The battle of Portaloo, and other reckons

Alison Mau is a regular opinion writer and senior journalist with Stuff.

OPINION: For those of us who don’t live or work in Wellington, and who were not at Parliament grounds the day the remaining occupiers mounted an assault on police, and each other, the internet was there to help.

Livestreams from mainstream media sites like this one provided (occasionally and forgivably) shaky camera-work but some on-point commentary, as bricks and flagstones were pulled up for use as weapons, tents and a playground were set on fire. It was riveting, in the most awful sense of the word. You simply could not look away.

And there was always social media. This might be the first time an event like this in Aotearoa has been so minutely documented, minute by minute, second by agonising second.

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For politics and fast reckons, Twitter has long been the go-to platform (there’s now also TikTok of course, but like many of my fellow Gen-Xers I am not a TikTok user, and therefore can’t comment) and it delivered better than the woolly mumfluencers on Instagram ever could.

As night fell on Wednesday and the rioters dissipated, some unique perspectives began to pop up on my Twitter feed. I can’t name them all – there would be simply too many @’s needed – but if I’ve stolen yours to feature here, just know it was appreciated.

Some dealt with facts, like the posts which shared a Victoria University of Wellington email confirming an arson attack on the Old Government Buildings had been thwarted by quick-thinking security guards.

Some called out the occupation’s rag-tag “celebrity” supporters for appearing to disappear when s… got real (“Liz Gunn you coward,” one offered).

And some put the thoughts of the majority into words: “We will not remember you for the good you have done, the peace you delivered, or the love you shared. We will not remember you for your bravery or integrity. deliver freedom. And you didn’t speak for me, nor most of us, I think. We will remember you for the children you put at risk,” said one.

Protestors throw fuel on day 23 of the anti-mandate protests at Parliament in Wellington.
Braden Fastier/Stuff

Protestors throw fuel on day 23 of the anti-mandate protests at Parliament in Wellington.

Another apologetically posted a new name for the day: “Just saw it described as the battle of Portaloo and I know it’s super serious but you gotta appreciate that.”

“Wellington won this too,” came the reply.

Even the Salvation Army weighed in, posting to distance the organization from a rioter wearing a Sallies high-viz vest.

Others gave us analysis stemming from the kind of deep knowledge of the way misinformation has spread from overseas to our country, that few of us have the time or the stomach to pursue.

A late night thread from a popular Twitter account chronicled the entire three-week mess in a 27-tweet thread packed with background. Off-platform, I asked the Tweeter how they knew this stuff; what special insight they had.

“I follow the work of FACT (Fight Against Conspiracy Theories) Aotearoa and other tweeters such as @Te_Taito and @docPNC. I also follow the social media of Chantelle Baker, Counterspin, VFF, and the Convoy,” the Tweeter told me.

“[FACT] have tracked it all, some in Zello, the rest via Telegram, and other platforms. Listened to their correspondence, grabbed their screenshots and watched their lives. I suspect many needed to scrub their brains afterwards.”

FACT is a non-government, self-funded, independent group doctors, scientists, educators, nurses, and lawyers. The group seeks to debunk and disarm misinformation and disinformation.

So, not “bought and paid for”. Which is a phrase being liberally sprayed around, especially to media.

I’ll pause to state how incredibly proud I am of my own colleagues and the wider media for the manner in which the events on Wednesday were reported. Many of the reporting team have done hard yards at the occupation for weeks; They’ve shown their professionalism in repeated attempts to listen to the cohort of protestors who were peaceful and reasonable, and have had to bear unforgivable attacks, while trying to do their jobs.

There are some away from the front line who have also helped us understand the way misinformation spreads. An article in The Spinoff by Dylan Reeve chronicled the minutes between the (since-proved via multiple videos streams) arson on tents and trees by the protest group, to the claim that police started the fire.

Police clash with protesters as they remove tents and camping equipment from the occupation site on day 23 of the anti-mandate protests Parliament in Wellington.

Braden Fastier/Stuff

Police clash with protesters as they remove tents and camping equipment from the occupation site on day 23 of the anti-mandate protests Parliament in Wellington.

“Viewers watching the Facebook livestream from protest influencer Chantelle Baker yesterday afternoon (March 2) got to witness misinformation unfolding in real time as a fire within the protest camp changed – according to Baker, and in the space of 10 minutes – from a fire started by “six guys” to a fire started by the police,” Reeve wrote.

Baker began by stating repeatedly the fire was lit by a group of the occupiers. Again, multiple videos show this is absolutely true. She then seized on a Facebook comment suggesting police had overturned a generator which sparked the blaze.

Within the space of 10 minutes the single comment had become Baker’s truth, repeated to her 20,000 livestream viewers.

“You realise the police pushed over a generator that set a tent on fire?” she shouted at [a] camera crew. “I hope you guys get that. I hope you don’t say it was the protesters when it was the police that caused this fire!”

A weary Baker was forced to walk back that claim the next morning, but did not apologise to police or anyone else; the most she would admit was she was “happy to be wrong”, a phrase which I guess is as close to an apology as we can expect from someone who has no background or training in teasing out truth from misinformation.

The late night Tweeter had another pertinent point to make about the occupation and its violent end on Wednesday.

The US Capitol – where, in January of 2021, the protesters stormed the building.

Parttime Portraits/Unsplash

The US Capitol – where, in January of 2021, the protesters stormed the building.

“The failure to accept that their team had bad players is very Capitol Riots.”

They’re referring, of course, to the deadly attack on Washington’s Capitol on January 6, 2021. And it’s a parallel worth keeping an eye on.

A year on, video and images of the US riot had helped lead to the arrest of more than 725 people, with federal investigators sifting through 20,000 hours of video and 15 terabytesof data. The first of those trials began in Washington this week.

As police begin to investigate the events at our Parliament, we should see more arrests here, too – and many of those likely will hang on video evidence collected by expectation, but also by the perpetrators themselves. It will be a telling example of how social media has become not just a source of disinformation, but a crucial source of the truth, as well.

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