ANALYSIS: It’s an unusual picture: tractors lined up in the Auckland Estate, used as a stage prop for a crowd of Voices for Freedom (VFF) supporters, without a red stripe gumboot in sight.
For event oppose a proposed methane taxit should be noted that, in some regions, the majority of the demonstrators were townspeople waving signs from a group best known for its opposition to Covid-19 vaccines and other public health measures.
It was no coincidence. VFF had urged its supporters to come forward, and the group’s website is dominated by a full-screen image stating that “New Zealand agriculture is under attack”.
What is happening here?
This suggests a changing dynamic in the conspiracy movement, which was fully manifested in the actions of its most important group.
* Farm lobby turns into open battle as Groundswell attacks established players
* Accept the offer, Groundswell
* Groundswell NZ will take to the streets of New Zealand in a third nationwide protest
First, it should be mentioned that VFF and Groundswell have important structural similarities.
Both began in late 2020 in opposition to specific government policy. For VFF, these were public health measures; for Groundswell it was fresh water regulation.
They are both insurgent groups, representing a self-styled populist uprising against mainstream institutions they see as complicit in imposing restrictions on ordinary people.
In this sense, they function as two arms of the same movement: one predominantly male and rural, the other predominantly female and urban.
Although there have been tensions between the groups in the past – Groundswell has not officially supported the occupation in Parliament – the leaders of both groups said VFF members were essentially allowed to protest alongside farmers on Thursday.
Bryce McKenzie, co-founder of Groundswell said on Thursday that the group had not aligned itself with Voices for Freedom, but admitted it had no option if the organization came to the protests.
“They asked if they could come, then they said they would come anyway. As long as their signage stays true to the message of not taxing food production, there’s not much we can do about it.”
An email to supporters about Tuesday’s protest said VFF had spoken to Groundswell leaders, who were “very happy to have everyone on deck in solidarity with the farmers on this day”. In a video, VFF co-founder Claire Deeks said she spoke to the executives personally and said they were “very happy that we are standing together.”
Why would they want to protest to the farmers?
In a general way, voice for freedom is experiencing an identity crisis.
A group that has captured the energy of opposing public health measures during a pandemic has an obvious problem: what public health measures? At present, VFF and the government have essentially the same position on the pandemic.
To maintain its own existence, VFF was forced to cast a wider net in an effort to reinvigorate its user base.
He tried with a campaign to get his supporters to run for local body elections, which was, for the most part, a failure. Early last month, he attempted to relive his glory days with a large release of face mask pamphlets, just to mask mandates be abandoned a few days later.
That lagging energy is reflected in its engagement numbers. In recent months, viewership of VFF video content has fallen off a cliff.
Between August 1 and October 10 last year, at the height of the pandemic, 60 of the 70 videos he posted during that time received over 1,000 views. Together they had 460,000 views.
During the same period this year, VFF posted 63 videos, only seven of which have over 1000 views. Combined views were around 40,000, down 90%.
Since being banned from Facebook, VFF’s biggest social network is now on Telegram, where he has a respectable 33,000 followers. But unlike Facebook, Telegram isn’t driven by algorithms – it’s very hard for users to be unknowingly pushed to a group like VFF.
This is a major obstacle to recruitment and probably explains why the group, despite claiming to have a principled objection to Facebooktried to register again without success.
It left the impression that VFF doesn’t have much to contribute. Regular video chats with the group’s founders are increasingly devoted to complaints about unflattering media coverage and vague warnings of further oppression to come, rather than substantive issues that might have motivated them. in the old days. In a video on Thursday, they hinted that they were going to take a break from making videos in general.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has unveiled the government’s plan to price methane, nitrous oxide and carbon dioxide created on farms.
What does this have to do with agriculture?
Earlier this week, important Jaspreet Boparai, VFF member and Southland dairy farmer – who was elected to Southland District Council this month – interviewed former Federated Farmers chairman Don Nicholson.
Nicholson was the leader of the infamous 2003 protest against a so-called ‘fart tax’, in which a tractor was driven up the steps of Parliament.
In the interview, Nicholson detailed his belief that Marxism was deployed globally through the UN and its sustainability goals, and suggested it was part of a plot to enslave humanity.
His interview – which also invoked popular villains like the World Economic Forum and the World Bank as tentacles of the same “globalist” system – suggested a strong literacy in the canon of modern conspiracy theories.
This is not new and is part of a common conspiracy theory in New Zealand.
It is centered on the 2030 Agenda, a set of non-binding measures sustainability goals of the United Nations which aim to end poverty and hunger in the world, to guarantee access to drinking water and to fight against global warming, among others.
The conspiracy theory claims that these goals are implemented to depopulate rural areas, forcing people into cities where they can be controlled and monitored.
For proponents of this theory, this is a useful shorthand for explaining the things they disagree with: three waters reform, bike paths, public infrastructure, story time events and, above all, any action against climate change.
VFF has regularly promoted a version of this theory, mostly through Boparai. Now that it’s lost its animation problem, it makes sense that this is where VFF will focus its attention, which explains the seemingly odd sight of urban VFF supporters holding signs indicating a food crisis.
Is it significant?
Turnout was dismal on Thursday – it’s a busy time for farmers in general, and it was a busy day – but any kind of alliance between the groups can help in other ways.
Groundswell has often struggled with message discipline, having to urge its most extreme followers not to bring sexist, racist signs or both. It doesn’t have a slick brand or a massive subscriber base.
On this front, voice for freedom is a well-oiled machine – its mass-produced signs are concise, precise and visually distinct, and it has amassed over 100,000 subscribers.
Both groups appear to be preparing form submissions for the methane tax, which will give urban and rural dwellers an easy way to register their opposition in a way that could easily dominate the submission process, if only in pure numbers.
The major question will be whether the two groups – should they want to – remain on common ground? Some farmers supporting Groundswell would no doubt be put off by anti-vaccine views, and VFF may struggle to keep its supporters interested in the intricacies of greenhouse gas emissions.
But if they decide to merge in any meaningful way, they could prove to be a powerful urban/rural alliance.