The occasion was the monthly meeting of the Masterton branch of the NZ Institute of International Affairs. This is typically a sedate event involving a guest speaker, often from academia. The attendees are predominantly older people – retired public servants and the like – with an interest in (as the organisation’s name suggests) foreign affairs, New Zealand’s relationship with the wider world and politics in general.
Last night’s meeting turned out to be anything but decorous. The guest speaker was Dr Michael Daubs, a senior lecturer in media and communication at Victoria University of Wellington. (The job title might give you a clue about what’s to follow.) His address was titled The Truth About Disinformation. It was a red rag in a room that turned out to include quite a few bulls.
These are highly contentious issues, as the evening was to demonstrate. The tone was set when the MC read an abusive email sent by someone who had apparently seen publicity for the meeting in the local community paper. Other dissenters had obviously been alerted too. There was a big turnout – I estimated about 60-70 people – and among them were people not normally seen at NZIIA meetings.
Nonetheless the event proceeded relatively smoothly. At the start there was an aggressive interjection from the back of the room from a man demanding to know what Daubs got his doctorate in (it was media studies). Later another man shouted “who’s paying you?” before noisily exiting the room. (“I got a free dinner,” Daubs answered.) Otherwise the audience was relatively quiet and attentive, although restive murmurs from time to time suggested not everyone was in total accord with what Daubs was saying.
It was only at the end that the event went pear-shaped. As he reached the end of his talk, Daubs was drowned out by angry interjections from the floor. The MC briefly restored order and asked for questions, quite reasonably requesting that they be put politely.
Faint chance. An elderly man put his hand up and was duly handed the microphone, but without saying a word he passed it to anti-vax agitator and Three Waters campaigner John Ansell, who was sitting close by. Ansell had had his hand up too, but the MC ignored him in favour of someone he presumably thought less likely to cause trouble. The handover of the mike was the equivalent of a dummy pass, clearly planned in advance and slickly executed.
Ansell wasn’t interested in asking questions. On taking the mike, he got to his feet and launched into what can only be described as a rant – a word greatly devalued by overuse, but applicable in this case. I couldn’t tell you exactly what he was saying because he was drowned out when the room erupted in a noisy shouting match, Ansell’s supporters competing with those who had come to hear Daubs and resented the disruption.
Ansell proceeded to stride around the room, shouting into the mike but remaining mostly inaudible due to the hubbub around him. As an elderly stalwart of the NZIIA tried ineffectually to escort him off the premises, up on the rostrum one of Ansell’s allies – I think the same guy who handed him the mike – was jabbing an accusing finger in Daubs’ face and shouting that he was a communist.
All the while, the commotion continued. At one point I heard the MC announce, somewhat superfluously, that the meeting was ended, while around him the shouting match raged unabated. It would be fair to say the Masterton branch of the impeccably proper and dignified NZIIA had never experienced anything quite like it. Neither had the venue, a Masterton funeral parlour. It would have been comical if it hadn’t been so dispiriting.
Eventually things quietened down, order was restored and the antagonists departed, leaving NZIIA regulars to marvel at what they had just observed.
Let’s turn now to what Daubs actually said.
I thought his talk was both laughable and contemptible. It’s hard to imagine a more vivid example of the leftist elite’s contempt for any opinions other than its own and its determination to demonise the expression of legitimate dissent.
Daubs, who is American (yes, another imported propagandist in a tertiary education sector that’s infested with them), used last year’s anti-lockdown protests as evidence that sinister players are using the Internet to spread disinformation that threatens to undermine social cohesion.
He showed a series of slides illustrating what he clearly regarded as dangerous beliefs underpinning the protests. Yes, some of them were eccentric, cranky and probably wrong. But New Zealand is – or was, last time I looked – a free society. People are allowed to express cranky ideas provided they don’t harm anyone. It’s called freedom of expression.
In a free society, you’re allowed to get things wrong. In a free society, people can assess ideas for themselves and decide which ones make sense and which don’t. But that freedom is exactly what alarms the woke elite. Freedom to make up your own mind is dangerous. The far-Left elite, of which Daubs is an exemplar, don’t trust people to make their own decisions. They claim a monopoly on “factually correct information” and would prefer that the proles take their cue from the academic priesthood.
Anyway, how sinister were the lockdown protests, really? Daubs showed a photo of a banner on a motorway overbridge that read “NZ media shameful”. He showed us messages circulated within the protest camp advertising yoga, massage and Hare Krishna food.
He displayed these images as if they represented compelling evidence of dark, anti-social forces at work. Really? So yoga, massage, vegetarian food and people complaining about media bias are evidence of far-Right agitprop? That was the laughable bit.
Daubs went on to accuse protesters of using “emotional language” in a media statement – clearly an unconscionable act of defiance against those in authority. And what did the press statement say? That the protesters were the victims of an oppressive government. It was routine and unexceptionable, using similar language to thousands of other press statements down through the years.
