Block or engage? How to deal with whānau caught up in conspiracies

There has been a resurgence of COVID-19 conspiracy theories online after news that New Zealand again has community transition. And Māori aren't immune to the misinformation multiplying across social media.

Now a leading indigenous rights advocate is speaking out against the spread of these theories which pose a significant threat to the health of Māori communities.

Tina Ngata says many of the conspiracy theories circulating online find their genesis in the alt-right, particularly in the United States, and are promoted by white supremacist movements wanting to destabilise centrist governments.

She says New Zealand's history of colonisation and poor treatment of tangata whenua means some sectors of Māori society are particularly susceptible to these conspiracies.

"They take advantage of people who have a natural distrust of authority and so it finds very fertile soil in the minds of communities that have been oppressed in the past."

Māori sociologist Dr Tahu Kukutai agrees. She says there are specific conditions that lead to conspiracy theories being adopted by disadvantaged communities such as economic insecurity, inequality and feeling disempowered and COVID-19 has created a perfect storm of these factors. 

She says the research shows that throwing more facts and science at those who are wedded to conspiracy theories doesn't solve the problem.

"Top-down Western science is not the fit for purpose model for us in terms of being able to navigate our own way as whānau and communities to wellbeing. A more expansive, inclusive notion of science, a more inclusive way of bringing in communities into decision making, of sharing knowledge and sharing solutions is a more fit for purpose way of engaging in this space here in Aotearoa "

She says the lack of visibility of Māori in decision-making positions at a national level in response to the COVID-19 crisis is something that needs to change.

Asked about whether to block or engage with whānau caught up in conspiracy theories, both Ngata and Kukutai urged acting with aroha.

Ngata says while it's important to disengage when feeling overwhelmed, a values-based approach to discussing these issues with whānau can produce positive results.

"When we show some level of understanding about where they are coming from and their suspicion and we engage with integrity and aroha it can actually really make our whānau want to sit back and think about the implications of the pathway they're going down."

The Hui