How the mainstreaming of extreme politics has democracy on edge

The Wellington occupation was supposed to be about ending the mandates, but a new Stuff Circuit documentary investigates those behind the protest and discovers they have far bigger and more dangerous goals.

Fire and Fury is a Stuff Circuit investigation into disinformation in Aotearoa New Zealand. It’s a confronting watch (content warning: violent language), but we felt compelled to make it.

OPERATION: RECLAIM, it was titled. A strategic plan, apparently. 

An appeal for “real and tangible action taken by the people in numbers”. A call for public trials of politicians, media, judges, business leaders, for crimes against humanity. A combative opposing force could be expected, it read, and that threat should be met by assembling “former trained, but trusted ex-military, police and even hunters”. 

The action had one agenda: to save the people “from this tyranny”. 

The “plan” was released in February during the Wellington occupation by one of the key figures behind the protest, Kelvyn Alp, a disaffected former soldier with a history of failed attempts at politics, who last year launched Counterspin Media — a far-right online TV channel. 

Alp is a focus of the Stuff Circuit documentary, Fire and Fury. Our investigation centres not on the Wellington protest itself, but those who drove it: Who are they, what did they believe, and crucially, what do they want to happen next?

From the outside looking in, especially on that final violent and terrifying day, it may have appeared the occupation had achieved nothing but destruction and perhaps the slight decaying of societal norms.  

But for those pushing the false information that motivated people to join in and stay on, it was an opportunity to build the movement beyond the fringe. A recruitment drive.

For Fire and Fury we tallied up the numbers to gauge how big an audience Alp and others like him have. While we wouldn’t wish to overstate their influence, the figures don’t lie: combined,

they are reaching hundreds of thousands of New Zealanders, through a mix of mainstream social media, unregulated chat rooms, and video-hosting sites that are hotbeds of hate, where algorithms ply yet more hate and there’s no consequence for publishing blatantly fake news. 

The Fire and Fury documentary shows you — unfiltered — what the players preach to their followers, how they’re all interconnected, and what motivates them to spread disinformation on issues as diverse as the invasion of Ukraine, the US overturning of abortion rights, and, of course, Covid.   

Watching what they say and the often venomous way they say it led us to another threat which we’ll examine here: the very fundamental risk they pose to democracy. 

Because consistent across their messaging is a plan to deconstruct our political structure from the bottom up, to achieve an “ungovernable’’ country.

Within months of the protest they were beginning to achieve that aim.

Counterspin Media was rallying supporters to rise up and create a parallel society, “your own government, your own structure, your own currency,” then took the message on a road trip, travelling Aotearoa between April and June 2022 with the objective of keeping up the momentum started at the Wellington occupation.

The frustration of failing to get any wins out of the protest had steered them in another direction: local government and discontent over the Three Waters reform of water service infrastructure and management.

Alp and his partner, fellow Counterspin presenter Hannah Spierer, held meetings from the Far North to Bluff, introducing their communities to speakers on conspiracies such as the Covid pandemic being a hoax to bring about a secret United Nations agenda for a single world government. 

It’s concerning then for grassroots democracy that elected officials — councillors in three regions — took part in proceedings, not as interested observers, but in the lineup of apparently like-minded speakers. 

Gisborne councillor and then-member of Tairāwhiti District Health, Meredith Akuhata-Brown, told the meeting the Covid vaccine is an experimental drug (a frequently made but inaccurate claim), causing injury and death (it has, but not at anywhere near the exaggerated rates alleged).

There was low attendance but the meeting was recorded and put online. 

New Plymouth District councillor Anneke Carlson told a healthy-sized crowd that after the Wellington protest ended the way it did, it made her “heart so warm and so happy” to see people turning up for the Counterspin event, thanking them for coming to Taranaki. 

Waikato Regional Councillor Kathy White addressed a crowd in Taupō, telling them media reporting on Thames-Coromandel Mayor Sandra Goudie’s refusal to be vaccinated was an orchestrated attempt to “muzzle” people.

White also spoke about an unidentified friend who she said had died after receiving her second vaccination, standard fare at the meetings where the Counterspin hosts ask people to raise their hands if they know of someone with a vaccine injury. Those apocryphal anecdotes — stories of unknown and doubtful origins — are a long-held tool of the anti-vaccination movement.

Vaccine injuries is a popular topic too for Voices for Freedom, another focus of Fire and Fury. 

Voices for Freedom leaders Claire Deeks, Alia Bland, and Libby Jonson.

Voices for Freedom leaders Claire Deeks, Alia Bland, and Libby Jonson.

Led by ”three passionate Kiwi mums,” Voices for Freedom says it stands for (the nebulous but righteous-sounding) “medical freedom”.

