Professors says people who believe Covid-19 conspiracy stories are just scared

By Jessica Tyson

Massey University professor and political commentator Paul Spoonley is writing a book about far-right activities, after observing a rise in hate speech in recent months.

Spoonley aims to provide information to help people have a debate about the existence of hate speech in Aotearoa.

“There is a lot of ignorance about hate speech and one of the things that really, really annoys me is that people who’ve never been targeted by hate speech, by hate crimes in their life, say it’s not a problem in New Zealand," Spoonley says.

“It might not be a problem for them. It is a problem for the people who are targeted who are typically Asian, Māori, Pacifika, Jews and so let’s have a discussion that tells us what the experience is like to be targeted in this way by extreme groups.”

Conspiracy theories

Spoonley says his new book will also examine a surge on the internet of conspiracy theories about what caused Covid-19.

He says one of the theories floating around at the moment is that Jews are the cause of Covid-19, a conspiracy that Spoonley shakes his head at.

“It tends to be that people identify some groups as being the cause.  So they’ve just done a survey in the UK and 20 per cent of those answering it thought that Jews had been responsible for Covid-19. So no Chinese were anywhere in the picture.”

He says headlines and information posted to social media influence the way people think about the theories but the cause of spreading theories is that people are scared.

“People want a simple explanation. They want to identify somebody that they can say ‘They are responsible’ and so we begin to see these various explanations for what’s happening in the world being circulated online.”

He says American conspiracy theories are more dominant at the moment.

“We’re getting a president who is supporting alternative views of the world, fake news, all those sorts of things and we’re getting a lot more people who are prepared to take a punt.”

On the positive side, Spoonley says the level of suspicion and scepticism in New Zealand tends to be lower. He says this is because New Zealanders have taken on the medical advice from good communicators and leaders such as Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Health director-general Dr Ashley Bloomfield.