Fire and Fury and….Fear

This is a commentary on a documentary that was released by Stuff and is part of a continuing examination of and commentary on the issue of mis/disinformation. The documentary – Fire and Fury – had the potential to be an informative and useful addition the the material swirling around current concerns about mis/disinformation. Sadly it did not fulfil that potential but rather was caught up in its own pre-determined view of the issue and those participating in it.

As I have earlier observed, I do not generally support the position advocated by those who express contrarian views. At the same time I would not wish their voices to be silenced. An exchange of ideas, although such a hope may be somewhat futile, is far preferable to the alternative which would be a form of censorship.

What follows is my view on the documentary and my reasons for suggesting that it does not fulfil its potential. It is entirely up to the reader whether or not these views find favour.

________________________________________________________________________________________________________

The Stuff documentary “Fire and Fury” is an interesting example of advocacy journalism. One commentator has described it as “agitprop”[1].

Because it originates from a mainstream media source there are certain constraints on its approach. One such constraint is the need for journalistic balance. Yet the introduction to the documentary and its accompanying material on the Stuff website suggests that balance and a portrayal of contesting views, leaving the reader or viewer to come to a conclusion, is not present.

The explanation of the project goes under the heading of opinion. The bias of the piece is clear from the title “Pushing Back Against the Monsters” although one would hope for some journalistic integrity in the piece. This is what it has to say:

You’ll recall the narrative driven (and accepted by many) during the Wellington protest that it was peaceful and had one objective: to end the mandates.

Scratching not too far beneath the surface, though, it was apparent there was an entirely different — and dangerous — agenda.

At Stuff Circuit our role is to investigate matters that are in the public interest, and two things happened around the time of the occupation that got our attention.

First, we saw talk in social media about making the country “ungovernable”. It sounded like a direct threat to democracy. What did it mean? Who were the people saying it and what was their intent?

Second, we started to see extreme violent language, death threats, and the normalising of language not previously used in everyday New Zealand: people talking very publicly about killing authority figures because they didn’t agree with their policies.

We wanted to understand where that had come from and how mainstream it was going; why your auntie or neighbour was putting this stuff on their Facebook page, oblivious and unquestioning as to its origins.

So far, so good. It is clear that this an investigative effort notwithstanding that the position of the authors started to become clear in the second paragraph (not to mention the title) when the suggestion of a “dangerous agenda” is made.

The focus of the documentary becomes clear and this, as described, is perfectly legitimate and clearly in the public interest.

Our focus in Fire and Fury is not the protest itself, but rather the key figures behind it. Who are they, where had they come from, what did they believe? Why were they so keen on the protest, what did they gain from it, and crucially, what do they want to happen next? The documentary explores how they had not come haphazardly to this moment: this seemingly disparate group of key figures is strategically interconnected, stronger together.

However, in the next paragraphs the focus shifts and the conclusions and directions of the documentary become clear. With the perjorative language that is used, it is unlikely that this will be an unbiassed account

Our decision to investigate led to months of being mired in online chat rooms and watching their mass-produced content: the most violent misogyny, racism, religious bigotry, transphobia, homophobia, online stalking and harassment.

And imbued throughout it all, conspiracy theories ranging from the QAnon-driven sinister cabal of paedophiles controlling the world, to the New World Order and the Great Reset Theory. That the pandemic is a guise for world depopulation and the establishment of a tyrannical global government. That the New Zealand government is engaged in democide: the destruction of its own people.

On and on it went. All of it sitting directly alongside and intertwined with disinformation about Covid, vaccines, and the pandemic response, combining to form a vast, dangerous, swirling, nonsensical, paranoid soup of toxicity.

Then there was the question of whether this material should be published. Was it going to give the contrarians (for that is what they are) yet another platform? That issue was dealt with in this way:

Our decision to investigate led to months of being mired in online chat rooms and watching their mass-produced content: the most violent misogyny, racism, religious bigotry, transphobia, homophobia, online stalking and harassment.

