Over the past few months, I’ve been really fortunate to sit with some pretty cool people and discuss the related issues of racism, colonialism, and misinformation as a part of my “What a Load of Colony” webseries. A lot of what I want to share today draws from those conversations. Most recently, I was blessed to sit and discuss this issue with my whanaunga Diana and Mark Kopua. Diana is a Māori psychiatrist and Uncle Mark is a tohunga tā moko, educator, artist and storyteller. I will be including snippets from our kōrero throughout this post. I’ll upload the entire discussion as well, but it encapsulated so much of what I wanted to say, so well, that I wanted to place it within a broader discussion around Māori and misinformation.
While certainly not a new phenomena, misinformation has featured as a mega-theme of 2020. In the political era of post-truth, information wars hit defcon 1 as right wing administrations desperately sought to conceal the devastating consequences of economic prioritisation over life. The global information-scape of 2020 meant that information designed to influence Georgia and Mississippi, arrives just as fast and can hold equal influence in Te Karaka and Taupō. Information, and equally misinformation, has never held the potential to spread as fast and impact so many as it does now. And the trajectory of information technology multiplies upon itself by the day.
Just as a brief insight into how information transmission has changed in the past few decades, a few facts for us:
• In 1986, the global information network capacity (ie how much information was flying around and being stored around the world) was about 2 and a half million terabytes (you know those terabyte external hard-drives you buy from Warehouse Stationery? 2 and a half million of them).
• By 2007 that had grown to 2 billion terabytes of information flying around.
• Now, in 2020, we have nearly 30 billion terabytes (30zetabytes) of information flying around and being processed and stored around us – to be precise it’s 29,500,000,000,000,000,000,000 pieces of information – floating around in front of us, accessible to us and being stored by us at any given moment.
• That is equivalent to 27,000 stacks of books reaching from the Earth to the Sun!!
• Or put another way, in 1986 we received around 40 newspapers full of information every day but this had rocketed to 174 in 2007 and today we have about the equivalent of 5220 newspapers worth of information accessible to us every day!
• Our means of accessing that information has also radically changed. From being strictly controlled in the late 80s, and requiring direct ports of access via a computer, with the arrival of wireless technology and advancement of cellphone technology we can now access this information through our phones, on our laptops or other devices, on our smart tvs, through “smart house” technology (siri devices etc).
• Our time in front of screens absorbing this information has also significantly increased and this has correlated with a drop in outdoors form of leisure – as noted by internet researchers – “free time” has become “screen time”.
Now while many people consider this to bring great opportunities (and they would be right) – it is foolish to assume that this necessarily equals a greater level of autonomy over the information we receive. As the recent documentary hit “The Social Dilemma” discusses, recent advances in social media mean that we are being manipulated by greater forces now more than ever, and operate under a façade of information liberty. This framework of domination has differential impacts on various groups. These differential impacts are, as always, drawn along lines of income, class, race and gender. That was, probably, my first gripe about The Social Dilemma – it’s an important message, and also one that really needs decolonizing.
And while we can all appreciate that misinformation impacts upon all of us – there are specific impacts and dimensions of this discussion for Māori communities that I really wish more people would take into consideration – especially as it becomes an area of strategic focus and mainstream discussion.
Now – full disclosure – I am very invested in this topic for multiple reasons – I’ve been the subject of conspiracy theories myself, which have led to death threats and slander campaigns. I vaccinate, as in my children are vaccinated and I occassionally take the flu jab too. I am NOT afraid of 1080 (I do advocate for each hapū to carry out their own research on this, rigorously assess the science, physically go to the places that have used it and exercise their Tiriti article 2 rights to make the right choice for their taonga). I don’t believe 5G will cook our brains, nor that it will transmit COVID (though I do worry about the implications of even more unsupported, unregulated information flying around and increased screen dependency). I do believe COVID is real, I don’t believe the earth is flat and I do believe we have made it to the moon. Myself, and I would say the majority of my friends and whanau, are not prone to believing in what I call “rabbit hole” theories – but still, I have seen these theories enter our community, I have seen them take root and I have seen the division they can cause. Kotahitanga is more important than ever – and I also believe we need to be developing digital strategies at a hapū and iwi level for the protection of our whānau and our taonga. But as the issue of misinformation continues to grow as a focal point for government, researchers, and the online community- there are a few issues I need them to consider, first.
