14th September 2021
By Elise Thomas
Conspiracy-focused anti-lockdown social media groups in Australia are experiencing a period of rapid growth, fuelled by widespread public health restrictions across multiple states, most notably in New South Wales and Victoria.
Insofar as these groups could be considered a movement, that movement is incoherent, disjointed and disorganised. Nonetheless, it is a force which must be taken seriously.
Following the outbreak of the COVID-19 Delta variant in Australia in late July, and in the wake of significant anti-lockdown protests in Sydney and Melbourne in August, a proliferation of new channels have joined the existing Australian conspiracy community on Telegram. Many of these channels have thousands of members, in some cases over ten thousand, and they have largely followed the same pattern of activity. Initial conversations largely focus on the local context and are closely grounded in practicalities, such as where to park before a protest or how to evade QR check-ins. However, over a relatively short period of time, increasingly extreme conspiracy content is shared into the channel from a very broad range of sources – relatively little of which appears to have been created by Australian users themselves.
This content is recycled, derived from other geographical contexts – primarily the US – and often dates back to earlier in 2021 and even 2020. Taken as a whole, however, the content being shared does not spin a coherent narrative; it is not building towards a wider, cohesive conspiracy theory which the community can latch on to. Instead it is fragmented, with content reflecting narratives from QAnon or Sovereign Citizen, as well as New Age health tropes and fringe anti-CCP or religiously inspired conspiracy theories. The content reflects the diverse paths through conspiracy radicalisation which each individual user is traveling down. It would not be accurate to call this a QAnon movement or far right movement or Sovereign Citizen movement, but there are elements of all of these and more.
The fact that this ‘movement’ doesn’t make sense doesn’t mean it has no impact. The power of conspiracy theories rests on their emotional resonance rather than their narrative details. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter much whether the conspiracy revolves around Premier of Victoria Dan Andrews working with the CCP to microchip the population via the vaccine and bring in the Great Reset, or Prime Minister Scott Morrison selling military bases to Pfizer and forcing people into death camps. The importance of these conspiracy narratives is that they reiterate the alleged existence of a secretive, sinister ‘They’, and ‘They’ are lying to you.
The incoherence at the heart of the Australian anti-lockdown movement is due, in part, to the fact that it has no leaders, no structure and no real organisation. Australia’s planned anti-lockdown protest dates have been driven from overseas, including the upcoming protests on September 18, 2021. Most of the individuals who were prominent in anti-lockdown protests last year, particularly in Melbourne, have either been arrested or faded in relevance. The handful of groups and influential individuals who remain appear wary of playing too prominent a role – a wariness which has likely increased after the recent arrests of Monica Smit and Karen Brewer for inciting protests.
The lack of detailed protest planning was abundantly clear in the anti-lockdown protest in Melbourne on August 21. A large crowd gathered and then aimlessly walked around the city, periodically facing off with police before backing down and wandering off somewhere else. In many ways, this protest encapsulated the state of the anti-lockdown movement in Australia more broadly: loud, angry, directionless.
It would be a mistake to think that the inchoate nature of the anti-lockdown movement reduces its potential for harm. The general tone of the discussion in a number of Telegram channels is escalating rapidly, becoming more and more extreme. Direct and indirect calls for violence are becoming more commonplace, and in some cases include incitements for violence from users who appear to be overseas, particularly the US.
There are a number of clear risks associated with the movement’s recent, explosive growth. The most immediately obvious is the risk to public health efforts to control the spread of COVID-19, risks which arise both from large gatherings such as protests and from the many smaller, more mundane violations of public health restrictions which are likely to be taking place. Another risk comes in the form of anti-vaccine mobilisation around professions such as teachers and nurses, for which specific Telegram channels already exist.
The potential for violence is also a concern which needs to be taken seriously. Police have described the August protest in Melbourne as the most violent protests the city has seen in twenty years. The following week, a vaccination clinic in Sydney was targeted in a suspected arson attack. On a nearby building, investigators found graffiti which read “COVID-19 is a lie. People wake up now. Fight the system. Revolt.” This underscores the need for reasonable security measures for obvious targets like testing and vaccination sites.
In other geographical contexts, radicalised individuals and small groups have plotted more significant crimes. In October 2020, six men linked to an anti-lockdown group in the US were arrested over a plan to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer because of COVID-19 restrictions imposed on the state.
At least two people in Australia have recently been arrested in connection to a conspiracy-fuelled plot to overthrow the government. While the Queensland Joint Counter Terrorism Team investigators assessed that the plotters had no ability to actually carry out the plan, this underscores that there are individuals and small groups within these broader movements who are prepared to plot and potentially commit more aggressive action in pursuit of their goals.
The personal harm to individuals sucked into these movements should not be overlooked. Being drawn into conspiracy theories can have a devastating effect on people’s lives, relationships, careers and physical and mental wellbeing. Insofar as it leads to them rejecting vaccination against COVID-19, for some it could even be life-threatening.
If there is one lesson that society has learnt over the past year, it is that underestimating the risk of conspiracy movements because their beliefs appear incoherent, illogical or foolish is a grave mistake. One of the enduring images held by many of the US Capitol attack on January 6 – arguably the most significant act of domestic political violence to occur in the US for many decades – is of ‘QAnon Shaman’ Jacob Chansley in his horns and face-paint.
The current, concerningly rapid growth and escalation in Australia’s anti-lockdown movement is directly linked to the crisis gripping New South Wales and Victoria. That crisis shows no sign of abating any time soon, and so the upwards trajectory of the anti-lockdown movement is likely to continue for some time to come.
Elise Thomas is an OSINT Analyst at ISD. She has previously worked for the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, and has written for Foreign Policy, The Daily Beast, Wired and others.