Jacinda Ardern is likely to require an unprecedented level of security for a former New Zealand prime minister given the extent of the abuse and threats she faced while in office.
Ongoing police protection for retired leaders is unusual in New Zealand, where politicians are able to revert to life as a private citizen once they retire. But Ardern, who announced her shock departure last week and formally resigned on Wednesday, was the target of some of the darkest and most extreme online abuse, according to research by the University of Auckland.
“The vitriol is, quite frankly, off the charts,” said Paul Buchanan, a former intelligence and defence policy analyst who was a consultant to US security agencies. “The threats to her will not go away simply because she steps down. Some of these people are capable of taking violent action against her.”
Buchanan believes New Zealand’s Diplomatic Protection Service, a specialised arm of the police responsible for security, will assess the risk to Ardern and her family and provide 24-hour security for the foreseeable future.
Chris Hipkins, who formally succeeded Ardern as prime minister Wednesday in Wellington, has declined to comment on security arrangements for the former leader while describing some of the treatment she received as “abhorrent.”
University of Auckland researchers analysed posts from online platforms including Gab, 4chan, Telegram, Reddit and 8kun dating back to 2019 that mentioned Ardern and six other high-profile male and female officials from across the New Zealand political spectrum.
Ardern was found to have faced between 50 and 90 times more online vitriol than any of the others. She was mentioned in more than 18,000 posts, with 5,438 classified as strongly negative, angry, sexually explicit or toxic. The research also found the abusive messages increased in the second half of last year.
“I draw the conclusion that misogyny was a key part of it,” said Chris Wilson, senior lecturer in politics and international relations at the University of Auckland. Ardern attracted backlash for being a left-wing woman in power who “symbolically or otherwise was taking a number of steps to undermine structures of patriarchy, racial hierarchies and structures within society,” he said.