- Mental health insults are NOT ok
This is more for the online commentary, although I’ve heard a few scientists and government officials launch into this space as well, and speak about our people as if it’s simply a matter of low intelligence or mental health. I’ve tracked the scope of conspiracy theories before and I agree, many can seem outlandish and completely out of touch with reality. It is hard to not side-eye someone who believes in something that is just not in your own scope of rationality… but some of these theories are picked up by our own whānau precisely because of the extremely bizarre and horrifying experience of colonization, and that’s something that very few, who have not been through colonization, can appreciate. I remember last year when the Oranga Tamariki story broke through Newsroom – yes it was harrowing but also, it was not surprising to me, and I was a little bemused watching other New Zealanders sit in apparent horror that this is happening. It reminded me of just how privileged a good chunk of our nation is to have not realised this is what happens to young Māori mothers, every day. So yeah, while I get the temptation to just label someone “crazy” because they believe in a global cabal of satan worshipping pedophiles plotting to take over the world, keep in mind whom you are talking to.
Keep in mind you are speaking with a people who are 5 times more likely to have their children removed by the state than their counterparts – and that once our children are in the state system, many are subjected to physical and sexual violence. This is now commonly understood as the genesis of Aotearoa gang culture. This is NOT historical. In 2019 Māori children accounted for nearly 70% of all child uplifts, and then accounted for 75% of children who were sexually and physically abused as wards of the state. Their abusers are approved by the state.
We are not crazy for believing in the presence of state sanctioned pedophile networks – it aligns with our lived and proven experience.
Maltreatment by the state occurs in various contexts around us every single day. The state then forces us to participate in harmful processes, and if we don’t it assumes our voice for us, with devastating consequences. Not long ago I attended a meeting in Tūranga where the community was forced to participate in a process that was in and of itself a breach of Te Tiriti o Waitangi. Our choice was:
“Tell us where you would like the replica of the Endeavour to go in your town”.
We had been left out of the discussion about whether we wanted them anywhere in the first place. We had heard councillors who were assuming our perspectives, and saying we would have been fine with having the replicas erected in the middle of town. We were therefore left with no option but to take the opportunity to express our disgust and hurt WITHIN a meeting that assumed we were ok with their presence – on penalty of being cast as being not only ok with their presence but also ok with them being in the most prominent space possible. It was a perverse, and hurtful, and all too common experience in a system that was built to facilitate pākehā expansion into our spaces.
Multiply this experience hundreds of times every day, in different contexts, all around our country, not just now but over multiple generations going back to the mid 1800s – all the while being told we are “Treaty partners” – and you can begin to see how this is trauma and mental illness inducing. I’d challenge any group to undergo multiple generations of abuse, gaslighting, passive aggression, state violence, and implicit and explicit discrimination on the daily, and not come out of it with some form of trauma for multiple members of that group. As Uncle Mark Kopua notes:
Colonisation is recognised within the sector as a driver of mental illness – it has, and continues to visit trauma upon our people every single day in this country. Not to mention that, as Uncle Mark suggests, we are continuously told our own belief systems are myth and superstition – to the point where a significant number of our own people have been institutionalised for believing in matakite (seers) and Atua – but whitehouse advisors like Paula White get to walk around doing this…
So yes, maybe some of us ARE operating from a space of trauma. So what – the liberty of belief in how the universe operates, across generations and the wellbeing that comes with that are forms of privilege – don’t wield it against others.
- Concerns over diminishing individual agency are valid.
When we consider how information has shifted over the past 30 years, we have to ask – who is in charge? Who has the power to manipulate algorithms and promote or demote particular narratives? Hint: it’s not beneficiaries or marginalised groups. It’s currently, largely with wealthy white males, and who is wrestling them for control over that information scape? Wealthy white governments. From an Indigenous perspective, it’s much of a muchness here except if you have not researched the IT heirarchy you are probably more aware, and distrustful of, government authorities. This distrust is completely understandable given that the state has proven itself to be extremely cavalier with individual privacy rights – and more often than not it’s the privacy rights of Māori, or human or environmental rights activists that are being breached. The NZ govt is a part of the 5 eyes network, a USA led spy network that surveils internet communications and has made multiple moves to erode privacy rights, and there is increasing concern that NZ is losing its ability to protect NZ privacy rights within that arrangement.
You can’t just expect us all to be instantly comfortable with the state, or other authorities, increasing their control over our world, whatever part of the world that may be. For Māori, they were never invited to take control in the first place, why would we give them more?
- Why WOULD Māori trust the state/media/science?
Hoooo boy where do I start. Ok let’s start with the government. There is not one aspect of Māori lives that have not been adversely impacted by colonization. The word gets used a lot and I think people have become numb to it so let’s revisit what colonization entails:
It is a process of dehumanisation – where your birth rights, carried by your ancestors, are subjugated to the rights of your colonizer. It is violent, and it IS genocidal. The process of colonization requires the displacement, dispossession and debasement of an entire people. Around the world, where colonial governments have taken control over the lives of Indigenous peoples, they experience high levels of imprisonment, higher death rates, higher poverty rates, and are generally worse off than non-Indigenous in their lands. Colonial governments, and this is reaffirmed by authors of all ethnicities, were CREATED to facilitate imperial expansion and the eradication of Indigenous peoples. Don’t expect us to just trust governments that were formed to eradicate us. Our survival has depended upon us not trusting them.
