Jacinda Ardern’s resignation and social media

This week’s resignation of New Zealand’s Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, was something of a surprise, but for me not too surprising. Her reasons – not enough in the tank for another three-year term – were sound enough. If you haven’t got the energy left for the job, it’s professional to step down, and with an election in 11 months her party needed stability at the top well before the run-up to the polls. But I can’t help thinking about how hard a run Ardern has had of late in any case, thanks to the explosive and often mysogynistic hatred relentlessly levelled at her on local social media. This must, surely, have been an energy-sapping experience.

I should explain for my international readers: Arden has an enormous international profile globally as a progressive world leader. But in New Zealand she has become the focus of an incredible vortex of hate, mostly via social media. Some of it has been of incredible intensity: open abuse that is baseless, unjust, unfair and also relentless. Just the other week I read a lengthy diatribe masquerading as a feature article, penned by a gentleman whose surname reminds me of a woodlouse, in which he declared her the most evil person he’d ever met. I mean… what?

Such hatred is not rational, but it has become a persistent narrative on social media. What surprises me is the way Ardern has become the personal target. Prime Ministers have only rarely become the focus of serious public opprobium in the past. The last one I can think of is Robert Muldoon, the one-time accountant who was PM from 1975 to 1984 and can best be described as a political thug. He earned that opprobium through his bully-boy tactics, his open abuse of anybody who got in his way – journalists, commentators, other politicians – and his dictatorial style. That ended suddenly: one night Muldoon got drunk after arguing with one of his MP’s and called a snap election. Here’s the video. Spoiler: Muldoon lost.

But the annoyance directed at Muldoon has been nothing like the avalanche of hatred poured at Ardern, in her case mainly through social media that didn’t exist when Muldoon was in power. Ardern has basically been blamed for causing all New Zealand’s current problems. That, of course, is absurd. New Zealand’s current problems are a two-generation long outcome of the neoliberal revolution of the 1980s, a process that has steadily transferred money from the poor to the rich, that has under-funded essential infrastructure, and where public assets paid for by multiple generations of taxpayers have been handed over to private foreign enterprise, to be exploited by them for a profit.

We now have wide gulfs between rich and poor, a youth generation with no hope, and deep-seated infrastructure failures ranging from an ageing and over-capacity roading network to under-scale public health. Youth crime has soared by at least 30 percent of late: gangs of disaffected youths roam the streets in some areas at night, stealing cars with which to ‘ram raid’ retail premises, beating up passers-by and intimidating others. The main ‘gangs’ – the home of organised crime – are at war with each other over drug territories. It’s a problem that has been two generations in the making, and it will take at least two generations to fix. If it can be fixed.

An actual photo of social media in action.

Why target Ardern, then? I suspect part of the problem is frustration. People rendered powerless by the neo-liberal process want quick fixes. Ardern was originally seen as the one who could do it. Her government hasn’t delivered, in part because of a barrage of crises confronting the country – everything from a major terror attack to the Covid pandemic. But in any case, the inertia of two generations’ worth of neo-liberal juggernaut can’t be turned around overnight.

Couple that with the way Ardern took the lead in the Covid pandemic crisis – which kept New Zealand virus-free until third quarter 2021, buying time for vaccines and treatments to be developed; but where that was forgotten in the face of public health measures that the public swiftly wearied of, and where social media again played a significant part in spreading wild stories – and it’s easy to see how a public could turn on her. But this still doesn’t excuse the extent of the vitriol. All I can suppose is that social media has, once again, acted as both a mirror for the human condition – and a device to amplify the worst aspects. It’s not a good look.


Copyright © Matthew Wright 2023


19 thoughts on “Jacinda Ardern’s resignation and social media

  1. Reblogged this on Meeka's Mind and commented:
    As an Aussie, I would have welcomed New Zealand Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, with open arms, especially back when the SmugMonster was PM. To hear that New Zealanders have hounded her from office is shocking to say the least. What’s more shocking still is the role social media has played in forcing her out.
    Humans have always had the capacity to join a mob and wreak havoc, but social media has manipulated that trait by using algorithms that amplify ‘strong emotions’.
    Anger, hate and fear are some of the most powerful and primitive emotions we humans share. It’s scary to think that pieces of code can turn us into mindless hate machines.
    And for what?
    To sell advertising.
    At some point, governments are going to have to criminalise this abuse of power.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I agree – and that way, as you say, that social media turns humans into hate machines is one of the reasons why I took a break from online activity over the summer. I’ve pulled out of some of the online historical groups to which I contributed, permanently, for the same reason: they’re dominated by people who proclaim interest in the topic but whose real purpose is to validate their egoes by abusing anybody who they disagree with.

