by guest-writer, Marilyn Park, M.A.

A critique of Claire Patolo’s thesis “Counterspin Media and COVID-19 in Aotearoa New Zealand: Far-Right Extremism and the Undermining of Public Sphere and Public Health Principles’, (School of Communication Studies Faculty of Design & Creative Technologies AUT, 2023.)


This thesis by Clare Patolo has already been reviewed once (see Truth Denialism in the Thesis of an AUT Graduat) but we are publishing a second study. We do this not because there is any great merit in Patolo’s writing but because a lot can be learned of the methods of the media by studying this piece (Editor).

Indicative of the influences Patolo had in writing this piece is her acknowledgements to:

  • Kate Hannah, Sanjana Hattotuwa, and Kayli Taylor, ‘Dangerous Speech, Misogyny and Democracy’. The Disinformation Project).
  • Byron C Clark, Clark, B. (2022). ‘The NZ media and the occupation of Parliament’. Pacific Journalism Review 28 (1&2), 123-137. Clark, B. (2023). Fear: New Zealand’s hostile underworld of extremists. Harper Collins Publishers. And Clark, B., & Stoakes, E. (2023). ‘Intersections of influence: Radical conspiracist ‘alt-media’ narratives and the climate crisis in Aotearoa’. Pacific Journalism Review, 29(1&2), 12-26.  
  • Matthew Cunningham in Cunningham, M., La Rooij, M., & Spoonley, P. (2022). Histories of Hate: The Radical Right in Aotearoa New Zealand. Otago University Press.
  • Paul Spoonley, in Spoonley, P. (1987b). The Politics of Nostalgia: Racism and the Extreme Right in New Zealand. The Dunmore Press. Also Spoonley, P., & Morris, P. (2022). ‘Identitarianism and the Alt-Right: A New Phase of Far-Right Politics in Aotearoa New Zealand’. in M. Cunningham, et al (Eds.), (2022) Histories of Hate: The Radical Right in Aotearoa New Zealand (pp. 305-324).
  • Dylan Reeve, (Reeve, D. (2022a). Fake Believe: Conspiracy Theories in Aotearoa. Upstart Press.
  • Marinus La Rooij in La Rooij, M. F. (2002). ‘From Colonial Conservative to International Antisemite: The Life and Work of Arthur Nelson Field’, Journal of Contemporary History, 37(2), 223–239.
  • Also Patolo’s thesis supervisor, Professor Wayne Hope, who is the joint editor of an online IAMCR journal Political Economy of Communication at AUT, and Co-director of Journalism, Media and Democracy studies.



On the surface Patolo’s thesis appears to be based on a plausible theory. However, by unpicking the key components of her argument, the following discrepancies become obvious. Of prime importance is her use of scientific terms which have been adapted to socio-economic terms.  E.g., Ecology is described in dictionaries and most websites as: the study of the relationships between living organisms, including humans, and their physical environment; it seeks to understand the vital connections between plants and animals and the world around them. Ecology also provides information about the benefits of ecosystems and how we can use Earth’s resources in ways that leave the environment healthy for future generations.

However, Kate Hannah et al and the Disinformation Project (2022), which Patolo derives her use of this word from, describes ‘ecologies’ as – systems and networks that mirror and migrate content, discourses, language, and values across different spaces and places to audiences, with significant online impact and growing offline consequences.Misinformation’ advocates use this extrapolation and coined meaning to attempt to link misinformation/ disinformation/ malinformation and dangerous speech (Hannah et al) to harm caused by these to the ecology of humans. E.g. Far-right extremist ideology within Counterspin’s language … undermined public sphere and public health principle, p. 80).  Typical of Hannah’s approach, she fails to mention that it is she who has ‘coined’ a new ‘meaning’ to the term ‘ecology’, in her attempt to link it to misinformation/ disinformation/ malinformation and dangerous speech. (The implied meanings of these words will be discussed later).

It is also in this context that Patolo uses this term and attempts to link it to harm to the ‘public good’. .Eg. ‘We have recently seen the influence of disinformation, with the lie that the 2020 US presidential election had been stolen. Republicans in many states were prompted to pass hundreds of voter suppression laws to combat non-existent voter fraud (Henricksen, 2022). This directly undermined the public sphere principle that all citizens could participate by right. As Lipari (2022) puts it, the possibility of people coming together to rigorously debate is almost untenable due to disinformation, misinformation, lies, and deception. One can see therefore how far-right extremist ideology goes against every principle of the public sphere.’ (pg.5)

Hannah et al, in The Disinformation Project appears to be well versed in propaganda tactics. She uses a Propaganda recipe which arose during the 9/11 debate and has been reused during the Covid-19 era to stifle opposition as a tried and true propaganda tactic [which] repeatedly pairs a target word with positive or negative associations. From Johnson, Brody and Hughes (May 30 2024) in Transhumanism: Military Intelligence Operations Cloaked in The False Premise of Transcendence.  Patolo, knowingly or unknowingly uses this tactic throughout her thesis.

