Podcast: The Detail

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Rumour, regret, and damage that can’t be undone

Dylan Reeve tracks down the source of the rumour that sparked vileness on the internet - and finds a young man full of regret and waiting for a call from police. 

It’s hard to know, as a journalist, if you should report a rumour to be untrue, or ignore it in the hope that it will go away if you don’t give it any credence.

But, as Health Minister Chris Hipkins said at a televised nationwide Covid broadcast, this one spread like wildfire.

It was vile. It was completely untrue. And it was extremely upsetting to the family at the centre of it. Hipkins said it felt orchestrated.

It seems everyone knew about it. It involved lies about how New Zealand’s new Covid cluster came about. Facebook was the method of delivery, via an anonymous page known for spewing racist rubbish. But where did it originate?

Journalist and filmmaker David Farrier has been railing against conspiracy theorists, and people who leap on half-truths for political gain, in his Webworm blog. He and his colleague Dylan Reeve went hunting for Patient Zero – the person who first posted the rumour before it took hold so dramatically.

Reeve found him. And it only took him 15 minutes.

But what he found wasn’t what he expected.

Today on The Detail Reeve tells Emile Donovan how he tracked this young man down, and what he found out when he talked to him.

He says this was a rumour that stuck with him. He was telling people in his immediate group not to believe it, but it took off.

“I thought about a lot and then early on I had a look at the guy’s Reddit profile and he had deleted his comment at that point but from what I could see … he wasn’t a troll, it wasn’t something he was doing deliberately.

“Then I was thinking about it again and someone else had mentioned it and I thought I wonder if I can figure out who this guy is. I did. It took me about 15 minutes.”

The Reddit post though was clinical and had little embellishment. By the time it made it to the ironically named Expose Hatred in NZ Facebook page, things had taken a significant swing for the worse.

Reeve says the man was expecting a call.

“Not my call, or a police’s call or some other journalist’s phone call but he was definitely expecting that this would land in his real life in the near future.”

He told him he hadn’t slept for two days waiting for the hammer to fall.

The man works in an industry where people are going to Google him at some point.

“If a bunch of articles come up saying this guy is a terrible racist who spread conspiracy theory lies about Covid, that’s going to have a pretty significant impact on his life …. Probably disproportionate to what he did, which was a foolish mistake,” says Reeve.

The man was contrite and remorseful. “He thought he was just posting this thing on an internet forum, not realising he was stoking the fires of conspiracy theories and racial prejudices that people were already working on.”

Reeve says he’s familiar with the sudden, sinking, sick feeling of seeing things he’s expressed in the real world take off in a way he didn’t intend them to – when you see people attaching ideas to your expressions that weren’t what you wanted.

“It’s like nudes,” he says. “You post a nude of yourself and you don’t have control of that any more. Forever. You snapchat a nude of yourself to someone … and you don’t know what’s going to happen to it. It’s the same thing. Anything you put in the internet … you are communicating ideas into the world and you can’t control what happens to them after you communicate them.

“And I think it’s really important to think about that before you hit send.”

(And just to be clear, Dylan Reeve says he has never posted nudes on the internet.) 

Want more from The Detail? Find past episodes here.

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