American vaccine disinformation used as ‘Trojan horse’ for far right in New Zealand

When Josephine Bartley, a councilor in Auckland, New Zealand, heard that a local Covid-19 vaccination clinic had been vandalized in early November, she drove over to survey the damage. After speaking to the owners and helping them connect with local law enforcement, she noticed three men loitering near her parking spot.

“Some guys were standing around my car just staring at me,” she told NBC News by telephone and email last week.

“One of them called me scum,” she said, and suggested they damage her vehicle. The men then entered a four-wheel drive and left. While the labour party councilor said she did not know if the trio were linked to the vandalism of the health center, which primarily serves the local Pacific community, the experience left her shaken.

“I was confused, I was trying to figure out who was ‘scum’ — was it brown people? Was it Labour, was it Council? Was the vaccination? Was it women? But I was concerned for my safety,” Bartley said. The police “advised me not to use my car and lay low for a few days,” she said.

As New Zealand shifts to a policy of “living with the virus,” residents accustomed to living virtually Covid-free for most of the pandemic are being confronted by rising case numbers and widening vaccine mandates. Opposition to vaccination as well as frustration with ongoing pandemic restrictions is fueling a small but vocal protest movement inspired in part by American politics.

In a working paper published in November, a team of researchers in New Zealand said there had been a “sharp increase in the popularity and intensity” of disinformation around Covid-19 since August, when an outbreak driven by the highly transmissible delta variant of the virus that is responsible for the vast majority of New Zealand’s cases began.

The researchers said the disinformation was “being used as a kind of Trojan horse” to coax New Zealanders from vaccine hesitancy to vaccine resistance, and then to the embrace of far-right ideologies like white supremacy and extreme misogyny. Some of the most extreme content, they said, comes from overseas, particularly Australia and the United States.

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