Patolo’s research also draws upon Raymond Williams’ keyword analysis which he first developed in Keywords: a Vocabulary of Culture and Society (1976). Patolo claims, “Keywords are important in the analysis of language, as they reflect vocabulary choice. This research will specifically reveal how keywords such as ‘freedom’ and ‘tyranny’ have been coopted by far-right extremists to become key signifiers of their ideology.” (pp. 8-9)

Keywords which Patolo considers are used as indicative of far right or alt-right discourse, and are defined by her, are:

  • Freedom: the quality or state of being free. A political right. (pg.67) Patolo claims it is used as a rallying call.
  • Tyranny; tyrannical; tyrant: oppressive power exerted by government; an oppressive, harsh, or unjust act. (pg. .69)
  • Revolution; revolt: an outbreak against authority; a sudden, radical, or complete change; a fundamental change in political organization, the overthrow of one government. (pg. 71)
  • Reclaim; Reclaiming: as in to regain, to get again in one’s possession. (pg. 73)
  • Democide; Democidal: The murder of any person or people by a government, including genocide, politicide, and mass murder. Synonyms: Annihilation, ethnic cleansing, extermination genocide, mass murder, purge
  • Media; Mainstream Media (MSM); Mass Media: forms or systems of communication designed to reach a large number of people (pg.74)
  • Jacinda Ardern: Name of former Prime Minister of New Zealand.

Patolo also asserts: The texts analysed promoted far-right extremist ideology, particularly its anti-democratic nature, (hence they are opposed to  the principles or practice of democracy). They also reveal anti-science, anti-media (thus opposing the media) and anti-progress thinking, Anti-progressive is a term used to describe opponents of transhumanism,  (Johnson, Brody and Hughes 2024)) which Patolo claims are also cornerstones of far-right extremist ideology. However, this ideology was never explicitly acknowledged in the analysed texts, either by Counterspin or its audience.

Despite no definitive proof, these labels are used to describe CSM and without adequate definition as to what is meant by these terms.  She claims, “The narratives and themes that were discovered in the analysed texts also revealed Counterspin to be a clearing house for international far-right extremism, particularly that from the US.” (pg. 85) A clearing house is defined in dictionaries as something that acts as a mediator between any two entities or parties that are engaged in a financial transaction – how this applies to CSM is not explained.  However, by the clever interspersing of examples from US involving Nazi organisations Patolo makes CSM look as if they are aligned with these groups without giving examples proving their connection.

So too, Anti-science which is normally defined as, “A set of attitudes that involve involve rejection of science and the scientific method. People holding antiscientific views do not accept science as an objective method that can generate universal knowledge.” There are no specific examples given by Patolo as to how they are ‘anti-science’.  Presumably Patolo sees rejection of the Covid-19 narrative propagated by main-stream media is anti-science. However, this is just an assumption since she does not explain her meaning.

Another label used is Anti-progressive. This is is normally defined in a dictionary as ‘opposed to new ideas or to   systems that encourage change in society or in the way that things are done’. “However, as Broudy et al (2024) explain this is a term being used to denigrate people who are against transhumanism.” While Patolo labels Counterspin as anti-progressive, no examples are given of these, so the reader is left with an implied implication which has no substantial meaning.

One of the key words Patolo cites used by Counterspin is Democide:  E.g.

Counterspin, as well as other far-right extremists, used this term to stoke fear among the population during the COVID-19 pandemic. The use of ‘democide’ plays with already existing fears that some have towards the government, as well as the fears that vaccines can kill people (pg.75).

As it is now a proven fact that this vaccine can indeed kill people, and in fact some people have  died from the Covid-19 vaccine, this statement is based on denial on the part of Patolo. (See Case of Rory Nairn Coroner’s report 2024).

Patolo also states:  

This research set out to understand the far-right extremist ideology within Counterspin’s language and how this undermined public sphere and public health principles. In general, the analysis found that the sample of texts from Counterspin, and their audience, normalised far-right extremism ideology. As one of Thompson’s (1990) modes, legitimation is when an ideology is established and sustained by representing itself as legitimate. It implicitly revealed itself within Counterspin’s language.