And imbued throughout it all, conspiracy theories ranging from the QAnon-driven sinister cabal of paedophiles controlling the world, to the New World Order and the Great Reset Theory. That the pandemic is a guise for world depopulation and the establishment of a tyrannical global government. That the New Zealand government is engaged in democide: the destruction of its own people.

On and on it went. All of it sitting directly alongside and intertwined with disinformation about Covid, vaccines, and the pandemic response, combining to form a vast, dangerous, swirling, nonsensical, paranoid soup of toxicity.

Then there was the question of whether this material should be published. Was it going to give the contrarians (for that is what they are) yet another platform? That issue was dealt with in this way:

But having decided to investigate, the question remained whether we should report what we were seeing. Why risk amplifying inflammatory and harmful material? Why risk making these people more influential than they would otherwise be? (Side note: it’s creepy watching some of them react when they have been in the news. They love it. They get off on it. It makes them feel important. Did we want to facilitate that?)

There were other reasons not to report, not least of which was the personal harassment which would inevitably come our way — as it does to anyone who works in this field — and has been directed at us (including death threats) for previous work. Massey University research of Stuff staff shows two thirds of our colleagues report experiencing actual violence or threats of violence related to their work — a figure far higher than that reported by journalists globally. (You’ll see in Fire and Fury how people have been provoked to hate journalists. There are real world consequences for that.)

The commentary continues with a consideration of not reporting on the findings of the investigation:

And there was one final question: What was the risk of not reporting?

The more we looked at the volume and scope of their material the more it became clear that not covering these people would not make them go away.

The lesson of history suggests that if you let far-right groups have the streets to themselves, they don’t just go home because there’s no one to fight. They’ll find someone to fight, someone to beat up. Any uncontested space, they’ll take over,” is how one journalist summed it up for Data & Society’s advice on reporting on extremists, antagonists, and manipulators.

One of the extraordinary comments in the immediately preceding passage refers to the “lesson of history”. Yet, as I shall demonstrate, a consideration of some of the historical material would suggest that some of the attitudes and approaches by the contrarians was not unique.

This piece is a review of some of the aspects of the Fire and Fury documentary. It is by no means a full review nor is it a critique. Some of the material in the documentary is important and vital – material that citizens should know so that they can be properly informed. But other aspects of the documentary display an absence of balance and almost a paternalistic and patronizing approach to the ability of citizens to make up their own minds.

I shall consider the way in which some of the material is presented, some of the production values underlying the documentary, an overall impression of the documentary and then the way in which history has a best been overlooked or at worst ignored in locating the views of contrarians. I shall discuss the very obvious bias that was displayed towards the end of the documentary and close my discussion with some observations of the impact of alternative (as opposed to mainstream) media on our expectations of information. The conclusion that I reach on the documentary may be surprising and indeed counter-intuitive – I shall leave that to the reader.

The points of view expressed in the production were of two types. The contrarian position was taken from social media posts and other internet-based sources. Significantly there were no interviews with any of the contrarian figures such as Claire Deeks and Chantelle Baker and certainly no discussions with Kelvyn Alps or Damien de Ment. In some respects this is understandable. Given the attitude of the contrarians to the media it is unlikely that they should want to engage. But at the same time those who discussed and critiqued the contrarian approach such as Khylee Quince, Kate Hannah, Ed Coper and others were interviewed and expressed their views in a calm and rational manner.

The way the opposing views were portrayed was interesting. The clips that were taken of the contrarian position were shrill, at times using the language of hyperbole and at other times were emotional and extreme. By contrast those who were interviewed were calm and rational although there were times when subjective views began to creep in.

Another issue arises in the way in which the contrarian position was portrayed. Rather than taking clips from social media platforms and portraying the points of view within that context, often the contrarian position was over-dramatised by superimposing the speaker on the backdrop of a large building, as if they were expressing their views not on a social media platform, but on a large sized electronic advertising billboard. The context became one of a city street scene with the contrarian view echoing through the canyon on buildings as if this was the means by which their views were communicated.

