I SPOTTED HER at one hundred metres. Average height, average build, entirely nondescript: the sort of person you would pass in the street without a second glance. Had she not been carrying a red umbrella on a day that smelled of rain, my eyes would have registered her presence, and continued searching. But the red umbrella fixed my gaze. It was the pre-arranged sign. This was the woman.
As she came up the steps towards the bench I rose, as arranged, to greet her like an old friend. She stretched out her hand and I shook it gently. As she seated herself beside me, she took care to position the red umbrella between us. A demarcator: on one side, her world; on the other, mine.
“I’m told you are in search of information, Mr … Smith?”
“Not my real name.”
No? You surprise me. My name is Ms … Jones.”
“What can you tell me about the Government’s war against ‘misinformation’ and ‘disinformation’? Are my sources exaggerating? Or, is this something to be taken seriously?”
“Direct and to the point. I like that Mr Smith. At my age, time is precious. So, let me be equally direct. Your sources are not exaggerating. The management of information is something this government takes extremely seriously. Its predecessors had it much easier, of course. Fifty years ago there were so few disseminators of information. Keeping the official story – or stories – straight involved managing maybe two or three hundred individuals – certainly no more than that. Today, you’re talking thousands – tens of thousands – all on digital platforms which can be updated in an instant. Thousands of people espousing views pulled straight out of their arses. Or, even worse, out of Russian, American and Chinese arses!”
“But, surely, propaganda of one sort or another has been around forever? Misinformation and disinformation – they’re hardly new.”
“No, that’s true. But the difference between the present and the past is the degree to which propaganda – yours and your opponents’ – can be controlled. Think about it. There have always been crazies out there. People who wrote to the editor of the local paper using green ink and capital letters. But they weren’t a problem. Their letters were simply crumpled up and deposited in the nearest wastepaper bin. And there was nothing, short of buying their own printing press, they could do about it. But today … Today they go on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Tik-Tok and their craziness infects thousands, or, if you’re Donald Trump, millions.”
“Good luck with controlling Meta and Google, Ms Jones!”
“Yes, well, now you’re getting to the heart of the problem. Let’s start with the timing of this latest big push. Our Prime Minister, horrified by the Christchurch mosque massacre, reaches out to Zuckerburg and his ilk. But, she also takes to heart the criticism of the Muslim community about the ‘hate speech’ that fuelled the horror. All the lies and half-truths circulating about Islam. All that misinformation and disinformation. It took hold of Brenton Tarrant. It turned him into a mass murderer.”
“Okay. But Tarrant was refighting the crusades. How do you prevent that? Close all the libraries?”
“A fair question. But let me move the narrative on. Ten months after Christchurch, Covid-19 arrives on the scene. It’s new, and no one is at all sure how deadly this novel coronavirus is going to be. One thing the experts do know, however, is that the effects of a potentially deadly virus can be made a whole lot worse by people spreading misinformation and disinformation on the Internet. So the DPMC hires people to monitor what’s happening online vis-à-vis the pandemic. The results are frightening. It’s a nutfest out there.”
“And the Prime Minister, her government, and their advisers, are all convinced that these nutters have to be monitored and, if possible, reined-in, before they undermine the ‘Team of Five Million’s’ battle against the virus – especially the vaccine roll-out.”
“Well done, Mr Smith, well-spotted. But it gets worse. In the minds of the Government and its advisers, the anti-vaxxers and Wuhan Flu conspiracy theorists begin to merge with the white supremacists, Nazis, Islamophobes, transphobes and TERFs. As far as Labour and the Greens are concerned they are all dangerous nutters: people who can do real harm to others. And the people who defend these dangerous nutters’ right to free speech are little better than Typhoid Marys – allowing the viruses of hate and intolerance to spread throughout society.”
“But that’s ridiculous!”
“Is it? You’re not the Prime Minister. You’re not being accosted by these nutters every time you venture forth to promote vaccination. You’re not receiving e-mailed death threats – and worse – every day of the week. You’re not looking down on Parliament Grounds at a seething mass of what looks like every green ink correspondent that ever lived waving hangman’s nooses and threatening to execute the entire House of Representatives. You’d like to laugh it off, but then you remember Washington DC on 6 January 2021, and suddenly you no longer feel like laughing.”
“And then they start thinking about Three Waters, and He Puapua and co-governance.”
“Clever boy. Their great fear is that what the anti-vaxxers started, the racists will finish. They’re thinking of all the misinformation and disinformation that’s already being spread about the transformation of New Zealand into Aotearoa, and they’re telling themselves that these digital reactionaries cannot be allowed to win. That the Pakeha majority must not be allowed to crush the legitimate aspirations of the Māori minority. That the racists’ misinformation and disinformation must be stopped.”
“And so we get the Public Interest Broadcasting Fund, and journalists trying to convince us that there are right-wing monsters out there moving in the darkness.”
“And that is when people like me enter the story. People who can gently steer journalists in the right direction. People who can identify potential journalistic assets and supply them with the information they would have very little chance of unearthing without a great deal of unattributed assistance – information that makes their careers. People who can suggest which anti-government voices are most deserving of being silenced. You look shocked Mr Smith. You shouldn’t be. We spooks have been doing this sort of thing for years – just like the Australians, the Americans and the Brits. The thing you’ve got to understand about misinformation and disinformation, Mr … Smith, is that they’re like machine-guns and artillery – much too dangerous to have just anybody firing them off. They are weapons that only the state can be permitted to wield.”
She rose carefully from her seat, as if her joints were giving her discomfort. Glanced up at the grey clouds gathering before a sharp south wind, and pulled her coat more tightly about her.
“It’s coming on to rain, Mr … Smith. My car’s on the other side of the park – not far. So, since we know you came on foot, I’ll leave you the umbrella.”
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 2 September 2022.