Webworm talks to the man who started the COVID-19 outbreak rumour in New Zealand

“I will take the consequences because honestly it’s one of the worst things I’ve ever done.”

Hi.

Today is a long newsletter, and it involves a conversation with the man who started a rumour / conspiracy theory that spun out of control over the weekend here in Aotearoa, New Zealand.

My colleague Dylan Reeve tracked him down, and called him. The man had been half expecting a call:

I have been in this fight-or-flight mode for the last 48 hours. I just realised how bad it was on Saturday, which is when I went in and tried to clean up as much as I could, but by then it’s got a life of its own.

It’s my hope that in talking with Patient Zero of a conspiracy theory, we can understand a little more how they spread, and the victims they leave in their wake.

David Farrier and Dylan Reeve.


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The backstory:

On August 15, Health Minister Chris Hipkins urged New Zealanders to stop spreading harmful conspiracy theories about COVID-19.

Hipkins was referring to a post that had gone viral on Facebook, alleging the virus' resurgence in New Zealand was due to a young woman infiltrating a quarantine facility. 

That post was deeply vitriolic, racist and untrue.

But that racist post doesn’t seem to have been the origin of the rumour. 

Before that did the rounds, a Reddit user had posted a breakdown that all the other rumours and conspiracy theories seemed to have sprung from. 

It looked like this was Patient Zero. 

The Reddit post was deleted a few hours after it appeared, but the damage had already been done. 

That bullet-point list looked like the basis for the racist post that followed: the one we all saw shared by that uncle we hate, that friend we thought was OK, and that chat group we can no longer post in.

It was awful.

Dylan Reeve, the friend I made Tickled with back in 2016, tracked down the guy who wrote that early Reddit comment.

And he called him.

That conversation is below, but I want to hand it over to Dylan to explain how he found him.


A note from Dylan Reeve:

By the time I started looking into the racist conspiracy theory flying around Facebook about the source of Auckland’s resurgence of community transmission, many were already making the link to a Reddit comment from a little earlier. 

The comment was different in tone, but the basic hypotheses seemed to be the same.

It seemed likely to be the proto-theory.

So a few days later, when I was still  thinking about this theory that briefly flooded social media, I decided to see if I could find the origin. I wanted to know if this was some troll trying to win imaginary internet points, or if there was something else happening. 

It didn’t take me long. While he’d deleted his Reddit account and locked down various public-facing pages by the time I started looking, it still only took me about 15 minutes to be 90% sure I knew who it was.

I couldn’t find his phone number, but I found someone close to him and asked them to tell him to get back to me. And then I waited.

What I knew at that point was that he didn’t have a huge online profile, but he was pretty clearly a young professional with a decent career and, it seemed, a lot to lose.

This sort of online research and tracking people down online is something I do quite often — I have dozens of folders on my computer with background research of various internet characters.

But with most I never do anything. I certainly don’t call them.

I had no specific plan about what I was going to do with this call — maybe I was just calling to have a fight?

I didn’t know if I was about to speak to some racist troll who was intent on sowing mayhem, or some overwhelmed dude who’d let his enthusiasm for solving a mystery get the better of him.


Note: We have chosen to change the real name of the Reddit user in this post. Ultimately the point of the conversation became understanding how a conspiracy theory can start, how quickly it can spread, take on new meaning and how quickly you can lose control of what you put out in the world. I do not want this to be the basis of a mob or a doxing. 


A conversation with Patient Zero:

Hello?

Ah, hello. Who am I speaking with?

My name is Dylan Reeve. Is this James? 

Yep.

I’m a journalist and I am just tracking down something from Reddit. 

Yeah, I got a feeling. I was waiting for this.

I am not trying to hang anyone out to dry, I am just curious to know… I assume you are [James’ Reddit username]?

Well it was my public profile so, ah, yeah

Well there you go. I am just wondering where the origin of the post that you made was, for you, and what you think about it and what went down.

Well yeah. There was a flurry of chat….

So we got into lockdown on Tuesday night, and then there was a bunch of chat on the 12th, everyone was all over the place and a couple of mates had a discussion.

There was some talk from a friend from Auckland Uni, and some other people had mentioned to me as well, related around somebody sneaking into a managed isolation. 

So it was basically - I made a poor decision to put that in writing on Reddit. 

I realised a couple of hours later and removed it as much as I could, and by that stage it had been used in screen shots.

Yeah, I saw the original post, but by then there were screenshots of it...

Yeah and so then, whether the chat was originally screen-shotted from there, or that was basically the discussion I had had earlier that morning…

So whether they took - what I saw later on, and I tried to shut it off, was the descriptions around criminal activity and race and stuff…

[Editor’s note: James is a little rambly, I think he is still a little shocked he is on the phone talking about this]

That is what I was wondering, I didn’t think you wrote that.

Absolutely, and that is why I have been quite basically horrified where it went, and if I had not put that in writing, if it had stayed… I wonder if it would have happened organically. I don’t know.

So that is what I was getting to. You were free associating some ideas in that comment. Some things you’d heard.

Well, I, um, that was the theory I was explained to me. 

And then I... at the time it was like, a few hours later, “this is actually not good”. 

But it was kind of like, it seemed legitimate. I’ve had friends in the army isolation saying it was mickey mouse, and I didn’t question it too much. Like everyone, I was scrambling for answers. So it was the wrong decision to write it there.

I thought a journalist might contact me. You are the first one.

And I am also wondering if later on, after I deleted the post, I was wondering about the 2015 Harmful Digital Communications Act. So I am half expecting to see if I am able to get called up there...

Well people speculate on the internet all the time.

That’s the thing, I don’t know - it has taken you a couple of hours to track me down. And the other thing was, it was not an anonymous account, it wasn’t a throwaway account. 

I have been using it for nine years.

There are like these hitman account created on the day, and people post stuff...

What I was mainly interested in is how it came to be expressed by you. Was it just some chat amongst people you know, who all had little bits of something?

Yeah, bits and pieces. Army isolation. I think the girl actually was - which I shouldn’t have mentioned those details - she was at Auckland Uni a while back and yeah, it was probably the dumbest thing I have ever done, actually. 

And seeing what happened, and whether that came from me articulating that, or whether someone had articulated that same thing but put their own spin on it...

And as far as I can tell, it all emerged around that same morning, nobody knew what was going on.

And there was chat around the office as well, mentioning the isolation facility, and that was in the comment, and I felt like I had a second source that had confirmed the story, when I wrote that theory down.

It is a small country, and it’s a rumour mill. So look, I work with my friend David Farrier and we are looking at writing something about this. I am not sure if you follow his work?

Yeah, I am a big fan of going down the rabbit hole, but here we are anyway. 

I don’t want to hang you out to dry.

To be honest I may be hung out to dry, and it may be fully justified for the police to put me up under the Act. 

And I will take the consequences, because honestly it’s one of the worst things I’ve ever done, articulating that. 

We all like to connect the dots here and there and figure out what we see and what is happening. It’s what we do. It’s how our brains work. What happened after that was this Facebook page “Expose Hatred” picked it up… a page which spread hatred.

Yeah, I have seen David writing about that, and the QAnon stuff, and that is why I was like “man, this is next level fucked up now.”

And I have been in that r/NZ now for nine years now and I have seen the speculation around the Grace Millane thing, and we kinda get carried away, and articulating that sort of thing, and theories. And it’s like, it’s not good.

I have deleted my other accounts and I don’t want to go anywhere near Reddit. And the thing is it’s like if you’ve been on there long enough, you kind of see and then you step too far like that and you go “shit.

It’s an echo chamber in a way. And you’ve been there nine years so you will have seen the chaos around the Boston Bombing on Reddit, and yes, it gets carried away. And we can all fall victim to that. I think what you have done is made a poor judgement in summing it all up and putting it together in a way that you did.

I mean the government made a fucking announcement on this thing! 

It was huge.

Your identity isn’t super important for this story, but I do want to write  about how our comments can blow out in ways we can’t understand. 

I don’t expect this is the last call I will get about this. 

I have been waiting for the last two days. 

Not sleeping because I am like, I have hibernated my LinkedIn... 

And your Instagram is private, yep. 

I am like, I work as a consultant so there is a lot of stuff Google-ble by my name. 

And if the cops want to take me in, they will find me, and they are probably already asking the Government, “what are we going to do about this?” 

So I, yep, that is what I realise: it’s why I have been in this fight-or-flight mode for the last 48 hours.

I just realised how bad it was on Saturday, which is when I went in and tried to clean up as much as I could, but by then it’s got a life of its own.

And because when I wrote about it, it was one of the earliest times it appeared, that theory was put together.

Your post has formed the storyline, the outline that someone else built this other story around later with the Department of Corrections, which is nonsensical. At no point would Corrections be involved in tracking anyone down. 

My work is applying for International Development aid and stuff, so if my name gets near these articles, essentially I won’t work in the consulting industry again and… and so to be honest, after this whatever happens in the next week or two, I might have to go and work on my parent’s farm for the rest of my life, or become a carpenter under some random name. 

Honestly Dylan, I am staring down the barrel of that.

The main problem is this other Facebook post that went crazy viral.

I was in my extended family’s cousin’s chat group that I have on Facebook! 

And then this post — that screen-grab, that image of what I’d posted — was forwarded into the chat by my father’s mother. 

And that was on Saturday, and I was like “oh my god this is going absolutely insane.