This portrayal misrepresented the medium of communication employed. Certainly it had dramatic effect but it was not a truthful nor realistic portrayal of how the message was communicated. In my view this was carrying creative license too far and again raised questions about the level of balance in the documentary.

The highlight of the documentary was the protest in the grounds of Parliament in March 2022. For some this must have been a disturbing experience to see, the ending was never going to be peaceful, and the violence of the ending cannot in any way be condoned. But once again the documentary used production techniques to lend a highly dramatic backdrop to the event – a backdrop that was not present at the time. Throughout the segment on the Parliamentary protest dark, sonorous, doom-laden music provides a soundtrack, no doubt to heighten the drama of the event. But this was not a drama. Although we are well used to background music in malls and other places, life does not have a musical soundtrack, and in my view to superimpose one – especially one as oppressive and dark as that used in the documentary – is taking a considerable production liberty.

I suppose that the makers of the documentary wanted to emphasise an atmosphere of Gotterdammerung but Richard Wagner’s Siegfried’s Funeral March is positively lyrical in comparison to the Parliamentary protest soundtrack.

Given the various production elements that I have discussed I viewed the piece with growing concern. This clearly was not a balanced objective “put both sides out there” piece of journalism, even although it purported to be that. In essence the writers and producers were paying lip-service (and not a lot of that) to journalistic standards.

During the Parliamentary Protest the journalists involved were on the ground filming and reporting on the event and gathering material which ended up in the documentary. They were challenged by the protesters and the indignant outrage of the journalists, who claimed that they were only doing their jobs, was clearly and unequivocally expressed. I am not sure if this arose from a journalistic attitude of entitlement or ignorance of what they were getting themselves into.

They were reporting on a group of people for whom distrust and scepticism of mainstream media is a significant article of belief. One of the problems in reporting on the contrarian position is that the mainstream media portrayal is largely unfavourable and merely cements in contrarian distrust. Indeed, there is even a point of view in mainstream media that suggests that by reporting on both sides of the protest, a platform is provided to a group that has been banned from Facebook for spreading misinformation.[2]

Another aspect of the problem faced by the media is the fact that the public interest journalism fund provides financial support for public interest journalism. So far, so good. A $55 million fund is available to support New Zealand’s media to continue to produce stories that keep New Zealanders informed and engaged, and support a healthy democracy. Again, so far so good.

The Cabinet paper supporting the fund sets out the difficulties that were faced by mainstream media organisations during the pandemic. But it is in paragraph 5 of the Cabinet paper that one of the objectives of the fund becomes clear. It states “The spread of misinformation related to COVID-19, particularly through social media channels, has sharpened public awareness of the importance of, and reliance on, a strong and independent media sector.”

As is so often the case in the current discussions on misinformation, the term is not defined but it is clear that there is a concern about the expression of contrarian views and that a viable and well-funded mainstream media may provide a counter to contrarian expression. Nothing wrong with a healthy debate, but a shadow is apparent when one considers the optics of the fund. From the contrarian position, the investment of $55 million in sustainable journalism is a means of controlling the message. The view is that of course mainstream media will report the government position favourably, if only to ensure that the cash keeps flowing. Although the presence of the funding may not lead to bias, it is the perception of bias that is the problem.

All of this is further complicated by the fact that the State sees itself as the sole source of truth. As the Prime Minister said to Parliament on 2 September 2020

“I want to send a clear message to the New Zealand public: we will share with you the most up-to-date information daily. You can trust us as a source of that information. You can trust the Director-General of Health. For that information, do feel free to visit at any time—to clarify any rumour you may hear—the covid19.govt.nz website. Otherwise dismiss anything else. We will continue to be your single source of truth. We will provide information frequently. We will share everything we can. Everything else you see – a grain of salt.”[3]

It is little wonder that the contrarians have a perception of bias by mainstream media. The facts can give rise to that inference, and although there is a body of literature to the contrary, in the minds of many, perception is reality. Interestingly enough I understand that Fire and Fury was a beneficiary of that fund. In the minds of the contrarians, QED.