      Ardern has faced a particularly intense form of this behaviour, without even engaging social media. I can’t state that it’s the sole reason she’s quit – indeed, she explicitly didn’t mention it in her resignation speech, and I think the issues of energy exhaustion and wanting to be with family are genuine too. But I’m sure the misogyny, the hate and all the rest has affected her – how could it not? The worst part is that social media here has exploded with abusive allegations about why she left. Ouch.

      In point of fact, the only thing wrong with the Ardern government is that it’s been useless outside the emergency responses. Ardern and a couple of other ministers are the only competent ones in it. She’s copped the blame because of her profile, I suspect; but however useless her government has been, there’s no call for demonising anybody the way Ardern has been attacked on social media. It’s an indictment of the human condition… which, when seen in this light, isn’t very nice.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. The history books make us think that human beings rise to their best selves during a crisis, but I believe the opposite is also true: they can also sink to their basest, most vile selves as well.
        I think that’s part of what’s happened to Ardern. She, and her government, asked New Zealanders to pull together for the common good. 90% did, without complaint. The 10% who never cared for anyone but themselves ‘suffered’ and now they’re lashing out.
        That said, I do believe the hate is being amplified. We had something similar happen here in my state of Victoria. Lots of loud hate against Daniel Andrews for his handling of the Covid crisis, yet when we had our recent election, he and his government were voted back in with a greater majority than /before/.
        It was a ‘Danslide’. 🙂
        Social media is horribly skewed because whipping people into a frenzy makes money. I’m sure the programmers who write the algorithms that power social media are well aware of the effect their programs have. But they’re just doing their job…
        I honestly don’t like human beings much of the time.

        Liked by 2 people

  2. I am so sorry, Matthew. I’m pretty sure that the majority of New Zealanders don’t feel the same way, but no one’s hearing them. I know Ardern was a bit of a disappointment because she didn’t herald in the changes that were needed, but I believe she’ll still go down in history as a bloody good PM. 😦

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ardern still has a good deal of popularity and support locally, and certainly at international level and it’s clear to me that her greatest strength is as a leader in emergency – she’s come through time and again in that role and it’s here I think that she will be remembered historically. I know, for I am writing that history – I’m not being hyperbolic, I have a book in press.

      It’s likely that without her, Labour will lose the next election and allow a pack of clowns to gain power. The problem with the Ardern government was that the expectation of change was placed on it, but unlike (say) the first Labour government of 1935, or the neo-liberals of 1984, they didn’t do much. It’s an indictment of the extent to which the neo-liberal revolution both shut down debate even over alternate visions and embedded its structure via the way corporates dominate the economy.

      What Ardern’s government were doing was very much ‘third way’: retaining the bulk of the neo-liberal economic structure while applying a progressive social reform agenda atop, notably in regard to co-governance with Maori. This also didn’t go down well with slabs of the electorate. Couple that with the incompetence of everybody but Ardern and a couple of other ministers and it was a recipe for either (a) doing nothing, and (b) botching what was done. There has been a cascade of badly-worded legislation, post-fact additional legislation to fix the problems, and so forth.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I think we’ve been luckier here in Australia. The Covid response was largely dictated by the state Premiers rather than the Coalition government, and most of those state Premiers weren’t about to let people die to keep Canberra’s budget balanced. Federal Labor didn’t get in until /after/ the worst of the crisis was over so they’re in a position to push forward on a reform agenda.
        But…as with New Zealand, that reform agenda is a very watered down attempt to fix the underlying problems. I suspect there will have to be a global backlash against neo-liberalism before any substantive change is possible. 😦

        Liked by 2 people

        1. I agree. It seems to me that the power of corporates is so embedded, and so entwined with political funding, that there can be no substantive change from neo-liberalism – no debate, even, over alternative versions of capitalism – without a very great public fuss. One, hopefully, that will be constrained to civil debate.

          Incidentally, the word in New Zealand is that Ardern (who is expected to step down next week) will have to receive a very high level of police protection in any case, more than any other ex-PM. Not sure if this link works in Australia but the article’s here: https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/politics/131034202/jacinda-ardern-will-need-more-ongoing-protection-than-any-pm-in-nzs-history–expert

          It’s quite sad. Things have changed radically since the PM used to have their home phone number in the book, on the basis that they were the top public servant and thus had to be available to the public. My Dad used to walk to work in the 1950s with Syd Holland, then PM – they both lived a couple of blocks away from Parliament buildings and went to work at the same time, so fell in with each other and chatted. The specific shift came in 1991 when the Finance Minister of the day, Ruth Richardson, slashed welfare support just as her other reforms were smashing over the employment sector. There were street protests and, thereafter, police became evident protecting the MP’s. It was kind of hilarious. Richardson, who’s about 4’8″, used to run to work every day, joyously eager to get into the office so she could keep on punishing the poor and needy, with a couple of big burly cops puffing after her and having trouble keeping up. (She was my boss’s boss, in effect, when I was working in the Reserve Bank, so I used to run into her in person every so often).

