23 Jan 2023

Nine out of 10 hateful posts tracked in darkest corners of the internet targeted Ardern - new study

5:01 pm on 23 January 2023

By Nikki Macdonald of Stuff

Jacinda Ardern in front of vitriolic social media comments

Photo: RNZ

An online hate tracker found Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was the target of 93 percent of toxic posts against seven high profile politicians and officials, with a total of 5438 abusive messages.

University of Auckland researchers analysed the darkest corners of the internet for posts mentioning Ardern and six unnamed politicians and bureaucrats, from 2019 to 2022.

Senior lecturer in politics and international relations, Chris Wilson, said Ardern was overwhelmingly the target both of all posts, and of those deemed hateful or toxic.

"The disparity surprised even me," said Wilson, who is also the director of Hate and Extremism Insights Aotearoa. "The only conclusion you can draw is that it was just ongoing, incessant vitriol focussed on the PM, over a long period, that never went away."

The six other politicians and officials included men and women and were ethnically and politically diverse. But while they were each the target of fewer than 100 negative, hateful, sexually explicit or toxic posts, Ardern bore the brunt of 93 percent of those messages.

Abusive posts about other politicians and officials spiked when they talked about controversial issues such as Three Waters reforms or Covid-19 mandates, then died away. But vitriol against Ardern was constant, Wilson said.

While he could not say whether it was a factor in her resignation, the data showed definitively the disproportionate abuse Ardern was subjected to.

Since 2019, police have also recorded more than 100 threats against Ardern. At least eight have been serious enough to land in court.

Wilson's analysis did not find that the other women tracked were targeted significantly more than the men. However, that did not mean gender was not a factor in the abuse of Ardern, he said.

"She's a lightning rod for all these things - Covid, fears about Covid, fears about mandates and losing their job, the fact that she's PM. But then she's also a woman ... You can't get away from the fact that a lot of it is highly misogynistic."

Disinformation Project tracking during the pandemic found women were targeted with gendered and misogynistic abuse, including rape threats.

Wilson's analysis, which has not yet been published, covered internet sites known for extreme posts, including Gab, 4chan, some New Zealand channels of secure message service Telegram, Reddit and 8kun.

The issue needed more hard data, and more political attention, he said.

"This should be a bipartisan concern, if we want a healthier New Zealand."

* This story was first published on Stuff.

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs