The Threat of Conspiratorial COVID-Sceptic Extremism
16th November 2021
By Elise Thomas
ISD’s Elise Thomas observes the move towards extremism amongst Australian and New Zealand anti-lockdown movements, explaining why referring to them simply as ‘far-right’ misses important pieces of the story.
Analysts of the growing anti-lockdown movements in Australia and New Zealand are increasingly missing the wood for the trees. Media and commentators doggedly search for far-right influence, and the insistence that COVID-scepticism is a ‘gateway’ to far-right extremism misses the crucial point: these movements are already extreme.
They’re just not predominantly far-right. In fact, the movements as a whole don’t have any coherent ideology at all. That doesn’t make them less radical or less concerning.
The anti-lockdown social media boom in Australia and New Zealand
Over recent months I have watched the rapid escalation and radicalisation of these anti-lockdown movements. As Australia and New Zealand battled through their respective lockdowns, COVID-sceptic and conspiracy communities on social media experienced enormous growth. Existing Facebook groups and Telegram channels have doubled or even tripled in size, and a multitude of new groups and channels have sprung up. Tens of thousands of social media users have been sucked into conspiracy theories, in some cases for the first time.
As I wrote for a previous Digital Dispatches in September, implicit and explicit calls for violence, particularly against politicians, have become increasingly common. This rhetoric is bleeding into the real world, with the streets of Melbourne, Sydney and Wellington becoming the scenes of intense, sometimes violent protests.
Hunting for far-right links with COVID-sceptic movements
These developments have been the subject of a raft of media coverage hunting for links to the far-right. Story after story has speculated, often without presenting any hard evidence, that a shadowy far-right influence was responsible for causing the protests, or alternatively is using the protests as a recruiting ground. The presence of known individuals with links to the far-right at protests has been highlighted as proof of their influence over the movement, despite them being just a handful of attendees amongst thousands.
To be clear, there is a far-right element involved in the anti-lockdown movement. While this element is a minority, its role is concerning and should be watched carefully.
However, the disproportionate focus on the potential threat of far-right extremism often seems to overlook the elephant already in the room, stomping around and trumpeting loudly and knocking things over: conspiracy extremism.
Conspiracy extremism and threats of violence against public figures
The tenor of the discussion in many (although not all) of the anti-lockdown Telegram channels is every bit as heated, and often as violent, as many far-right channels. The steady drumbeat of threats against politicians, public figures, health officials and journalists has normalised the use of violent language and imagery, in much the same way as such language and imagery is normalised in far-right social media communities.
That violent language and imagery is increasingly making its way into the protests on the ground. For example, the speaker who referenced, on microphone, hanging Victorian Premier Dan Andrews as a ‘joke’ or the protester who brought along a mock-gallows to the November 13 protest in Melbourne. At another Melbourne protest days earlier, a young man with a crossbow was arrested after jumping on top of a car outside the State Parliament. And just last night in Melbourne, protestors brought a truck with a gallows to their overnight protest.
A non-ideological escalation towards extremism?
The escalation towards extremism is abundantly clear. Just as clearly, it is not being driven by any coherent political ideology at either end of the left-right spectrum. It is not the result of many hours of considered contemplation of political philosophy. It is fuelled by frustration, alienation, and conspiracy theories.
The ideological shallowness of these movements do not lower the risks associated with them. A violent act fuelled by a profound belief that there are Satanic microchips being injected into children via COVID-19 vaccines could be every bit as dangerous to targets and bystanders as an attack fuelled by white supremacist beliefs.
Anti-lockdown movements are complex and multi-faceted. They draw people from a broad range of backgrounds and beliefs, who sit at very different points on the spectrum of risk when it comes to extremism.
The majority of anti-lockdown protesters are not likely to participate in violent forms of extremism, but a handful may be. Responding effectively to such concerns requires accuracy and nuance, and a clear-eyed analysis of what the extremist risks are within that broader movement. Rather than fixating on the role of the far-right, it is far past time that we started to take conspiracy extremism seriously in its own right.
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.