In reality, its aims are far wider, and mirror those of Counterspin. 

In a March email to members, the leaders wrote they are “setting up systems of resilience so that we will never again be subject to the whim of tyrannical leaders”. 

They needed a rallying cry because they too were feeling the dying momentum.

“After the protest finished everybody was very flat, sad, broken,’’ regular Voices For Freedom contributor Gill Booth told a public meeting in June. “They’d lost their direction,” she said, urging attendees to focus on a new issue: Three Waters. 

“So the thing with Three Waters is that we can bring that direction back. Without mandates, without the vaccine, it’s a whole different topic, it doesn’t matter what you are or who you are, it’s going to affect you and this can give us one single focus.”

Booth laid out a playbook for sabotaging the democratic process. “If we can pull together so hard in our communities to absolutely disrupt and rip to pieces our local council.

“When you go into these groups just tip them up, don’t play ball. Become ungovernable.”

Booth was supported by Southland farmer James Matheson, who gained a following through the Wellington occupation as ’Farmer James’.

Matheson described how he and 70 others turned up at a meeting to discuss alternative industries for Southland when the Tiwai smelter closed.

‘’I tore shreds off these people for like an hour, then I had to go to rugby practice.

“Be an absolute hindrance,” was his advice. 

The tactics were put into action again in June when the Clutha District Council held a public meeting fronted by key figures leading the Three Waters reforms. 

Clutha Mayor Bryan Cadogan asked for respectful discussion and offered reassurance there would be no change to water ownership, yet it took only 30 minutes for everything to go downhill. 

“Why’s half the board Māori then, what are ya talking about,” unleashed one, not even attempting to disguise their racism. 

As the meeting progressed and the crowd became more confrontational, “Farmer James” Matheson stoked the sentiment, standing up to tell Cadogan, “You’re pretty good at blowing your own trumpet,” before asking again about ownership, adding, with no apparent context, “how long it might take if we’ve got six iwi representatives … how long will it take them to get that concrete poured even”.

It achieved the desired effect on the room and someone else rose to their feet to make an unsubstantiated claim about backroom dealings with Ngāi Tahu. 

Officials reiterated water assets will remain in public ownership with new entities collectively owned by councils.

But those opposed had made up their minds.

Matheson live streamed the two hour meeting on Facebook, attracting 5000 views.

Which is surely a good thing: engagement in local issues is democracy in action, isn’t it? 

That’s not what this is, says an exasperated mayor; it’s a deliberate attempt to undermine democratic process. 

Cadogan says the meeting had been called because of concern about the speed of  “disingenuous misinformation being spread” about the reforms, making it impossible to share facts.

“It is a shame because democracy, and the very principles that define our freedoms and privileges are being radically affected,” in what he calls “the intoxication of attention” for the disruptors.

“The main problem for society is the growing numbers of traditionally sound-thinking people that are influenced … not knowing the alternative motivation.”

Cadogan argues the strategies to disrupt are putting society’s stability at risk —  along with the future of democracy.

Many would say that is an alarmist overreaction, but when you have a unique insight into the dynamics at play, it is possibly an understatement, because much of the damage is already done and society has not yet recognised it.”
Bryan Cadogan, Clutha Mayor

It’s tempting to dismiss the “ungovernability” movement as fringe. But that would be a mistake.

A frame from the Stuff Circuit documentary Fire and Fury, filmed during the Wellington riot.

A frame from the Stuff Circuit documentary Fire and Fury, filmed during the Wellington riot.

You only need to watch the hearings of the US congressional committee investigating the Capitol riots of January 2021 to see the real-life consequences of anti-democratic sentiment gaining traction. 

The fact that far-right groups involved in storming the Capitol have been classified as terrorist organisations in New Zealand shows how seriously the issue is being taken. 

But for those at the coalface of democracy, it’s not enough.

“We saw it in America and never thought we could be that silly,” says Cadogan. “But it only took a few months and we had our own civil unrest in Wellington. Society is lagging behind in awareness and mechanisms to deal with this new dynamic.”

Multiple factors led to that unrest: disconnection, long poverty, growing distrust in institutions. 

But there’s another major hook that can’t be ignored: conspiracy.

For Fire and Fury, we interviewed Josie (who wants only their first name used given the horrific transphobia that pervades all these groups). In 2009 Josie started looking for answers to why the world was “dog-shit”, and soon became a full-blown conspiracist. 

Among the theories that gripped Josie for 10 straight years was that a group of secret elite leaders was working to establish a New World Order.

“Everything I thought got filtered through a constellation of meaning that conspiracy theories would give you. I had all the answers … given to me by these elusive freedom fighters.’’

For 10 years Josie believed conspiracy theories, saying they helped make sense of a "dog-shit" world.

For 10 years Josie believed conspiracy theories, saying they helped make sense of a "dog-shit" world.

Updated versions of the same theories Josie fell for back then are still trotted out by all the groups we studied. 

In 2021, Voices for Freedom co-leader Claire Deeks spoke alongside big name anti-vaccine influencers at an online international summit promoting the Great Reset conspiracy theory; that global elites are using the pandemic to establish a totalitarian world government. References to the Great Reset soon appeared in Voices for Freedom’s own marketing material. 

Kelvyn Alp (whose Counterspin Media purports to be a “facts and evidence based platform”) is also a believer of the Great Reset and gives frequent monologues about “the transhumanist agenda”.

“Farmer James” cultivates a brand of the beer-drinking southern man working the land and defending family and has called Covid a ‘’scamdemic’’. In March he filmed a group of men gathered in his shed talking about the start of a male “revolution” and in June started his own national tour calling on men to ‘’stand tall’’. 

It’s all delivered with assuredness and contempt for the “sheeple” who haven’t caught up. Which is a common trait amongst conspiracy theory devotees: the belief the knowledge they possess makes them smarter than everyone else.

The problem is, much of what they’ve embraced is driven by highly-adept far-right manipulators whose very purpose, say experts, is to destabilise social democracies. 

The New Zealand spreaders are simply vectors, but they have large, loyal audiences.

Which might help explain why we seem to have a particular vulnerability: in the months leading up to the Wellington protest New Zealanders were embracing Russian disinformation and propaganda at a rate 30 percent greater than Australians or Americans. 

How to fix that? 

At least some of the responsibility falls on social media companies. The next phase of the Christchurch Call agreement will focus on how algorithms contribute to radicalisation and spreading misinformation by feeding people more of what they’re already watching, only worse. How the big tech companies will contribute to that work is unclear, although Stuff Circuit has learned Facebook activated a special operations team to monitor content during the Wellington occupation, with the aim of removing misinformation and posts inciting violence, in real time.

But of course only the mainstream social media companies are — belatedly — trying, and not always hard enough. 

The unregulated chat rooms where this content rages are seemingly untouchable, and indifferent.

Josie eventually managed to crawl out of the rabbithole.

A frame from the Stuff Circuit documentary Fire and Fury.

A frame from the Stuff Circuit documentary Fire and Fury.

With none of the conspiracy theories coming true, Josie felt the need to become more media literate, learning “how to research and engage with information in a way that you can pull out the contradictions and inconsistencies”. 

So Josie watched events unfolding in the capital at the beginning of this year through a different lens to most of us, familiar with the pull, and consequently worried about a descent into violence by a mob or an individual radicalised through the ongoing demonisation of “the elite”.

We witnessed first-hand that there’s reason to be worried.

After reading Alp’s “strategic plan”, we wanted to see what impact it might have on the Wellington protest.

Stuff Circuit was in the thick of it when the protest turned into a riot, and Fire and Fury shows footage we filmed but have not previously released: the scenes are apocalyptic, and

as journalists, we’ve never, anywhere in the world, experienced such visceral hatred towards us. It was dangerous and, at times, it was scary.

The fomented distrust of the media is in itself a sign that democracy here is on edge: the disruptors know destabilising one of its pillars weakens the whole thing. 

We need to be paying attention. Or, as the conspiracy theorists themselves would say, we need to wake up.

Stuff Circuit would like to thank: FACT Aotearoa @factaotearoa, Paparoa @Paparoa3, Te Rangikaiwhiria Kemara @Te_Taipo, Charlie Mitchell @comingupcharlie, Guled Mire @GuledMire, Auckland Transport/Auckland One Rail
Researcher/Reporter Paula Penfold
Researcher/Producer Louisa Cleave
Cinematographer Phil Johnson
Director/Editor Toby Longbottom
Interactive Designers Alex Lim, Aaron Wood, John Harford
Colourist Pete Ritchie
Sound mixer David Liversidge, Radiate
Visual effects Mandy VFX, Steen Bech (post producer), Anita Ward (post producer + VFX artist), Leon Woods (VFX artist), Patrick Junghans (3D artist)
Additional camera Toby Longbottom
Creative director Toby Longbottom
Executive producer Terence Taylor
Commissioning editors Mark Stevens, Janine Fenwick
Production manager Sky Austin-Martin
Legals Courtney Grenfell
Marketing Zachary White
Communications Melissa Dobson, Candice Dobson
Finance Lovella Aninon
Music Audionetwork
20/20 story Newshub Archive
Archive footage Getty Images

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