The protested outside parliament in Wellington has prompted fears of a mass radicalization of militant actors prepared to use violence to achieve their aims. Although people may dismiss the idea that it could cause real damage to society in New Zealand, where support for the government’s pandemic response is still high, anger has spilled over into explicit hate messaging and actions, both online and in real-life.
Now that the protesters have been dispersed, we need to examine what was behind their loose coalition of grievances: was it the transitory fist-shaking of a fringe minority, a valid concern, or actual radicalisation? If so, what can we do about it? The answer is complex and incomplete, but there are some clues about what caused this impasse and what can be done.
The UK Home Office refers to radicalization as “the process by which a person comes to support terrorism and extremist ideologies”. It recognizes that signs of extremism can show themselves on a spectrum; from isolation, marginalisation, and harmful practices through intolerance, hate, and violence.
Who may be at risk of joining extremist movements? Interviews carried out with former members of radical extremist groups and their family members revealed three things. First, not only did financial challenges push them into proximity with extremist groups, they also prompted some to work in jobs associated with these movements, which made it more difficult for them to leave. Second, mental health challenges are important. Some interviewees identified overwhelming anger as a driver for joining extremist organisations, though pre-existing trauma and physical health issues were also important. Third, many interviewees said that their experiences of victimisation, stigmatization and marginalization contributed to their radicalisation. Most often, they reported feeling isolated.
Within the New Zealand protests and those who supported them there were people who have experienced marginalization and isolation, perhaps because of public health measures during the pandemic that may have exacerbated their difficulties.
Wherever you stand in the debate on vaccine mandates for frontline workers, diverse groups of people protested behind the banner of removing them. And amid coming together to find the sense of physical community they craved, they also came into the orbit of people spreading dangerous lies. Through skilful storytelling on social media, and repeated exposure through unregulated algorithms optimizing for attention and clicks, people believe that because they are seeing this material so often, these lies must be the truth. But what seems new in this highly politicized and loosely regulated social media environment is that these underlying rips in the social fabric have been exploited by malevolent actors intending to cause further harm by sowing division and distress.
There are also more mundane motives: to make a fast buck on the backs of division, anxiety and fear. TO recent story on influencer mums reveals how the language of “choice” and “freedom”’ are used as hooks to not only build a sense of trust and community but also to isolate people from their existing networks. This is usually followed up with the idea that this new community is under siege and must be defended. This is a marketing funnel at core, creating a problem and selling a solution. This pushes people in these new networks even closer together and cleaves further division from their existing friendships, communities, or families.
So, how and why do people deradicalise and leave extremist movements? “Push” factors that drive people out include burnout, dissatisfaction with one’s status in the movement, and other forms of disillusionment – for instance, having a positive experience with someone the group has targeted and dehumanized. Just as in other aspects of life, people also leave because they don’t like their boss. Their beliefs may not have changed, but they stopped trusting their leaders and left the movement.
The risk that remains in New Zealand is that although the actions of potential radicals may have halted, the internal worldview that prompted them to join other radical actors remains, and may have been fueled. This should serve as a warning to wider society: that although there are issues that divide us, we need to avoid going down darker tunnels of division. That might take more than just a removal of vaccine mandates. For that, we need more lived experience of what unites us rather than divides us, gently handled by those trusted by the marginalized. And there remains a pressing and urgent need to tackle the deeply underlying social inequalities that have left people vulnerable to exploitation in the first place, as well as the unregulated algorithms of social media. These are the true drivers of the radicalization threat we see today. The vaccine mandates protests are both the symptom and the mask.
Dr Sarb Johal is a clinical psychologist, strategic communications adviser, and the author of Finding Calm: managing fear and anxiety in an uncertain world
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism