Kate MacNamara: Government’s United Against Covid-19 Facebook page – the banned words


They think of everything at the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. Recently DPMC released the list of “moderated words” in the Facebook filter for its Unite Against Covid-19 Facebook page. Comments made on the site containing these words, phrases and emojis are automatically hidden, vanished you might say, from the view of everyone, except the people who wrote them and their Facebook friends.

You mustn’t mention the words “sheep”, “sheeple” or “sheeples”, for example, or “baa”, or use the sheep emoji on the site, which is broadly used to disseminate official information, and to provide a forum for public discussion of the Government’s Covid rules and response.

The problem with sheep should be obvious. We know them as the thick-witted bleeters of slogans from George Orwell’s Animal Farm: “four legs good, two legs bad”. Then, of course, they were taught an updated version and they mindlessly parrotted that instead: “four legs good, two legs better”.

Sheep are, hands down, the farm animal most susceptible to “brainwashing”, which is another of the words you can’t use on the Unite Facebook page, along with “brainwashed”, “tyranny”, “tyrant”, “tyrannical”, “oppression”, “coercion”, “force”, “blackmailing”, “obey”, “fear”, “scare”, “coercion”, “wake up”, “forced”, “here we go again”, “segregate”, “plan b”, “control”, “north Korea”, “lies”, and “veritas”.

Reading through the comments that do show up on the Facebook page I was struck by the mirthless obsession with minute rule-following. It’s a relief to know that everyone else has simply typed in “knickers to this” or “human rights” and poof, it’s disappeared. (Yes, both “knickers” and “human rights” are on DPMC’s verboten list).

A considerable number of words that are useful in describing Government heavy-handedness are banned. And so is an array of others, the state’s objection to which is not immediately obvious, including: “tawdry”, “scantily”, “trashy”, “turd”, “thug”, “vodka”, “niggle”, “vulgar”, “war”, “stupid”, “dummy”, “trial”, “muppet”, “thalidomide”, “sex worker”, “nono”, “asbestos”, “tinkle”, “ugly”, and “coax”.

There are, in fact, about 1000 words and phrases you can’t use when commenting on the page.

As the department helpfully explained in releasing the list under the provisions of the Official Information Act (current as of January 31, 2022), about two thirds of the words and phrases come from a standard list suggested by Facebook. Some 300 more are the department’s own additions. This is how “Brian Tamaki” made the list, and “Cindy”, “jabcinda”, “vaxcinda”,and “spread your legs”, though surprisingly officials haven’t banned “Freudian slip”.

All the obvious swear words are banned, along with an assortment that, I have to admit, I wouldn’t normally consider words at all: “whoralicious”, “numbnuts”, “weenie”, “doofus”, “punkass”, “wedgie”, “w00se”, “wazoo” and “pollack”, among others.

There are many human body parts covered, most of them related to reproduction, and they are completed with a range of associated verbs.

Some of the banned words are, shall we say “urban spellings”, of the variety that gives us “muther”, “a$$”, “masterbat*”, “phuq”, “w*nker”, and “sh!+” along with numerous permutations of these words’ original forms.

Admittedly, it wouldn’t be very unifying to have the official Facebook page salted with rude and dirty words. But the blue-pencilers at DPMC are catholic in their disapproval.

Some of the words are just baffling, take “Foobar”. Presumably it’s the phonetic version of the original acronym. But language evolves, perhaps it’s now just a novel way to call someone a “ninny”, “dingle”, “knob”, “paddy”, “peepee”, “dimwit”, or “amateur”, all banned.

Many of the blacklisted words aren’t rude at all. Some are political, sometimes with historic specificity: “pinko”, “communist”, “commmie”, “nazi”, “nazism”, “facist”, “facists”, and “gestapo”. A handful are drugs or their brand names: “ivermectin”, “cyalis”, “viagra”, and “valium”. And some refer to tales of conspiracy like “Plandemic”, the name of a US documentary.

There is a long list of words that are banned for no obvious reason, except perhaps that nobody has told DPMC that state censorship has a dangerous history, and that citizens are apt to take a dim view of bureaucrats who use the public’s money to stifle discussion as well as dissent.

There is an argument to be made that falsehoods about vaccines, for example, should be combatted. But the Government’s hypersensitivity to what it calls misinformation risks compounding any damage done by falsehood.

For one thing, the Unite Against Covid-19 advertising that DPMC continues to fund tackles a much broader range of issues than vaccination.

For what reason, other than to limit debate on MIQ (now largely disestablished), are words and phrases such as “detention facility”, “detention facilities”, “detention centre”, “close the borders”, and “boarders” included on the censor’s list?

Even the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment has referred to MIQ as a place of “detention”. Which it demonstrably is, since, in MBIE’s words “people are not free to leave at their will”.

It’s also worth noting the courts have found serious deficiencies of proportionality and fairness of the MIQ system respectively in the landmark judicial review brought by businessman Murray Bolton last year, and in the judicial review brought by Grounded Kiwis.

It may be that the folk at DPMC just have too much time on their hands. Housed within the department’s Covid-19 Response Group were 41 communications and engagement staff (as of the end of February).

By the end of last year, they’d managed to splash $87.6 million on advertising the Government’s “Unite” campaigns; they’d also banned the word “muppets”. It’s clearly time to cancel this particular variety show and return the puppets to the sock drawer.

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