There can be little doubt that mainstream media and its position the arbiters of “truth” has been threatened by the rise of the Internet and social media. In many respects the Internet potentially provides everyone with a platform and in that respect enhances and enables a level of freedom of expression – the reception and dissemination of information – to an extent that society has not seen before. That everyone potentially has a voice is a long sought aspect of democracy.

What follows from this is cacophony and the expression of many and varying viewpoints. Many of these viewpoints are personal opinions only. They may be based on an incomplete or incorrect factual basis but they may, nevertheless, be validly held.

And if some of these views challenge established points of view or perspectives, so be it. To have our viewpoints or opinions challenged is the price we pay for being able to express our viewpoints and challenge those of others.

“Democracy is built on the right to dissent, on the right for people to hold opposing positions. Our societies need freedom of expression to protect us from the worst atrocities that governments can visit on their citizens.”[4]

There are times when a contrarian position will give offence. Salman Rushdie has made a number of comments on the freedom of expression and offence. The starting point is that no one has a right not to be offended. It doesn’t appear in any international instruments on human rights. Rushdie’s view is that

” If you are offended it is your problem, and frankly lots of things offend lots of people.”

Then he locates offence within the context of the freedom of expression

“What is freedom of expression? Without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist.”

One of the ironies that came out of the Fire and Fury documentary were the expressions of offence on the part of some of commentators including Dean of AUT Law School Khylee Quince who expressed her offence at some of the associations that were developing within the contrarian movement. I would have thought that Ms Quince would have been a little more objective in the expression of her views. Being offended is simply not a good enough argument in my view. Perhaps she should have expressed her disagreement accompanied by reasons.

Underlying the documentary is a concern at the way that social media platforms enable the expression of contrarian positions. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other “big tech” platforms have taken steps to address some of the more extreme positions adopted by contrarians but there are other platforms like Telegram and Gab that appear to be quite unregulated and not susceptible to control. These platforms are seen as breeding grounds for disinformation.

Part of the problem about communications technology is the way that it can alter and change our approaches to and our expectations of information. A clear example is in the way that the printing press was an agent of change in the way in which information was communicated and the way that it enabled the expression of contrarian views. Martin Luther’s 97 theses that sparked the Reformation were circulated throughout Germany within two weeks of Luther initiating the debate by pinning his theses to the church door in Wittenberg. His views were as contrarian as they possibly could be and the printing press enabled the dissemination of contrarian points of view and still does.

The underlying properties of internet-based communications technology enable, as I have said, everyone to have a platform and to express a point of view. As I have observed, this is cacophonous but it does mean that people are far more willing to express themselves, often quite pungently, knowing that there may be little consequence visited upon them. The communications technology has enabled this shift in behaviour. The technology enables it.

One of the commentators on Fire and Fury expressed the somewhat interesting point of view that people can be radicalized by over-exposure to extreme ideas. This is an extraordinarily patronizing perspective as well as being a very wide and all-consuming generalization. There can be little support for the view that a whole community is going to become radicalized if they watch Counterspin media too frequently. This does a disservice to the intelligence and common sense of the greater majority of the community.

There are some who have adopted extremist views. Some in the Fire and Fury documentary use extreme language, calling for extreme and violent consequences. How much these people were playing to the camera would need to be assessed and in some cases such expression may be fuelled by highly charged emotions and anger. Although the protest at Parliament ended violently if there had been a true undercurrent of revolutionary violence it would have happened.

We may decry the over-exuberant expression that we see on Internet platforms. Our concerns must be measured against a recognition of the importance of freedom of expression. But regrettably I do not see a return to polite conversation. Communications platforms have been with us for too long and our behaviours have become too ingrained for there to be any likelihood of change. Although this may be seen as a form of technological determinism, it must also be recognized as a reality.

The final point that I would like to make is about the lessons of history, referred to in the opening introduction to the documentary. Was the protest at Parliament that unusual in the overall scheme of things. Was the language of the protesters so extreme. In 1787 in (to our ears) an erudite letter from Thomas Jefferson to William Stephens Smith, Jefferson said

“And what country can preserve it’s liberties if their rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance? Let them take arms. The remedy is to set them right as to facts, pardon and pacify them. What signify a few lives lost in a century or two? The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is it’s natural manure.”

