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 the South Pacific nation, where politicians are able to revert to life as a private citizen once they retire. But Ardern, who announced her shock departure last week, was the target of some of the darkest and most extreme online abuse, according to research by the University of Auckland.
Read More: What Jacinda Ardern Could Do Next
“The vitriol is, quite frankly, off the charts,” said Paul Buchanan, a former intelligence and defense 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 specialized 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 analyzed 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.
Kate Hannah, director and founder of independent research group The Disinformation Project, said the genesis of the abuse directed at Ardern was her response to the 2019 Christchurch terrorist attack in which 51 people were killed when a gunman opened fire on Muslim worshipers at two mosques.
“Her swift intervention in the banning of the assault rifles and the iconic visual imagery of her wearing hijab had a lot of power internationally in both the mainstream media and in online discourses,” Hannah said. “That’s when we first started seeing rhetoric.”
Both Hipkins and former prime minister Helen Clark have in recent days called out the misogyny and hatred directed at Ardern. But Ardern herself has said the abuse didn’t play a role in her decision to stand down.
“I would hate for anyone to view my departure as a negative commentary on New Zealand,” she told reporters on Tuesday. “I have experienced such love, compassion, empathy and kindness when I’ve been in this job. That has been my predominant experience.”