Another slide showed a message from protest organisers urging the freedom campers outside Parliament to avoid violence, respect the law, stay sober, respect people and “be sensible”. This seemed to defeat Daubs’ own argument that the protest was the work of far-Right extremists intent on stirring up trouble. It made me wonder just who the real conspiracy theorists are. Is it the far-Right, or are the real conspiracy theorists people like Daubs and the shadowy Disinformation Project, which feverishly promotes moral panic over phantasms of its own creation?
If the latter is true, what’s their objective? Is it ultimately to stifle ideas and ideologies that they disapprove of?
Just as laughably, Daubs singled out another post on social media which he said had the potential to undermine confidence in the government. Gasp! Never mind that protest movements since time immemorial have had the object of making people question what their leaders were doing. Since when did Left-wing academics take it upon themselves to defend governments against legitimate protest activity? It’s a striking example of how radically the ideological ground has shifted since the advent of wokedom.
The tone of Daubs’ talk – and this is the bit I found contemptible – was smug, pompous, bigoted and condescending. The implication was that the dull-witted and gullible were at risk of falling for neo-Nazi and Far Right conspiracies and it was the job of people like him to save them from themselves.
He talked about “the truth” and “false stories”. He used these terms as if their meaning is settled. But who defines what’s true and what’s false? Why, people like Daubs, of course.
Under the pretence of protecting us, he and others of his ilk want to control what we can say, and by extension what we think. The purpose is to extinguish all and any opinion that stands in the way of their radical, transformational agenda.
Daubs engages in alarmism about neo-Nazis and far-Right extremists, but perhaps the most striking thing about his talk was the implicit endorsement of a totalitarian society in which no one can say anything that’s even mildly inconvenient for those in power. It’s interesting to speculate on how different his talk might have been had a centre-Right government, rather than a left-wing one, been in power during the Covid lockdown.
He outlined a number of possible strategies for countering conspiracy theories but stopped short of advocating any specific action. Nonetheless, a logical inference was that he thinks the state should have the power to suppress the expression of ideas that the ruling elite regards as dangerous. That points to oppressive hate speech laws, which are officially off the table for now but would very likely be revived if a Labour-Greens-Maori Party government comes to power in October.
I had some questions to put to Daubs. Unfortunately, by hijacking the event, John Ansell prevented me from doing so. I’ve had a bit to do with John over the years. He’s a very clever, witty man, but he needs to control his rage. Shouting your opponents down is unlikely to win over the non-aligned; it just gets people’s backs up. That’s why I say that I saw the worst extremes of the culture wars last night. John and Daubs should be locked in a small room together.
Had I been able to, however, I would have asked Daubs the following:
■ He and the Disinformation Project (which consistently refuses to reveal who funds it) operate from the premise that there is a threat to society from the far-Right. But isn’t it possible that a researcher could approach the subject from the exact opposite direction – in other words, from the starting point that dangerous ideas are being disseminated by the far Left – and argue their case just as persuasively? To put it another way, aren’t the disinformation researchers’ conclusions predetermined by their starting premise? (My own view, for what it’s worth, is that the far greater threat comes from the far Left because it’s embedded in all the institutions of power, including academia and the media. The so-called far-Right, on the other hand, is marginalised and relatively insignificant.)
■ Daubs talks about disinformation undermining social cohesion, but isn’t the Disinformation Project and its supporters – Daubs included – guilty of exactly the same thing? Aren’t they promoting polarisation and fragmentation by constantly turning up the heat in the culture wars? In other words, isn’t Daubs part of the problem he purports to deplore? (My argument would be that most New Zealanders are not attracted to extreme points of view. They would be largely oblivious to extremist ideologies if outfits like the Disinformation Project didn’t keep hyping them up. By amplifying the supposed threat from the so-called alt-Right, the Disinformation Project perversely gives it more oxygen. To put it another way, they’re all swimming in the same toxic pool.)
Finally, I would have asked Daubs how he reconciles his condemnation of the riot outside Parliament with his rapturous endorsement of the mob violence that forced Posie Parker to abandon her speaking engagement in Auckland three months ago.
On Sunday, March 25, the day Speak Up for Women announced they’d cancelled a Wellington event that Posie Parker was going to address because of what had happened to her in Auckland the day before, Daubs triumphantly tweeted: “Well, my Sunday afternoon just opened up. Well done, Tamaki friends!”
I would have been interested in hearing what made mob violence OK and even laudable when it was used against an anti-trans activist, but not when it involves anti-vax protesters at Parliament. Or is Daubs, as I suspect, just another rank and shallow hypocrite who switches his position to suit his ideological prejudices?
Karl du Fresne, a freelance journalist, is the former editor of The Dominion newspaper. He blogs at karldufresne.blogspot.co.nz.