Ideasroom

Christchurch terrorist failed to sow distrust

Researchers at Victoria University of Wellington wanted to check if the terror attacks in Christchurch achieved an aim of sowing distrust and suspicion in society - and their findings are bad news for the perpetrator.

Terrorism is rare in our recent history. The last fatal act of terrorism here, before Christchurch on March 15, occurred 34 years ago, when French secret service agents bombed and sunk the Greenpeace protest vessel the Rainbow Warrior. One person died.

The March attack was big. To put the number of deaths in context, in the most recent five years to 2017, the annual number of murders in New Zealand has ranged between 35 to 50 people. In terms of per capita deaths, the Christchurch event, where 1.07 people died per 100,000 of population, was of a similar order of magnitude to the September 11, 2001 World Trade Center terrorism event where 2996 people or 1.05 people per 100,000 died, and somewhat smaller than the 2011 Utoya, Oslo event in Norway, where 77 people or 1.57 people per 100,000 died.

Any terrorist event is, of course, unique and traumatic, but the New Zealand event was unusual since it involved a large-scale massacre of a minority religious group – in this case Muslims – by an accused who was a right-wing terrorist. While the Norwegian massacre involved a lone white supremacist as the perpetrator, the terrorist targeted young people affiliated to the Norwegian Labour Party, not a religious minority. Possibly the closest comparable event in recent times was the 1996 Cave of the Patriarchs massacre of 29 Israeli Muslims at prayer by an extreme right-wing Israeli Jew. Here 0.51 people per 100,000 died.

So it was a large, obviously troubling and unusual event on a world scale.

But did it achieve one of the aims of terrorism, which is to create widespread social division and distrust Between February 25 and March 10, the Institute for Governance and Policy Studies (IGPS) at Victoria University of Wellington conducted our annual trust survey, just before the shooting. Because of the shootings, we decided to commission an immediate follow-up survey to ascertain any changes in trust. We conducted the survey between April 12 and 18, about one month after the shootings.

We asked questions about inter-personal trust – whether respondents trusted other people – and about trust in 14 groups or institutions. The latter questions gave five possible response options – no trust, little trust, some trust, lots of trust, complete trust.

We undertook our second, post-shooting survey knowing what the international research says about trust changes following terrorist events. Generally, these studies have mixed findings, depending on the terrorist event and country. Some studies show increases in trust in government following a terrorist event, such as following the 2001 World Trade Center attack and the 2015 Paris attacks in France. Inter-personal trust, for another example, rose in Norway following the Oslo attacks, but didn’t change in the US following the World Trade Center attack. There is much less evidence of declines in trust following terrorist actions, which suggests internationally that their ability to sow distrust in the wider population isn’t great.

So what did we find? New Zealanders showed no change in interpersonal trust following the Christchurch shootings. On our measurement scale of 0 to 10, where 0 is no trust at all and 10 is complete trust, interpersonal trust averaged a value of 6.3, both before and after the shootings.

In terms of 14 measures of group or institutional trust, there were only two changes that were other than random statistical noise. In a statistical sense, trust in MPs significantly rose and trust in bloggers fell. However, even in these two cases the actual magnitude of change observed was below small. That is, we saw a minor change, but it wasn’t of a size that makes it terribly meaningful compared with the prior level of trust in those groups.

Let’s say, however, that terrorists don’t care so much about positive trust. Their focus is to grow distrust, polarising the community. In that respect, the attacks also failed. Our chart illustrates this failure by looking at distrust levels in the 14 groups or institutions – the low trust end of the spectrum. Again, very little changed post-shooting. In most cases, levels of distrust were basically identical before and after the shootings or distrust fell mildly, excepting bloggers and online commentators, where distrust rose mildly from already high levels.

Despite the scale and shock of the event, our conclusion is that New Zealanders’ trust was pretty much unresponsive in aggregate to the shootings. If the goal of the shootings was to lower trust and sow suspicion across wider New Zealand, there is no evidence it has succeeded in its goal. On the other hand, the data doesn’t provide evidence for any national “coming together” in the sense of an upsurge in trust following the shootings, as appears to have been the case for some trust measures in the US and Norway following mass terrorist events.

Note: Our trust surveys are intended to provide a representative picture of the New Zealand population. The questions for the survey were designed by the IGPS and adapted from trust surveys run in various countries. Data was collected by Colmar Brunton. A total of 1000 New Zealanders aged 18 years or over were interviewed online, randomly selected from Colmar Brunton’s online panel.

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