This language is probably as extreme as some that was used in March 2022 and yet it is over 200 years old and written at a time when the American Revolution had been successfully achieved.

History is full of similar examples – the French Revolution, the 1830 Revolution in France, the European Revolutions of 1848, the anarchists, Socialists and Bolsheviks of the period leading up to the 1917 Revolution and the student protests in Europe on 1968.

More recently one only has to look at some of the messaging from Al-Quaeda and Islamic State to see that the rhetoric continues. In 2012 protesters erected a mock guillotine to “decapitate” leading politicians as a demonstration against the sale of state assets. In 2014 a musician sang about wanting to kill then then PM and violate his daughter.

In New Zealand certainly in my time some of the so-called radical movements such as the Progressive Youth Movement, Halt All Racist Tours and associated organisations in the mid-sixties, spurred on by perceived societal injustices and taking their lead from similar organisations in other countries, protested and occupied public facilities, but often the radical language of the time was offset by the trending peace, love and flowers of the hippies.

The violence that accompanied the Springbok Tour of 1981 was as bad in its way as the violence at the end of the Parliament Protest, and was just as frightening. But all of this seems to have been forgotten and overlooked by the authors and producers of Fire and Fury. The point I am trying to make is that this is not new.

Interestingly enough, one of the leading lights of the 1960’s protest movement went into politics and was elected Mayor of Waitakere and latterly Invercargill. It is a matter of comment in mainstream media that some of the leading lights of Voices for Democracy and other contrarian groups are putting themselves forward for election in the upcoming local body elections. Some of them have done so before. None of them have so far been elected. Yet there is concern about contrarians exercising their democratic right to stand for election. As I understand it the availability of democratic process does not depend on the quality of your beliefs, although those beliefs may cause rejection by the electorate.

So where does this leave us. Certainly during the early days of the Covid-19 Pandemic the Government was able to prey on public fears of the outbreak of plague and imminent death to justify lockdowns and to enable the acceptance of discriminatory treatment of citizens based on their vaccination status. The initial response was unplanned but necessary. But we are past that now

What the Fire and Fury documentary seeks to do is re-channel that fear to a form of opposition to and distrust of the contrarian movement. But after viewing the documentary I was left with an uncomfortable feeling. In all the talk about the weird conspiracy theories put about by the contrarians perhaps the underlying theme of the documentary is a conspiracy theory itself and it seemed to come from Kate Hannah who is one of the heads of the Disinformation Project. She implies that the real threat to democracy comes from a few people given to euphemistic language who make no secret of their views, who are openly all over social media, making no secret of their views and who are well known to Police and the Security Services. Do we really need to fear this vocal minority.

Perhaps Fire and Fury is an example of a mainstream media-based conspiracy theory based on fear and should be treated as such. Or perhaps it is rather a tale told by an idiot, full of Sound and Fury signifying nothing.


[1] Graham Adams “Fire and Fury is often funny – unintentionally” The Platform 18 August 2022 https://theplatform.kiwi/opinions/fire-and-fury-is-often-funny-unintentionally (Last accessed 19 August 2022)

[2] Madelaine Chapman “Giving a Voice to Voices for Freedom” The Spinoiff 2 March 2022 https://thespinoff.co.nz/politics/02-03-2022/giving-a-voice-to-voices-for-freedom

[3] Hansard Debates 2 September 2020  Oral Questions – Questions to Ministers – Question 1 https://www.parliament.nz/en/pb/hansard-debates/rhr/document/HansS_20200902_050580000/1-question-no-1-prime-minister

[4] Ben Okri “Authors on the Salman Rushdie attack: ‘A society cannot survive without free speech’” The Guardian 14 August 2022 https://www.theguardian.com/books/2022/aug/14/authors-on-the-salman-rushie-attack-a-society-cannot-survive-without-free-speech

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