And from the very get-go, media and science has held the hand of these governments. Never once has a New Zealand media source reported on the brutal, drawn out invasion of Aotearoa and the ensuing 30 year war for the international war crimes that they were, rather, they have been celebrated and heroicized as the foundations of our nation. Whitestream media further consistently demonizes Māori, from those who resisted the invasion and land theft through to those who today continue to resist the colonial fiction of state benevolence. What’s more, major media outlets consistently provide a platform for hate speech against Māori with relative impunity. For a long time, the most common time to catch us being represented on tv screens was in the back of police cars, or being pulled over. We have fought a long fight for more appropriate representation on the screens and in the news, but it is still, overarchingly, misrepresentative.
So don’t expect us to just pass our trust over to the media, either.
Science? Well – if you haven’t heard of scientific racism, then I’d recommend a quick 10minute course via Moana Jackson’s famous “Once Were Gardeners” speech.
Science has, like media, presented us as savages, brutes, promiscuous, simple, poor parents, and suited only to manual labour – but with the added force of being “scientifically valid”. Racist science has provided the legitimisation of brutal colonial policies and legislation. Racist science has not just supported, but recommended the removal of our children, the caging of our people, the taking of our lands – and again, this is not historical. To this day, studies are still being funded that are centered on the racist idea of a fictitious “warrior gene”, and operate off of similar deficit notions that we are inferior to our colonizers in many ways.
- What is the state doing about its own misinformation campaign of colonial legitimacy?
Before you come and talk to Māori about misinformation or disinformation – consider that we have been asked to swallow a centuries old disinformation campaign by our own government.
There’s a LOT of information that can be laid out in this section but one simple angle to take is this:
The NZ government is a violation of the treaty upon which its existence is based.
This has been acknowledged BY the government authority on the matter, the Waitangi Tribunal, who found in 2010 that Māori never ceded sovereignty. Now, if Māori never ceded sovereignty – then the very authority of government to make laws which govern Māori lives is called into question. I should say at this point that it was never news to many Māori that we never ceded sovereignty, nor was the illegitimacy of a government that consistently breaches its own tenancy agreement a particularly novel challenge. We have always understood the right to govern is subservient to Māori independence and self-determination (tino rangatiratanga), and that is the basic power arrangement our ancestors agreed to. The fundamental shift in 2010 was that the government’s own Treaty judiciary finally, officially, ruled that this was the case. The issue, however is that the government is not bound to take action on the findings of its own tribunal.
Let that sink in for a moment. The government’s very right to exist is based upon a treaty that it, itself violates, and that it, itself does not feel it needs to adhere to. The treaty, apparently, matters enough to form a government upon, but not enough to be held to account on.
So for most Māori, we are born into a system of disinformation that occurs all around us on our own lands. Like all other cases – this is not historical. The government handed out millions of dollars last year to support disinformation campaigns that cloaked or misrepresented the Imperial invasion of Aotearoa.
Māori are born into a disinformation campaign about the benevolence and legitimacy of colonial rule, one that rolls out through our schools, and in our faces by way of statues, on our currency, and across our screens now for generations.
Of course we are distrustful of the state, and of course we are targets for disinformation – the colonial state has ensured this. THINK about that before you come knocking on our community doors wanting to talk about THIS particular form of disinformation.
- We have our own means of responding to misinformation.
We have our own information platforms, which are also being consistently eroded by the state. Support for Māori Television, support for Māori broadcasting on major networks, support for Māori internet content development, support for Iwi radio, support for our information hubs in our communities such as marae, kohanga, and kura, our wānanga spaces, our own health services, are all sites that we constantly have to fight for resourcing to keep going – and yet these are also the sites where we discuss and validate our truths as a community. These are the sites where the power of truth validation gets taken out of the hands of Silicon Valley millionaires. These are the sites where we discuss issues with insights across the generations and with reflections on who we are, in relation to our lands and waters, and who and where we come from. If the intention is to support community cohesion and resilience to disinformation, then stop under-resourcing and gutting our own spaces of information and knowledge sharing.
Don’t come to us assuming we have the same approach to knowledge and truth validation as you.
Don’t come to us like we don’t already have answers and solutions of our own for this issue.
In short, don’t come at us like you’ve just “discovered” the problem of disinformation, and are here to save us.
We can work together on this – but it will take mutual understanding, and respect.