So it came full circle from my boomer auntie. And yeah, um, yeah so like, I kind of….

I read some of Toby Manhire’s writing on how this rumour is vile and malicious, and it is. 

And it’s inexcusable. And what I did was inexcusable. 

And this is what I struggle with, and maybe if I was to get in front of a court with name suppression I could maybe get diversion, and I could pay the family some reparation and I would absolutely do that because it makes more sense for me to, if it was to go there, to just plead guilty, not pay a bunch of lawyer fees, and just pay as much as I could afford for the distress of the family, just because of this baseless rumour.

I would prefer to do that, and at least I would be able to work again. 

And in this industry… and that is how I saw my life going until I have had to reframe that in the last 48 hours.

That fuckin’ subreddit, too - it’s just gotten so… yeah. 

Those alerts came through at 9am and 11am and it was scrambling, everyone is sitting up with nothing else better to do than get into a frenzy. 

And it’s an information vacuum, and that’s what this is, right? 

And I had never looked into it before, and I like reading, so you literally have a hand grenade being thrown into a vacuum here.

And obviously the government couldn’t move fast enough to put a proper story out…

And they are reticent to put out anything they are not sure of. So you always end up with this vacuum. And journalists want answers, and they want scoops. 

And you have a government that doesn’t want to say anything they are not completely sure of, and so people just fill in things. 

Like Winston Peters went on the radio and made his own fucking theory up. What you have done is what he did, but he is the fucking Deputy Prime Minister.

It literally took me three minutes to write, and I completely end my career and my public facing career in a three minute Reddit post that I left online for - it might have been a few hours. 

I think I deleted it before the end of the day.

This is the whole cancel culture idea. It’s great people face accountability for things, but it’s the scale. Sometimes it’s out of proportion.

This, yeah, the government made an announcement on this. It’s so intense.

Yes, about the “Exposing Hatred” post that was going mega viral. They tackled that, because I got probably four or five copies of that sent to me personally, I saw it posted on actual friends’ Facebook pages, people in real life I know and I thought were quite rational people shared it on Facebook. 

People would tell me it had been posted on by the Herald then deleted because the government had told them to take it down. It’s like, I don’t understand what is going on in people’s brains. 

But that was that shit they were responding to, not the original Reddit post outlining those facts - or not facts it turns out - but without any of the vitriol and inflammatory stuff around it.

It was like coffee-room, first thing in the morning, this is what we’ve heard had happened in the flurry overnight. 

And my other friend had also messaged saying he, and a friend up in Auckland who had said that was their side of it, and they matched up. 

And that is why I put it down there, and it down there in a bullet pointed list, and people could see that and go “oh there was a guy in…” 

So if there is an element of truth in the story, people believe it, right? 

It was like I had perfected this message of self destruction without even realising it.

You did a very good job of tying threads together. Unfortunately they weren’t threads that needed to be connected. 

You have to catch your own amygdala hijack before you put it out. And I have been posting drivel and pushing send on that Reddit website for nine years.

Mate, honestly…

That “Exposing Hatred” site would have gotten sent it straight away and gone “this is great”.

Look all [the information] would have been disjointed in people’s Messenger that morning, and no-one had put it line by line in a public forum at that time, before lunch, and then yeah - I guess that is the earliest thing. 

Look, the idea of this piece is not to “out” you. That is not what this is about. It’s about understanding. 

I would almost rather the police charge me, and I can do the proper reparations. 

So just yeah, I guess, I can't really ask you to do anything. 

So yeah, I put it in writing. It may be the last thing I do. We’ll see. 

You think you would see how your life is going Dylan, but….

Look, am I better off going down the police station and just…?

I am probably too late because you are going to write this, but I am just thinking, would I be better off walking down there and just saying: “I put these words together last week…” 

Look, try and relax. At least this bit has happened now. 

It’s done now, I have to face the consequences now, thanks mate. 


Note: After the conversation James texted, ending with this this note: 


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Afterword from Dylan Reeve:

What was immediately apparent when I started talking to James was that he had a lot of pent up feelings — regret, fear, guilt. He was struggling. 

He’d done what I think a lot of us do — heard some rumours and ‘facts’ from a few places and put them all together. It was like Gerry Brownlee making a list of things the Prime Minister and Ashley Bloomfield had been up to. But James just decided to post his thoughts on Reddit. 

By the time he realised what he’d done, it was too late.

The story he’d put into the ether had taken on a life of its own, and then the basic plot points were remixed into something that was worse. 

James couldn’t put the genie back in the bottle, and now he was just waiting for the penny to drop and his life to fall apart.

It’s fun to play what-if, but sometimes we don’t think about the broader ideas and narratives our ideas might feed into. And once we put them out there, there might be no going back.