AUT law lecturer attracted thousands of views online spreading conspiratorial claims — expert

By Justin Hu (he/him)

Nov 20 2021

This article was amended after considering Ms Benjamin’s request to retract some earlier statements made. We apologise to Ms Benjamin for earlier statements.

An AUT law lecturer is spreading “disturbing” information about Covid-19 along with far-right conspiracy theories, according to a disinformation researcher.

Amy Baker Benjamin, who is a senior lecturer at the AUT Law School, has attracted over 10,000 views with videos on Covid. The lecturer often shared information often deemed misinformation.

On Friday, a university spokesperson said that Benjamin had resigned following an earlier statement that did not mention this. The lecturer says her resignation had happened in September and was for 'personal reasons', according to The Spinoff and Newsroom.

“Disturbing news coming out of social media”

While the law lecturer’s “maiden broadcast” on YouTube near the beginning of the Delta outbreak was ostensibly focused on the legality of lockdowns, Benjamin has moved towards more extreme ideas in her newest videos.

Debate has chosen to include only a small portion of what the lecturer has publicly said as a notable proportion of Benjamin’s content has been at odds with public health advice. In several instances, the lecturer cited social media posts as a source for her claims.

In one video, Benjamin shared unverified anecdotes about Covid-19 vaccines and explained it as “disturbing news coming out of social media” and added that “the press should be monitoring posts like this.” Benjamin frequently posts about Covid-related issues on Facebook groups.

Last week, a report released by Te Pūnaha Matatini’s Disinformation Project found an escalation in the intensity of Covid-specific disinformation in the last three months, including a shift from vaccine hesitancy towards vaccine resistance in online posts.

The lead researcher of the report, Kate Hannah of the University of Auckland, said that Facebook had become a hub for engendering a community within conspiracy circles.

“What we're seeing is that Facebook pages and groups are a real hotbed for creating a sense of community and by joining and participating in those pages and groups — obviously the algorithmic nature of Facebook means that you get recommended other groups that you may want to join or other pages that you might want to like,” Hannah said.

By October, Benjamin had begun creating more content mentioning long-discredited conspiracy theories such as the “New World Order” — which is a conspiracy theory that suggests global elites are plotting together to install an authoritarian world government.

In a self-filmed video posted online, Benjamin said she believed that people would see a “flaking away of the New World Order cabal”. The term “cabal” has recently emerged as a common term used by far-right activists that believe in the QAnon conspiracy theory which often centres on former U.S. President Donald Trump.

In another video in October, the lecturer said she was inclined to believe that Covid-19 was deliberately created to infect the world’s population. These claims are questioned by journalistic fact checkers and the virus’ lineage remains under ongoing scientific investigation.

While Covid vaccines have been trialled for safety and are proven to reduce the risks of hospitalisations and death, Benjamin went on to also suggest that Covid vaccinations were dangerous; in contrary to public health advice and numerous expert vaccinologists.

“The vaccinated, going into the New Zealand summer, are going to be falling ill and dying,” she said. In another video, she added: “I am willing to entertain the possibility that the vaccines are the kill shots and that [Covid] is just the excuse to line up people to willingly take the kill shots.”

A comment left by Benjamin's account which says the Covid vaccination campaign is about depopulation
A comment left by Benjamin's account

After it was first covered by Newsroom, Benjamin’s YouTube channel has since been terminated for violating the site’s rules. Benjamin also said that she participated in anti-lockdown protests in Auckland Domain in October, according to comments she left online.

In another comment, Benjamin said she had been informally advising lawyer Sue Grey, who is currently under investigation by the Law Society for sharing claims about Covid-19.

The lecturer’s resistance to vaccination had put her at odds with new restrictions introduced by the Government last month, as part of its new traffic light system, which sees campuses only open to vaccinated people at the red level.

AUT has confirmed that it will follow the requirements outlined under the new system while the University of Auckland has gone further and mandated vaccinations for on-campus activities at all levels of the new system.

Benjamin’s case shows anybody is susceptible to disinformation — expert

Hannah, who is also a University of Auckland research fellow, opines that the videos show how susceptible people can be to disinformation.

“It's really concerning to me that somebody at any university is so down a rabbit hole. [...] I guess my key concern is that from what I've seen her publication record includes 9/11 truthism. So this was a known quantity when she was employed.”

The researcher also said that Benjamin’s case would raise issues of academic freedom but that other academic staff and students also had the right to question information that is being spread by someone that holds a position of power. Debate spoke to Hannah prior to knowing about Benjamin's resignation.

“It is disturbing when these are not just fringe sets of ideas, [...] but it goes to show, it’s a perfect example of how anybody can be susceptible to disinformation, even people who are very smart,” Hannah said.

As originally reported on by Newsroom, Benjamin had previously authored a paper that labelled 9/11 as a “false flag” event. Hannah said that the conspiracy theories shared by Benjamin would have a predictable impact.

“A lot of the initial material that people started sharing, a year ago, was less strident than it is now. What we've sort of seen over the last 12 weeks is that really come out of the woodwork, where groups like Voices For Freedom, who positioned themselves as being concerned about families and ideas around motherhood and children, etc, to now posting about how there's likely to be a false flag event in New Zealand, which is something that the person that you're talking about, likes to talk about.

Hannah continued: “This has the features of dangerous speech and the predictable impact is partially to do with who is speaking and to whom they are speaking.

"And so obviously somebody who has a position of power or authority, particularly if their authority is knowledge-based, [...] their speech is more likely to have more impact because people will go, goodness it's not just Joe Bloggs saying this, it's this person who's a lecturer saying these things.”

Benjamin’s video series usually see several hundreds of views on new videos, though some reach several thousands of views, including reposts on other alternative media platforms. Hannah said that her self-produced videos were still on the fringes of the movement.

“It's interesting to me that she hasn't yet become central to the discourse. She's still on the fringes of it, which suggests that she's just not as networked in there yet,” Hannah says.

“I thought I’d cut a short video to respond to your invitation”

In a short emailed statement on Thursday morning, AUT spokesperson Alison Sykora said the university did not endorse the lecturer's comments.

“AUT does not share the views expressed by Amy Baker Benjamin and we require our staff to clarify the opinions they express are their own. We take steps to ensure staff are aware of their rights and obligations.“

Debate reached out to AUT with details of the law lecturer’s comments on Monday. On Friday morning, the university added that Benjamin had resigned from her position without further detail. AUT has told The Spinoff that it is unable to clarify details on an individual's employment.

Benjamin disputes media reporting that she resigned following the publicisation of her comments on Covid. According to the law lecturer, she resigned in September for 'personal reasons' and will finish employment with the university at the end of 2021.

On Tuesday, Benjamin rejected Debate's request for an interview and instead posted a video response to her page repeating unsubstantiated claims about the pandemic while mentioning conspiracy theorist lightning rod George Soros.

In a short email, the lecturer wrote: “Rather than trade emails I thought I’d cut a short video to respond to your invitation.”