Anti-lockdown protests in Australia over the weekend mimicked some of the conspiracy theories and language of similar protests in the United States but they’re unlikely to grow as big due to the limited size of the groups within Australia, according to one misinformation researcher.
More than 100 people gathered outside parliament in Victoria and a smaller crowd gathered in Sydney to protest the lockdowns, “tracking apps” and vaccines.
The weekend protests were promoted on various Facebook groups linked to fringe conspiracy groups including QAnon and various anti-vaxxers, with many of the signs at the protests targeting Microsoft founder Bill Gates for his work on vaccines – a popular target of conspiracy theorists.
It is understood Facebook has removed events encouraging people to breach the physical distancing rules, and on one of the pages promoting the protests several posts have been removed for breaching Facebook’s guidelines.
The rallies followed much larger demonstrations in the US in recent weeks, with Australian protesters copying slogans and promoting similar conspiracy theories. The theme of posts on some of the group pages behind the weekend protests imitate those seen on fringe far-right groups in the US.
But the groups often diverge in what they believe in, with the only common denominator being a purported link to the coronavirus pandemic.
Axel Bruns, a professor in digital media research at Queensland University of Technology told Guardian Australia the pandemic was bringing wildly differing conspiracy theory groups together.
“Any group with pre-existing conspiracy theories has projected their conspiracy theories onto the corona crisis in some form as well,” he said.
“Whether that’s the anti-vaxxers or the anti-5G people … it’s quite likely that all of these groups have some belief there is an underlying story they’re not being told.”
Part of the problem, he said, was that information about coronavirus was slow to emerge as the pandemic took hold.
“There was a very genuine information vacuum, even authorities didn’t have all the answers and couldn’t have all the answers at that point. That’s always what happens at the start of a major crisis,” he said.
Unlike the anti-lockdown protests in the United States, Australia’s so far have been relatively small. Bruns puts this down to a lack of a pre-existing network, and the Australian government’s response to the economic impact.
“We probably won’t get to the [US] point because we don’t have the undergrowth of existing conspiracy theorists or fringe groups, but it will be interesting to see how things develop as people get fed up with the ongoing restrictions or ongoing lockdowns.
“It’s bad enough but it’s certainly not as polarised and as dysfunctional as it is in the US … it’s easy to get people who are already quite upset and annoyed and frustrated. And here I think we’ve managed to avoid that much more than they have.”
Conspiracy theories involving 5G popped up at the protest in Melbourne, with some in the comments in one of the groups linking the Cedar Meats outbreak to a nearby telephone tower.
Chief health officer, Brendan Murphy, labelled connecting coronavirus to 5G “silly misinformation”.
“There is absolutely no evidence about 5G doing anything in the coronavirus space,” he said on Sunday. “I have unfortunately received a lot of communication from these conspiracy theorists myself. It is complete nonsense – 5G has got nothing at all to do with coronavirus.”
A search of tower licences on the Australian Communications and Media Authority website reveals Telstra was only granted a licence for its 5G network at that location earlier this month – well after the outbreak occurred.
Another virulent conspiracy theory that appeared at the protest and in the groups is Plandemic, a video making claims about the origins of Covid-19 that was shared by celebrity chef Pete Evans and NRL Wag Taylor Winterstein.
Plandemic has been viewed over 2.2m times in a matter of days, and has been shared by celebrities and other influencers across the world on YouTube, Facebook and Instagram. It was produced by Mikki Willis and has an interview with Judy Mikovits, a discredited researcher who makes a number of inaccurate claims about the origins of Covid-19. One claim, among others, is that Covid-19 is being spread to force vaccines onto the population as a form of control.
Mikovits also falsely claims you can re-transmit coronavirus to yourself by wearing a face mask.
“Would love to know your thoughts as the person being interviewed has a fascinating story. What is the truth?” Evans wrote to his 1.4m followers on Facebook.
“Dr Judy Mikovits has been silenced and gagged for years because of her groundbreaking research,” Winterstein said on her “Taylor’s Way” Facebook page.
“I honestly think it is divine timing, during this PLANdemic, she has the ability again to speak out!! God knows we need her voice now more than ever before.”
Facebook has begun labelling the video as debunked, linking to a post that lays out the false claims in the video, and preventing it from being posted.
“Suggesting that wearing a mask can make you sick could lead to imminent harm, so we’re removing the video,” a Facebook spokeswoman told Guardian Australia.
As often happens, when the links are removed or banned from some platforms, they are shared from less well-known sites. Guardian Australia has observed external links to the video are still up on Facebook, including on Winterstein’s page.
It has been reported that Vimeo and YouTube are also removing the video.
Brun said celebrities who share such conspiracy theories lend it credibility in the eyes of some, despite it not being their area of expertise, and help it to travel further.
“It’s that kind of name recognition that ultimately makes you look more closely at what someone like that is sharing than the actual experts in the field, who, luckily, you’ve never had to hear about before.”