Covid 19: The sad spiral of Liz Gunn down the conspiracy rabbit hole – Damien Venuto

OPINION:

Liz Gunn was once a TVNZ anchor, reading the news on some of the most-watched programmes in the country.

It’s a fact that she reminded us of in a Facebook video posted this week, in which Gunn is shown hounding a news reporter with conspiracy-laden questions claiming (wrongly) that children were fainting after receiving the Covid vaccine.

The young reporter does her best not to engage, but Gunn is so persistent that a person understood to be a member of TVNZ’s security team has to step between the pair and encourage maintaining a 1-metre separation.

A TVNZ spokeswoman wouldn’t go into the details of the video, but explained that the broadcaster has measures in place to ensure the safety of its reporters in the field.

“TVNZ has not made any changes to security arrangements due to recent incidents, but we have a number of existing safety precautions for reporters in place,” the spokeswoman said.

“Depending on the story, this can include travelling with extra security when covering certain events, reporting from safe locations and from a distance if a situation feels volatile and using technology solutions – for example drone footage, or footage recorded on mobile phones rather than a camera set-up where needed.

“We have a responsibility to report on all the stories impacting New Zealanders – but ultimately, we need to do that in a safe way.”

What makes this video so uncomfortable is the glimpse it offers at how conspiracy theories can leap out of Facebook pages and into the real world – you don’t even need the metaverse to make this happen.

Perhaps the most alarming section of the video comes right at the end, when an off-screen supporter of Gunn tells the member of the TVNZ team to “come out West and we’ll have a chat, buddy”.

It’s easy to brush this off as just an example of anti-vax male bravado, but we now have enough international examples to show thinly veiled threats of violence shouldn’t be disregarded too quickly.

From the Capitol Hill storming to the Pizzagate attack, the powerful emotive force of online conspiracy theories have been shown time and again to motivate behaviour that’s difficult to fathom.

Locally, we’ve also seen people showing up at vaccine centres aggressively attempting to dissuade Kiwis from getting their kids vaccinated, including banging on car windows. The line separating digital behaviour from actions in the real world is becoming thinner as the pandemic drags on.

This week’s Liz Gunn video (it appears she had two cameras on her as she confronted the TVNZ reporter) is the latest to confirm Gunn’s slip into the world of Covid conspiracy theories.

For most vaccinated Kiwis who are just desperate for the pandemic to end, it’s difficult to understand how someone like Gunn – who spent most of her career in the fact-checked realms of professional journalism and law – can be sucked into the appeal of conspiracy theories.

But as Herald writer Simon Wilson pointed out in his essay in November last year: “Everyone knows someone. The vaccine is being rejected by teachers, nurses, firefighters, people who are not vile in any way. People we value for the vital contributions they make to our safety and our ability to thrive, and who have, since the pandemic began, earned our admiration and gratitude. People we really did not expect to jump the other way on either vaccines or the value of vaccine mandates.”

The problem with Gunn’s dalliance with conspiracy theories is that her voice still carries some credibility after three decades on New Zealand television and radio.

After starting her career as a litigation lawyer, Gunn began presenting Sunday for TVNZ in the early 1990s.

She was part of the original TVNZ Breakfast team alongside Mike Hosking and Susan Wood in 1997.

In 2001, Gunn took Alison Mau’s place as host, forming a team alongside Hosking, but sparked headlines when she suddenly quit live on air.

During her stint at TVNZ between 1990 and 2003, Gunn also worked at Radio New Zealand, hosting a number of shows before finishing in 2016.

Her more recent media activities have played out on social media in the shape of conspiratorial videos, the most controversial of which included the suggestion that the earthquake that hit the central North Island in October last year was Mother Nature’s response to Jacinda Ardern’s announcement about new vaccination targets, passports and the traffic light system.

Her recent clips are well-produced, often employing the skills she developed during her time in mainstream media. If you were to encounter one of these clips during a daily scroll through Facebook, it would be easy to mistake it for a video from a legitimate media company.

In what is a great example of the power of Facebook filter bubbles, the commentary under Gunn’s various video posts are overwhelmingly positive.

This continuously gushing feedback loop only serves to reinforce the resolve in those posting this kind of content.

Given that New Zealand’s double vaccination rate sits at around 93 per cent, the overall audience can’t be that big – but their voices are loud enough to ensure that people like Gunn continue to post this kind of content.

Gunn isn’t alone in spiralling down the positive feedback loop of online content creation.

Even comedian Russell Brand, long known for his liberal point of view, has seemingly been pulled deeper and deeper into the conspiratorial scene in recent videos.

As Slate writer Lili Loofbourow argued this month: “to look at the history of [Brand’s] YouTube channel is to see—almost in real-time—how grimly the platform can shape its content creators’ trajectories as they respond, consciously or not, to the incentives the algorithm supplies”.

People like Brand and Gunn simply wouldn’t bother posting their bizarre videos if they weren’t being applauded every step of the way.

The likes of Facebook and Youtube claim to be working hard to remove vaccine misinformation from the internet – but Brand and Gunn have many contemporaries that raise questions about whether these moderation efforts go far enough.

A study conducted last year for the Herald by social media analytics company Zavy found that two of the strongest emotions associated with anti-vax commentary online are fear and sadness.

Society’s response to these groups is often laced with anger, sometimes going as far as blaming them for the continuation of Covid restrictions. Politicians here and abroad are joining the pile-on, increasingly viewing them as votes that don’t really matter in any case.

This isn’t an apology for the frustrating decision by some not to get vaccinated, but we need to question whether anger and ostracisation are the best approaches to bring these people on board. Can you think of a single moment in your life, where an outburst of anger shook you out of a feeling of sadness or fear?

Rather than pure anger, the Gunn case should also provoke a sense of sadness in those who spent years watching her on-screen. There’s something deeply disappointing about those moments when once prominent people fall from grace so dramatically.

Fans of Eric Clapton, Pete Evans, and Lance Armstrong will know all too well the unsettling feeling of watching someone’s slow-motion fall play out in real-time via the media.

Of course, there’s schadenfreude involved in all this, but it’s also a reminder that you can’t escape the frailty of the human condition – even when you’ve spent years in front of the camera.

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