10th February 2022
By Elise Thomas
Protesters inspired by Ottawa’s ‘Freedom Convoy’, an ongoing protest against COVID-19 vaccine mandates for truckers crossing the Canadian-US border, have now been camping out in the Australian capital Canberra for more than a week, periodically venturing out to rally in front of Parliament House.
Reflective of protest dynamics in the social media era, what has evolved is part protest, part reality TV show, as prominent personalities tussle for influence and followers on social media. As a case study, the so-called ‘Canberra Convoy’ raises interesting questions about analysing protest movements in the social media age, some of which are explored in this article.
“We don’t want this to become a war of influencers, to dominate and to get likes and all that sort of stuff,” ex-Qantas pilot Graham Hood said in a piece straight to camera, which he uploaded for his 116,000 Facebook followers and 13,000 Telegram subscribers on 6 February. Hood has repeatedly appeared in the media since resigning from his job as a pilot over mandatory vaccination requirements in 2021. Shortly after uploading the video, Hood declared himself the spokesman for the camp in Canberra, which has attracted a number of disparate groups protesting across different issues.
In a week which has generated significantly more social media content than actual protest action, the ‘Canberra Convoy’ has demonstrated the integral role social media and parasocial relationships play in Australia’s anti-lockdown movement.
The parasocial relationship
A parasocial relationship is the one-sided relationship which audiences form with media personas. Social media influencers actively cultivate a sense of immediacy and intimacy with their audiences, for example by talking straight to camera as if the camera – and by extension, the thousands or millions of viewers they will never meet – is a close friend. This in turn generates loyalty, affection and support from their followers.
The Australian anti-lockdown movement is rife with parasocial relationships. A crop of influencers have sprung up around the country, with a particular concentration in Melbourne where both COVID-19 lockdowns and protest action have been the most extreme. These influencers maintain active social media profiles with tens of thousands of followers, in some cases profiting from their following through selling merchandise or accepting donations. They livestream protests, post regular updates and inspiring content, and upload videos in which they discuss the latest interpersonal drama within the movement directly with the camera.
Much of the latter is remarkably similar to the video diary format often seen in reality TV shows. It is worth noting that a number of these anti-lockdown influencers have links to reality TV – take for example Monica Smit, the leader of the anti-lockdown group Reignite Democracy who auditioned for Survivor last year; Fanos Panayides, who led protests in 2020 and was a contestant on Family Food Fight; and most famously former My Kitchen Rules host Pete Evans, who has become a prominent promoter of COVID-19 conspiracy theories.
A kind of mini-celebrity culture has formed around some influencers, bringing both adulation and significant amounts of drama. Melbourne photographer Rukshan Fernando, who became famous in the movement for his livestreams of anti-lockdown protests in 2021, can no longer walk through a protest without being constantly stopped by fans wanting to talk or take selfies with him. Figures like Smit or Dave ‘Oneegs’ Oneeglio are greeted with cheers whenever they appear at rallies. There’s even fan art.
Gossip amongst anti-lockdowners comprises most of their online conversation
Gossiping about these high profile figures and their relationships with each other – who’s in, who’s out, who’s feuding with who – makes up a significant chunk of the anti-lockdown movement’s chatter online. Unlike normal celebrity gossip, however, it is overlaid with a thick layer of paranoia. There are constant accusations that this or that influencer has sold out, or suspicions aired about who may be “controlled opposition”, secretly working to undermine the movement from within.
The protest camp in Canberra has brought many of these influencers together in the same place for a prolonged period for the first time, alongside hundreds and at times thousands of their followers. This also includes many second, third and fourth-tier would-be influencers, all busily creating social media content and cultivating an audience.
The result is a hothouse environment somewhere between a traditional protest movement and a reality TV show, or a TikTok hype house. As increasingly visible divisions between prominent personalities grow over what the goal of the protests is and how they should achieve it, livestreamers are there to capture the arguments on camera and broadcast them out. Fights happen on mic and on camera and in the hours following the conflict, influencers upload their separate pieces to camera to their own channels, packaging up their views on what happened for their followers and hoping their version is the one that takes hold among the movement more broadly.
Some of this is an age-old element of protest movements. Charisma and individual popularity has always played a central role in whose voice is heard and whose ideas come to form the core of protest demands. Likewise, conflict between different factions and their leaders is an eternal theme of any mass movement.
But there are also parts of this which are very different from previous generations of protests. The minute-by-minute production of content, and the consumption of the protests as almost a form of entertainment by audiences around the country reshapes dynamics on the ground. Individuals trying to fashion themselves as leaders have to impress not only their fellow protesters on the ground, but the tens of thousands of online followers who reward them with likes or punish them with negative reactions and angry comments. The metrics by which leaders’ stocks rise and fall have never been so explicit. This is what Hood was referring to when he talked about the “war of influencers, to dominate and to get likes.”
Protest movements through the lens of influencer culture
As a case study, the Canberra Convoy is interesting because it illustrates a new lens through which to analyse protest movements in the social media age. The dynamics of communities which form around political conspiracy theories and health misinformation are in many respects not all that different from other online cultures. For example, academics CarrieLynn D. Reinhard and David Stanley have recently pointed to the value of understanding QAnon as an online fandom, and contextualising the behaviour of QAnon followers against studies of fan culture.
Likewise, analysing the dynamics of anti-lockdown protest movements through the lens of influencer culture and economies may yield new insights into how these movements are evolving. It may also help to understand which forces drive escalation within movements towards more radical or even violent actions, and which forces can shift the needle in the other direction.
Back in Canberra, the protesters intend to continue camping out until at least Saturday, when another protest is planned at Parliament House. Amid ongoing squabbles and division rocking the camp, however, it is unclear whether all of the various factions can hold together for that long. Online meanwhile, the war of influencers rolls on.
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.