They may be half a world away from the horror of the war in Ukraine, but a small group of New Zealanders are helping spread Russia’s lies.
Kiwis have formed a ‘Vladimir Putin Fan Club’ and post propaganda daily, sharing false claims of ‘biological weapons’ and ‘Nazi governments’, in a bid to justify the destruction that has claimed civilian lives innocent people all over Ukraine.
The group is part of a “disturbing” wider spread of Russian propaganda in New Zealand, according to disinformation researcher Sanjana Hattotuwa.
“I think you have to be very concerned about that, we’ve never seen such a volume of Russian disinformation,” he told 1News this week.
“The emergence of this, its entrenchment, its expansion and the speed at which it has happened in Aotearoa New Zealand is amazing, it is something we have never seen before in our research here .”
Putin’s “fan club” has 4,400 members on Facebook and appears to be full of New Zealand conspiracy theorists.
It is one of several communities where pro-Kremlin messaging is spreading online, including the social media app Telegram.
A 1News analysis of the Facebook group found that New Zealanders were happy to spread blatant messages from the Kremlin.
A member, posting on the same day an airstrike hit a children’s hospital in Mariupol, shared information directly from Russian state-controlled media Sputnik.
Other Putin ‘fans’ claimed that NATO had ‘opened the gates of hell’ and suggested that ‘history will reflect that Russia stepped in when it had to’.
While another Kiwi shared an email he sent to the Russian Embassy in Wellington saying it was “sad”, Putin had added New Zealand to his list of hostile countries.
“Please disregard psychopathic crazy PM Jacinda Ardern,” they told Russian diplomats.
“These circus clowns are not liked here, in fact they are very hated”.
Foreign policy analyst Stephen Hoadley, an associate professor at the University of Auckland, said the group appeared to be caught up in a wider Russian effort to create disenfranchisement and distrust of government.
“Every narrative the Russians put forward blames someone else — the saboteurs, the West, the United States — so it sows dissent and division in the target population,” he said.
“Propaganda easily piggybacks on existing social discontent and those who are dissatisfied are quite open to conspiracy theories and the Russian view, the disinformation view, of the world.”
The Russians used a “scattered” approach, with New Zealand being “at the end of a long chain of social media”, Hoadley added.
“I don’t think the Russians are targeting New Zealand specifically, they are targeting social media,” he said.
“They use proxies – that is, individuals, blogs or accounts that receive Russian messages and send them as if they were their own.
“These are Russian messages in disguise, by what the Soviets called ‘useful idiots’.”
Researcher Sanjana Hattotuwa, who works with The Disinformation Project, is actively studying the adoption of Russian messaging in New Zealand and warned it was “very worrying”.
The propaganda fits into the worldview of some conspiracy theorists, who see Putin as a savior standing up to the West, he said.
“There is the input of material, but there are also Kiwis who are producing this material, and there are Kiwis who are engaging in it and spreading it, so it’s not like it’s a thing imported, it very, very quickly becomes a domestic thing,” he said.
“And so it’s of concern for social cohesion, for people who believe it, and, quite simply, what people can do offline as a result of what they believe online, linked to Russian disinformation.”
This means that some New Zealanders live in an alternate reality, free from the horrors of war.