Kiwi film director Justin Pemberton discusses his latest TVNZ+ documentary, Web of Chaos, the international agendas of disinformation and curating your algorithms to protect your mental health.

Justin Pemberton is a man whose work has only gotten more interesting. From helping launch Bic Runga’s iconic career by directing the music video for her debut single, Drive; to crafting, In Bed With Anika Moa, a documentary about the singer-songwriter publicly coming out; to award-winning sports docs like Chasing Great, which delved into the remarkable talents of All Black Ritchie McCaw. 

However, it is his works that expose behind-the-scenes manipulations that are attempting to change society, that are especially captivating.


A trilogy of sorts; Pemberton’s most critically acclaimed documentaries have been, The Nuclear Comeback, which investigates the nuclear power industry’s attempts to rebrand as an environmentally friendly power source; I Spy (With My Five Eyes), which focuses on the Five Eyes spy network that shares information between the US, Canada, the UK, Australia, and New Zealand; and, Capital in the 21st Century, which, inspired by Thomas Piketty’s book, questions the need for a political and economic reset to combat extreme inequality, poverty, and rising fascism.

They are all fascinating.

“It’s about shining some light onto things that we should be looking at and thinking about,” Pemberton says, summarising his work to express over Zoom on an autumnal afternoon in April. 

We have gathered to discuss his recent TVNZ+ documentary, Web of Chaos, which delves into disinformation spread online and how it affected NZ society, particularly following our lockdowns.

Pemberton tells us Web of Chaos was inspired by a conversation he had with disinformation expert Dr. Sanjana Hattotuwa, who was subsequently interviewed for the film.

Dr. Sanjana Hattotuwa.

“We talked for two hours, and it felt so urgent… It was way before the Beehive protests, and he was warning of this turmoil. Threats to Jacinda Ardern. How it was something he’d never seen before, even though he’d been monitoring communications in NZ online forums for years. He felt it was ramping up to a level that mimicked countries like Sri Lanka [that descended into civil war]. He was even warning of interference in this year’s election,” Pemberton tells us.

Web of Chaos documents how lockdowns resulted in Kiwis spending more time on social media, where algorithms would feed them repetitive and increasingly hardline views points on topics they were interested in, like the pandemic, vaccines, and lockdowns.

Those whose comments got them banned from Facebook or Twitter discovered new online homes on platforms like Telegram, which harbours extreme ring-wing content; taking them down rabbit holes of vaccine conspiracy theories and hate for Jacinda Ardern.

Pemberton believes many of Telegram’s NZ forums were actually being engineered by people overseas. 

“Disinformation [purposefully misleading] and misinformation [factually incorrect] flow right across borders and into local politics in ways that I think we don’t really quite appreciate… When we looked at the anti-social stuff being discussed in NZ forums, you would see people talking about things like the First Amendment and the Right to Bear Arms, American concepts, that don’t apply here,” he tells us.

While the documentary’s title would suggest the aim of spreading disinformation is simply to cause chaos, Pemberton tells us, “There are actually multiple aims, because there are multiple forces doing it.” 

He lists the following examples. 

“There’s been a lot of documented stuff about China’s doing a similar campaign on Taiwan to destabilise that leader, who is again, a female progressive leader, who is pro-gay, has a trans-Minister of Technology, and is anti-reunification with China.”

“There are people like Peter Thiel, who is very interested in collapsing democracy. He’s a libertarian and doesn’t like government, so he’s been funding a lot of Trump’s big lies about the election being rigged… Then there are anarchists, who just do it for the LOLs.”

“Russia meanwhile is very interested in destabilising the Five Eye countries, and spreading disinformation make it harder to govern… Ultimately, people like Vladimir Putin are interested in having authoritarian control over his domains of the world. He doesn’t want a powerful UN who restricts him or freezes him out.”

“When disinformation is spread, social trust becomes broken and your country becomes a sitting target for manipulation,” says Pemberton, bringing back memories of the anti-vaccine protests at parliament.

“When you don’t know who to believe or trust, it’s harder to build any coalition of the willing on climate change, or human rights, or LGBTQ+ rights,” he affirms, once again suggesting a halt to progressive change is one of the aims for those spreading disinformation.

In addition to international discourse, Pemberton believes a conservative culture fighting back against progressive movements is also playing a part in the spreading of disinformation.

“Canada and NZ have been heavily targeted. Particularly leaders Justin Trudeau and Jacinda Ardern, who are both very progressive. Australia has been way less targeted and I think that was because [at the time] the Australian government was a conservative coalition. The leader was a conservative Christian, who was anti-abortion, anti-gay, and not interested in indigenous rights. The progressive agenda was not being pursued and there was a lot less targeting.”

He also raises the example of Posie Parker’s recent tour of Australia and NZ, as an attempt by conservatives to create discourse under the disingenuous veil of feminism.

“Where did her funding come from? It certainly wasn’t feminists. It was people with conservative values who were using her as a figurehead to try and spark this strange debate, about ‘free speech’, which is actually ‘hate speech’, so, ‘the freedom to be able to hate.’”

Pemberton believes Parker’s trip was largely unsuccessful. 

“I don’t think people are going around saying, NZ is an anti-free speech country. Despite a lot of effort having been put into that [argument], it’s not gotten much traction because we understand the difference between free speech and respecting the rights of others.”

While efforts to discredit the trans community may have been unsuccessful in New Zealand, overseas, the narrative is ramping up, and thanks to social media, feed back into NZ.

“Elon Musk, taking over Twitter and removing some of the guardrails around hate speech has made it worse,” Pemberton points out, adding, “and TikTok is a haven for disinformation.”

However, he is quick to point out that for the sake of our mental health, we can shield ourselves from this negative commentary.

“It’s easy to go down the rabbit holes and start to think that this is all-pervasive, but you can actually curate your social media, just by being careful about what you look at. That way you are steering your feed in a direction that is good for your mental health,” Pemberton says suggesting the same technique that Dr. Sanjana Hattotuwa demonstrates in Web of Chaos, ensure his nighttime browsing has become cute videos of puppies and kittens.

“It’s all about how you use the platforms and the most important thing is to be a critical consumer. LGBTQ+ people are quite good at being critical consumers because we are so aware of how issues get twisted and distorted and communities get used as scapegoats.”

Web of Chaos is streaming now on TVNZ+.

Article | Oliver Hall.