Conspiracies rocket New Zealand bluesman into politics
During the turmoil of the pandemic, Billy TK has turned from an obscure blues guitarist into New Zealand's leading conspiracy theorist, using viral social media posts to propel an anti-establishment run at parliament.
Wearing a smart suit on the campaign trail, Billy Te Kahika Jr offers an image of sober consideration, even joking that his detractors are surprised to find him without a tin-foil hat.
But those critics say the 48-year-old, who recently led a maskless anti-lockdown demonstration in Auckland, is dividing society while spreading pandemic misinformation that could cost lives.
His posts and stump speeches are peppered with conspiracy theories that have flourished online globally throughout the pandemic.
They typically focus on the "deep state" and claim the health crisis has been manufactured to allow governments to enslave people.
Part of this a United Nations plot to round up rural dwellers into "super cities" so they can seize control of their land, according to Te Kahika.
Te Kahika names Bill and Melinda Gates, Hillary Clinton and New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern as some of those behind the scheme.
Governments are also intending to abduct children, according to Te Kahika, a conspiracy theory amplified by followers of the QAnon movement, who believe a satanist paedophile cabal is behind it.
At a recent meeting of his Advance NZ Party in Mangawhai, a remote seaside village, Te Kahika told AFP he was running in this month's national election to counter government over-reach in fighting the pandemic.
"I believe that Jacinda Ardern, the socialist-groomed prime minister that she is, is leading us down a road where she is going to eliminate all of the middle-class people, take away our rights and freedoms," Te Kahika said.
- Online power -
Until recently Te Kahika saw his calling as a musician, following in the footsteps of his father, Billy Te Kahika Sr, an influential guitarist known as "the Hendrix of the Pacific".
Between gigs, Billy TK, led a quiet life on a remote farm, where he and his wife home-schooled their children.
His social media profile until the pandemic reflected his lifestyle, with posts mostly promoting his music career while celebrating God and life on the farm.
Then, on June 23 this year, came a message on his Facebook page: "Hi guys! Dropping the guitar for a while to work on saving our beautiful country and our freedoms!!"
The Facebook page for his new Advance NZ party was created about the same time.
Since then, videos on the Advance NZ Facebook page have amassed more than 5.3 million views, according to data from social media tracker CrowdTangle.
They are stunning figures for a new political entrant in a nation of just five million people.
They exceed the 2.8 million views for New Zealand's main opposition National Party and 5.2 million for Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern's Labour Party.
Advance NZ's Facebook posts have also generated far more activity than those of the two mainstream parties.
Advance NZ's posts have been shared 148,000 times, compared with fewer than 110,000 combined for the mainstream parties, according to the CrowdTangle data.
AFP fact checkers have debunked two of his party's most popular claims: that the government was authorising the military to enter private residences and planning forced vaccinations.
The latter claim was made in a campaign video that selectively edited statements from lawmakers, resulting in parliament's privileges committee condemning "blatant doctoring" of footage and demanding it be taken down.
However, the video has remained online, attracting more than 200,000 views on Facebook.
- 'Man of the moment' -
At the rally in Mangawhai, the roughly 100 people who had packed into a library hall gasped when Te Kahika told them they would be rounded up into skyscraper apartments as part of the global plot.
"We're all here to see this amazing person that everyone's talking about," said an elderly woman supporter.
"I was all for Jacinda before this Covid-19 stuff, not now," said another.
Te Kahika's conversion to conspiracy theorist appears to have come suddenly during the pandemic.
He told AFP he had initially been a backer of the government's virus-battle plans, which saw a three-month national lockdown that began in March.
New Zealand has recorded just 25 Covid-19 deaths in a population of five million.
But Te Kahika said he began to understand while going online during the lockdown that there was a global plot co-led by Ardern.
Te Kahika believes he can muster 15 percent of the vote on October 17.
"I think I'm the man of the moment, for the moment," he said.
Polling does not show his support anywhere near 15 percent.
But New Zealand's proportional voting system favours minor parties and the populist Winston Peters ended up as kingmaker in the 2017 election after polling just 7.2 percent, so Te Kahika's potential cannot be dismissed.