Disinformation topic of panel’s discussion

There was a heightened security and police presence at the sold-out Aspiring Conversation Festival in Wanaka on Saturday afternoon as four writers and communicators shared insights about "disinformation" in a 60-minute session titled "Truth and Lies".

RNZ journalist Kathryn Ryan facilitated the conversation between panellists Susie Ferguson, producer of podcast series Undercurrent, far right specialist and writer Byron C. Clarke, and microbiologist and science communicator Dr Siouxsie Wiles.

The panellists said they had been threatened and "doxed" (personal information collected and leaked) in their work as journalists and communicators.

Ms Ferguson said she had received rape threats and "had to take security measures" for herself and her family. Mr Clarke said he had been followed home and filmed by people "trying to silence me", while Dr Wiles referred to the trauma of receiving vitriolic abuse during the Covid pandemic and her subsequent employment case with the University of Auckland.

There were two police officers outside the venue, all bags had to be checked in, and about 10 yellow-jacketed security officers stood around the room.

During the event, there were two minor injections from the crowd, and about 20 placard-carrying Covid vaccine protesters held a quiet protest outside.

Speaking at Aspiring Conversations Festival on Saturday were journalists (from left) Kathryn Ryan...
Speaking at Aspiring Conversations Festival on Saturday were journalists (from left) Kathryn Ryan, Guyon Espiner, Susie Ferguson and Paddy Gower. PHOTO: SHANNON THOMSON
Festival director Sophie Kelly said it was not the first time the festival had had security at an event.

"We also had support from security services in 2018 when Jacinda Ardern participated in the festival.

"The reason for security at the Truth And Lies session was because we were made aware of a small number of people who wanted to disrupt our event and silence some of our speakers", Ms Kelly said.

"As a result of this we took steps to ensure that our event would proceed without disruption, and we were pleased that this constructive kōrero was able to go ahead in a respectful manner.

"We are very grateful for the support of the local security and police and wish to thank them for their assistance", she said.

She also addressed why scheduled presenter, Disinformation Project director Kate Hannah, was absent.

"Kate Hannah was sadly unable to attend due to a health issue however the contributions from Siouxsie Wiles, Susie Ferguson and Byron Clarke provided a valuable and insightful conversation.

"It was wonderful to have a full house at the event and feedback from attendees and speakers has been overwhelmingly positive.

"We remain committed to helping people gather, discuss, listen and reflect on issues that affect us all in our community. We value facts, science, informed discussion and respectful engagement. We know our community does too", Ms Kelly said.

At the start of the presentation, Ms Ryan told the audience that security officers had been asked to removed anyone who interrupted.

She added she did not think there would be any reason for concerns.

The two audience interjections occurred towards the end of the hour, but the panellists ignored them and no-one was thrown out.

The first came after Dr Wiles said the Covid vaccine had been "bloody amazing" and New Zealand had not seen anything like the mass deaths from the pandemic experienced in other nations.

"That’s a lie", a man shouted from the back of the hall.

"Shut up", another man immediately shouted.

The second happened after Mr Clarke expressed concerns that New Zealand journalists were being laid off or disappearing behind paywalls, while "fake media" would continue to be free and widely available.

"It is not fake. It is true", a man near the front called out. His outburst was followed by laughter from some in the crowd.

Truth And Lies traversed a range of conspiracy theories, including the Christchurch Mosque attacks, Trumpism, the worldwide Covid pandemic and vaccines, QAnon’s allegations of an elite circle of child abusers, 5G communications, 15-minute cities, the role of state actors such as Russia or China and disinformation about the Gaza war.

The presenters distinguished disinformation from misinformation as a deliberate lie designed to mislead to fulfil and deliberate agenda.

Earlier on Saturday, Ryan and Ferguson joined journalist Guyon Espiner and Paddy Gower to discuss issues faced by the media industry in New Zealand, including the "street fight" against international giants Google and Facebook over content sharing rights.

The festival finished yesterday.