In order to prove this Patolo analyses the language used in selected texts, failing to note that she is using words and phrases used in texts posted by people on the CSM Chat group and only some of them are by CSM writers: Kevin Alp, Hannah  Spierer and several others, also unnamed. She also fails to note that not all the people who post on the chat are members of the Telegram group, as it is an open forum that members and non-members alike can post in and they are not responsible for them. She also fails to note that CSM admin (there are several as well as the site holders) remove posts which are violent and discuss causing harm to others.

  In the three texts that were analysed, common keywords and themes were identified. It suggests that there is common ground between Counterspin’s visual, audio and written language, and the language of their audience, with a far-right extremist narrative running throughout. My analysis also discovered common far-right extremism themes and narratives within Counterspins (sic) language, such as the ‘us versus them’ narrative, the ‘take us back to better times’ narrative, and finally the ‘conspiracy over fact’ narrative. (pg.80) But there is a forced narrative within the texts. The ‘us’ referred to does not explicitly mention far-right extremists. These texts reveal that Counterspin had done a good job in concealing this. To an ordinary person watching or reading the texts, it just looks like someone who is passionate about personal freedoms.

Patolo makes this statement without proof that this is concealed and not simply passion.

Here the ‘us vs them’ narrative directly undermined the main principle of the public sphere, that all people can come together to exchange different views and form public opinion. Counterspin, and their supporters, actively exclude those they do not agree with.(pg.81)

This ignores the fact that CSM Chat group is an open forum that anyone can join, and only people who violate the rules of Telegram (no inciting violence towards people including towards admin) or insult admin, are removed. Paolo cites no proof for her statement, as to who is excluded.

This narrative also undermined a public health principle.  Health officials and any medical professionals who actively worked to combat the virus, including administering vaccines were villainised. This compromised the ability of such people to actively react to new threats.

How Counterspin did this is not explained.  If people are persuaded to not trust public health, this undermines the capacity for public health professionals to contain the virus. Instead, they had to also focus on curbing the disinformation that was spreading. (pg.81-82)

Paolo here ignores the fact that a lot of the discussion on CSM and in the chat group focused and still focuses on, trying to understand what was the truth of the experimental vaccines, were they harmful to certain people, if not all, and if they are, why is it so hard to have a discussion about side-effects?  What are in the vaccines since they are not traditional vaccines? The so-called disinformation was/is still focused on trying to get any information to these basic questions from scientific sources.  This is not anti-scientific, it is searching for answers.

Another of Patolo’s claims is that the phrase ‘take us back to better times’ is another set to key words. E.g. This narrative undermined Counterspin’s assurance that their ‘freedom movement’ catered to people from different walks of life and of different ethnicity. It undermined the involvement of those people because the wish to turn back time by Counterspin represents nostalgia for a world of racial uniformity. Māori and Pasifika people that turned up and rallied behind Counterspin and Alp, would in principle get cast aside in this return to a better time. That is what far-right extremists and white supremacists do. (pg. 82-83)

Patolo gives no proof for this assertion, there than ‘this is what they do’.  There are no examples given of connections to a racial issues.

Even more obscure is her assertion that the term ‘conspiracy over fact’ shows how QAnon claims, likely from the US, had made their way into Counterspin’s language, and the language of their audience. Below are some of the examples of references to QAnon that were found in the analysed comments. Whether these users were made aware of QAnon through Counterspin is unknown, but Counterspin’s amplification of those conspiracy theories would have definitely advanced their promotion to a local audience. (Pg. 83)

Patolo defines allowing people to post material that they wish to share as promotion of that material by CSM rather than as an example of freedom of speech amongst the contributors, perhaps because it fits in with her thesis agenda.

Patolo claims to that the occasional use of the anacronym WWG1WGA is used as a rallying cry by the QAnon online community of ‘digital soldiers’ that battle against the Deep State (The Anti-Defamation League, 2020). It’s concerning because unless you know what to look for, these ‘digital soldiers’ can pretty much go undetected. Counterspin’s language encouraged these narratives. (Pg. 83-84)

Like other key word examples Patolo does not, distinguish who it is who uses the phrase.  Hence the reader is left with an impression that it is use deliberately by Counterspin, whoever that may be.

The goal of Patolo thesis appears to be to show that: The preference for conspiracy theories over fact directly undermined public sphere and public health principles during the COVID-19 pandemic in Aotearoa New Zealand. The end goal in spreading certain popular far-right extremist conspiracy theories, such as QAnon, is to sow social discord. And that social discord was evident in the convoy and the subsequent occupation of Parliamentary grounds. These conspiratorial narratives fostered distrust of the Government and media. This led to the undermining of the public sphere as it created a division whereby people were encouraged to turn away from the democratic processes, which enabled them to debate and form opinions.  Social discord also undermined the public health principle that medical professionals ought to respond unhindered to new and emerging threats. The kind of language spread by Counterspin created an unsafe environment for some public health officials. (Pg. 84)

Patolo appears to imply that being able to debate and form opinions as to whether or not the public health response was correct, through the Counterspin forum, was anti-democratic, which is the very opposite of democracy.  This is an illogical argument and disproves rather than proves her assertion.



