Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern put it yesterday, "a desecration."

I hope we don't follow the trends of the US in dealing with their own insurrection, which a year on has disintegrated into the usual partisan bickering, misdirection and attempts to downplay the events of the day.

In America, polls show that over the last year more and more Republicans have entirely different views of the Capitol riot and its causes than they did immediately afterward. The shocked outrage of the days after Jan. 6 have dissolved into a point where a majority of Republicans polled tend to sympathise with the rioters. Congressional attempts to investigate the riot have bogged down in the usual Democrat/Republican split.

For a brief split second the day after January 6, I had thought we might see a sea change in how polarised and hateful American politics had gotten. Nope. The former guy is still yelling at anyone who'll listen about how his victory was stolen, and the country seems as split as ever.

Protesters clashed with police during an early morning police operation at Parliament.

Protesters clashed with police during an early morning police operation at Parliament. Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

A global influence comes from organisations like Counterspin Media, who have links to Steve Bannon and other figures employed in former President Trump's administration. We've all seen the photos of Trump flags being incongruously waved at some of the protests here. Ironically, despite the active belief in so many conspiracy theories by some protesters, there's not enough people asking what overseas groups like Counterspin stand to gain by fomenting the rage and anger we are seeing bloom all around the world.

If you delve into the world of Telegram and other social media used by the protesters, it almost feels like a parallel universe. How can we find common ground when reality is so very different depending on who you are and what you read?

While there were repeated warnings about the far-right, racist and violent elements who were part of the protest, we still saw things like fawning media coverage about a wedding between two protesters on the steps of Parliament mere days before the lawn was set on fire. There was an effort by some local media to normalise the protesters that seems quite naive now.

Much like January 6, the danger was in front of us all along, and the only surprise of seeing the tents burst into flames was that we were still surprised at all.

And the spin has already started - even while Parliament's lawn was still smouldering, people online were chattering about how "antifa," the all-purpose boogeyman, started the fires. "Antifa" were also blamed for the Capitol riots, of course.

Around the time of the August Delta outbreak in New Zealand, local social media began to feel angrier and tenser than ever. Everything was charged with outrage.

Social media became weaponised. Post anything online about certain topics and you're highly likely to get swarmed by a parade of voices. Bots? Contrarians or true believers? Who even knows anymore. News organisations like RNZ have turned off comments on Facebook because the flood of misinformation and often, cruelty, is so intense that it literally can't be moderated. Arguing with strangers online seems pointless, a battle it's impossible to ever "win."

Supporters of US President Donald Trump fight with riot police outside the Capitol building on 6 January 2021 in Washington DC.

Photo: AFP

I tried to scale way back on my own social media addictions in 2022, becoming utterly fed up with the endless complaining, outrage and angst online. I didn't disconnect entirely from the internet - realistically, most people really can't unless they work an entirely offline job - but I did decide to try and waste as little time as possible doomscrolling and getting angry at strangers online as I could.

I've only been partially successful. It's an ongoing effort.

And an ongoing effort is probably exactly what is needed to reckon with the impact of New Zealand's own January 6. March 2 showed us an angry, red-faced and screaming version of ourselves.

The events of the last 23 days at Parliament have thoroughly smashed any lingering doubt that New Zealand is somehow special, isolated from the conflicts that plague other countries. We've done an amazing job with Covid-19 compared to many places, but the internet is also feeding the same divisions. We keep hearing calls to deal with misinformation, but the fact is New Zealand is small islands at the bottom of the world and it's going to take a lot of effort to get overseas companies like Facebook, TikTok, Telegram and Twitter to even notice we exist.

In barely 12 months' time, I've watched smoke rising from the seat of government in both of the countries I call home. It's something I couldn't have imagined a few years ago. I don't have any answers as to how we keep it from happening again, but I do know that we need to not turn away, stare deep into the images of the chaos in Wellington, don't deny this happened, and somehow, not let the cracks between us grow even wider in the months to come.

* Nik Dirga is an RNZ digital journalist and a fact-checker for AAP

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