          Liked by 1 person

          1. Interesting article. It didn’t specifically name Newscorpse but I think we can read between the lines. That monster is fomenting hatred just because he can. I wonder if power at that level is no different to a game. All fun, no consequences. 😦

            Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks for your article and I think you are being a little kind to the social media crowd and their unleashed vitriol. I think those people have always been around but were hampered by the lack of the media we have today. All one has to do is revisit pre-Nazi Germany to see the power of crowds and hatred.
    I think there is a dark side to human nature that seems to gravitate to like minded and our current rise of technology has empowered it even more. I’m not sure there are any fixes for the uses of our technology so I fear these kinds of hatred and vitriol will continue and grow.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I try to see the better side of things if I can – to me the good side of social media is that it enables people to communicate with others globally; and if they do it right, it’s a positive experience. I’ve made connection with a range of people that way – discursively, with good will, and so on. But there’s that dark side as you say, and it seems to be dominant. Like you I think it’ll only get worse – to me, in large part as an outcome of the ‘validation bubbles’ flowing from the way the tech giants have monetised their social media platforms, intending to drive users to interest-centred advertising but in fact driving them down increasingly vicious rabbit-holes. Regulating the whole thing at central government level would seem to be a first step to a cure, but of course that won’t happen because corporate profit can’t be interfered with. And so society crashes and burns.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. I won’t comment on Jacinda Arden and her political party as I know little…I do know that she is exemplary in a crisis…and many people;e wished she was their PM at times…I will comment on the press and social media though and some people who seem to love igniting hate on whoever they deem is their target so to speak that behaviour worries me and scares me as it is like a juggernaut with no brakes…That is something that has to be addressed as I don’t dare to think of what it will be like in even 5 years’ time as time and time again we see people vilified in and by the media train,,, Scary …

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Ardern has been truly outstanding in the succession of national crises that have beset New Zealand since she took office. And I think New Zealand has been lucky to have her as leader during these times. One has but to look at the corporate-style response the previous government had to the 2010-11 Christchurch earthquakes to see what might have happened. But yeah, as you say, the media were on to her from the outset. The neo-liberal wing of the journalist community were down on her like a pack of rabid wolves as soon as she took office. It was odd, because the economic policies her government has followed haven’t much rocked the standard neo-liberal boat. But I guess they saw threat in her social reform agenda. And into the mix has come social media, which is a wholly new phenomenon in human history. As you say, it’s a worry to imagine where that will go in the next five years.

      Liked by 2 people

  5. The world saw how outstanding she was in a crisis and I am in total agreeance with that, Matthew as you will have read from my comment but as you say maybe it was her social reform agenda and who is behind the press I ask as there is always someone in the background funding and pulling the strings…Scary..

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m not sure the NZ media personalities who kept attacking her need have been organised or funded; their own self-interest coupled with the profit motive of their employers (who make good advertising money from their ‘shock jocks’, as they’re called) suffices. I worked professionally in media relations back in the day (before I went full-time professional writing) and had dealings with more than one of the journalists who ran anti-Ardern lines. Every one of them was self-interested, arrogant, self-entitled and openly contemptuous of others. They were also apologists for the neo-liberal corporate world. I remember the time one of them betrayed standard media/comms trust and principles, getting them banned from the organisation I was working for. Utterly untrustworthy as people.

      Given all of this, I wasn’t surprised when this little group took the line they did: their personalities were the exact opposite of Ardern’s kindness. It was also somewhat horrifying because, surely, the ‘fourth Estate’ is meant to be the conscience and voice of society – dispassionately investigating matters that concern government, people and so forth? In fact, the media frenzy against Ardern was entirely biased, a display of self-interested, pro-neo-liberal apologists who were apparently getting their own self-validation out of destroying someone who was trying to do good.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. If thats case then that is even more scary, Matthew and my worry would be that in the future they really would be the voice and conscience of society..not a society that I want for my children, grandchildren and great grandchildren…

        Liked by 1 person

    1. There has been a huge amount of misogyny involved, a layer atop the general hatred that has come from anti-vaxxers, conspiracy theorists etc. It’s a terrible indictment both of the human condition and of how social media seems to have facilitated its dark side. Ardern deserves none of it. Her government has been generally fairly useless in terms of policy initiatives, but she’s very carefully steered NZ through a succession of unprecedent and historically significant crises, and I think we’re in better shape now thanks to her leadership. It’s sad that this hasn’t been recognised by the whole country.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks. It’s a sad outcome for Ardern. Social media and the conspiracy theories (etc) it fosters are bad news: I’ve begun avoiding social media myself after my own experiences with it and a minor profile as a public author. Ardern has borne the full brunt of it – latest gen is that she and her family will still need 24/7 police protection even after stepping down, which is unheard of for a former PM in NZ. Ouch.


Join the discussion!

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.