Patolo’s thesis is built around the following premise: That the far-right extremist discourse that pervaded Counterspin’s language during the COVID-19 pandemic and infodemic in Aotearoa New Zealand has the capacity to undermine public sphere and public health principles.

In order to prove this statement Patolo used a method used by Hannah et al (2022) in ‘The Disinformation Project’ which uses assumed ‘key words’, to show how Counterspin uses far-right discourse and is therefore far-right.  Patolo intersperses her discussion about Counterspin with paragraphs about Nazi and neo-Nazi groups, to make an implied but never stated connection.  Patolo makes the mistake of talking about Counterspin as if it is a homogenous group of people who walk in lock-step together.  Anyone familiar with alternative media will know that this simply is not the case.  Nor does she note that there are two sites run by Counterspin, one has contributions by a small team of Counterspin writers, with the ability for readers to make comments, and a Chat site which is an open forum. She does not state where she gets her comments from, the writers or the readers or which site.

Patolo also makes the erroneous mistake of basing her thesis on three key texts and on a small number of key words which she assumes that because they are repeated several times (sometimes as little as 3 times), they prove her point.  She uses the fallacy of ‘hasty generalisations’, which do NOT prove her conclusions, since she not only fails to mention that they are used by different people in the texts – some mere visitors and not regular contributors – but dismisses the fact that they are common words used in all sectors of society, as if that is of little consequence.  (pg.85) Eg. ‘freedom’, ’tyranny’, ’revolution’, ’reclaim’, ’democide’, ’media’, ’Jacinda Ardern’.

Patolo also follows Hannah and Byron Clark’s lead in using terms taken from other fields but adapted to socio-political discourse, and without adequately explaining their meaning, so that the reader is left with an impression and an implied and unproven assumption. E.g. Ecology, anti-progressive, etc.

Patolo takes her lead from Kate Hannah et al and the Disinformation Project (2022) who describe ‘ecologies’ as systems and networks that mirror and migrate content, discourses, language, and values across different spaces and places to audiences, with significant online impact and growing offline consequencesThe implied implication here is that the language used by alleged far-right alternative media advocates are creating social harm through upsetting vital connections between people by their influence on their readers.

Patolo claims that:  The texts analysed promoted far-right extremist ideology, particularly its anti democratic nature (opposed to the principles or practice of democracy). They also reveal anti-science, anti-media (opposing the media) and anti- progress thinking, which are also cornerstones of far-right extremist ideology.  However, this ideology was never explicitly acknowledged in the analysed texts, either by Counterspin or its audience. Patolo, in using these terms does not explain what they mean in the context that she is using them in which is a major flaw in her argument.

Another obscure phrase she uses is ‘clearing house’. Eg, The narratives and themes … in the analysed texts also revealed Counterspin to be a clearing house for international far-right extremism, particularly that from the US (pg. 85)

A clearing house is defined in dictionaries as something that acts as a mediator between any two entities or parties that are engaged in a financial transaction – how this applies to CSM is not explained.  However, by the clever interspersing of examples from the US involving Nazi organisations and QAnon, Patolo makes CSM look as if they are aligned with these groups without actually proving their connection.  Mere examples of quotes in the CSM narratives from other groups Patolo considers to be far-right does not prove this.

It becomes apparent reading Patolo’s thesis that there is a deeper agenda behind her stated desire to expose Counterspin’s perceived affront on the ‘common good’ with reference to the Covid-19 medical response.  There is a thread of counter-intelligence running behind the methods used to disparage Counterspin which is used by Hannah et al in The Disinformation Project and which gave support to Patolo’s thesis. In 2021 The Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet made available 20 Masters scholarships focused on ‘preventing and countering violent extremism’, which set a precedent for tertiary institutions to introduce this as a legitimate topic for thesis participant.  Patolo’s thesis fits in these parameters, since Counterspin has been identified as a worthy focus of counter-intelligence by Hannah et al.

However, while Palolo’s findings are applauded by her fellow disinformation specialists for her use of their methods, she fails to prove her basic assumption: that Counterspin Media is wilfully spreading far-right rhetoric and hence is anti-democratic and harmful to the public. In short, her thesis has no substance, is full of assumptions, uses jargon words with no defined meaning and uses counter-intelligence ploys to try and discredit CSM without actually proving they are what she implies they are.  Rather than a well thought out thesis this is a hit piece akin to poor journalism.  If I was her marker, I would have failed her.


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