American vaccine misinformation and extremism are infiltrating New Zealand

When Josephine Bartley, a member of the city council in Auckland, New Zealand, heard that a local Covid-19 vaccination clinic had been vandalized early this month, she drove over to survey the damage. After she spoke to the owners and helped them connect with law enforcement officials, she noticed three men loitering near her parking spot.

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

“One of them called me scum,” she said, and suggested that they damage her vehicle. The men got in a four-wheel-drive vehicle and left. But the experience shook Bartley, a member of the Labour Party, who said she did not know whether the men were linked to the vandalism of the health center, which primarily serves the local Pacific community. 

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

s 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 vaccination mandates. Opposition to vaccinations and frustration with pandemic restrictions are fueling a small but vocal protest movement inspired in part by U.S. politics.

In a working paper it published this month, 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, at the beginning of an outbreak driven by the highly transmissible delta variant of the coronavirus, which is responsible for the vast majority of New Zealand’s cases. 

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 U.S.

Bartley said online abuse from New Zealanders directed at her office and the clinic surged before the incident at the clinic.

“I got sent a video with an American anti-vaxxer saying, ‘If you support vaccinations you’re going to hell,’” she said.

NBC News has also seen Telegram messages from Shane Chafin, a U.S. resident of New Zealand, disclosing the personal cellphone number of a pharmacist who criticized his anti-vaccination broadcasts, in which he appeared to encourage followers to harass her in retaliation. NBC News has asked Chafin for comment. 

Chafin works for Counterspin Media, a New Zealand-based news site hosted by GTV, a company founded by former Trump strategist Steve Bannon. In November, a news conference by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was suspended after Chafin heckled her about vaccinations. 

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