A collection of right-wing Twitter trolls were dedicatedly publishing allegations about Clarke Gayford on Twitter. But who are they? What do they want? And how does an apparently baseless rumour get to the point where the upper echelons of NZ police were issuing a statement to quash it?
For months, serious allegations have been circling about Clarke Gayford, the partner of New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.
By the second week of April, the rumours seemed to have reached critical mass: every journalist from various newsrooms across the country had apparently heard the rumour, and a number had actively looked into it. Those outside the journalism industry were talking about it too—VICE staff were contacted by communications staff, performing arts professionals, and lawyers about the story. Because of New Zealand’s hearty defamation laws—and because they aren't true—we won’t publish the substance of what those rumours actually were. But the tales were persistent enough, widely disseminated enough, and serious enough, that this morning NZ Police took the highly unusual step of publishing a formal statement to quash them.
The statement from Police National Headquarters, published by the Herald, says: "While in general we do not respond to enquiries which seek to confirm if individuals are under police investigation, on this occasion we can say that Mr Gayford is not and has not been the subject of any police inquiry, nor has he been charged in relation to any matter."
Scurrilous rumours are par for the course in politics—so why did this one make it to the point of official denial? Last month, in an effort to find out the source-point for the swirling innuendo, we decided to try and find the patient zero of the Gayford rumours.
First: to Twitter, NZpol’s healthiest petri dish of gossip and online subterfuge. There, we found an account whom we’ll dub “The Frog Teacher”: a Tweeter who had changed their username to refer to the rumours specifically [their handle and username have since changed]. From their profile we found the earliest explicit references to the specific rumour. The Frog was prolific, had been tweeting about it for months, and also seemed to be concertedly targeting media with the rumours—often tagging in broadcasters or news channels.
But who was it? Their profile image was of Kermit sipping tea: the oft-memed image that has now become synonymous with the alt-right. Slightly more mysterious was the Teacher moniker. A number of their contemporaries—those they were retweeting or chatting to—also had teacher as part of their bios or handles. Several were overtly tweeting about the Gayford rumours—some by direct allegations, others through slightly more subtle jabs questioning his ability to travel.
Intrigued to keep track of them, I created a second Twitter account and started following any New Zealand 'Teacher' accounts who were tweeting about Gayford—and swiftly assembled a follow-list of around 50, as well as a slightly deranged timeline far from the usual leftist NZpol filter bubble. So who were the Teachers? Was this an army of right-wing trolls working in unison to destabilise NZ government in the manner of Russia’s 2016 forays into US electoral politics? Or were they just a bunch of right-wingers hanging out on social media? Some clues point to the latter: the accounts were all created at different times, and have enough difference in tone, interests and spelling ability that they don’t seem like the work of just a few players. The “Teacher” handles, it turns out, are just a jab at Labour’s plans to regulate the title of teacher for those without formal training—and adopting versions of an internet joke as your handle isn’t unusual for groups with common interests online.
It’s easy on Twitter for a few tweets to take on the appearance of a campaign—but risky to superimpose narratives of intention and conspiracy onto groups of people blathering on the internet. Were the Gayford rumours the result of a highly organised smear campaign by a group of right-wing trolls? Or are they simply the result of a group of people having common interests, similar political agendas, the seed of some juicy gossip—acting on the age-old human impulse to show you’re an insider, in its most modern expression: hitting tweet. Without hearing it from the tweeters themselves (who so far have not responded to VICE’s requests for comment), it’s hard to know. But Twitter’s Gayford rumour-mongers could be as much anarchic and transparently self-interested as they are conspiratorial.
Over in the United States, reporter Adrian Chen, who initially broke the story of a Russian troll farm accused of meddling in the US election, warns of the illusion of competency we sometimes give such groups, which offers them more credit than they sometimes deserve. To do so, he says in the New Yorker “ignores people’s tendency to share information that they already agree with; and it sees evidence, in the spread of that information among self-interested groups, of some grand design by a mastermind propagandist”.
Then again, organised or not, the Clarke Gayford rumour-mongers were effective enough—for at least a week, the rumours were water-cooler chat for a fair chunk of New Zealand; and it seems every journalist in the country was aware of them, if not actively checking them out. Untrue as they are, articles on those rumours have spent all morning on the homepages of every major media company in the country. Maybe the Gayford case illustrates the ability of “fake news”—if that term has any useful meaning any more—to still define what people are talking about. And how little official reports—even police statements—will do to dampen the furore of true believers.
Following the publication of the police statement I logged on again, to see how the gang on my alternative timeline were taking the news.
“Damage control?” remarked one.
“The coverup is always worse than the crime”
“Never believe anything until it has been officially denied.”
And the last word, to The Frog:
“Mission accomplished I’d say. Thanks NZ Herald. You have successfully put this on the lips of all NZer's.”