Today
Sun 5 December 2021

CJ Werleman reports on how the appeal of the baseless conspiracy theory is taking hold in Australia, where anti-vaxxer protestors are using QAnon to speak out against lockdowns

The 6 January attack on the US Capitol by Donald Trump supporters, white supremacists and QAnon conspiracy theorists has inspired like-minded individuals throughout the Western democratic hemisphere.

This includes the anti-vaccine protestors staging a four-day protest outside Melbourne’s state parliament building since Saturday. Roughly 3,000 anti-vaxxers have marched through the city’s central business district, carrying asinine placards, waving Trump and right-wing American libertarian flags, wearing red MAGA (‘Make America Great Again’) caps and chanting QAnon slogans.

In both style and substance, Australia has witnessed a bizarre and terrifying re-enactment of the violent attempt to overthrow the US Government.

In the same way that pro-Trump Americans built a gallows, while chanting “hang [Vice President] Mike Pence” 10 months earlier, the protestors in Melbourne carried a prop gallows with three nooses hanging from it, as a woman with a megaphone said “I look forward to the day I see you dance on the end of a rope” – referring to the Victoria state Premier Dan Andrews – as onlookers cheered. 

Similar calls for Andrews’ death were echoed on social media, among these self-described “freedom” protestors, who fail to realise that the city’s world-record long lockdown and stringent social distancing measures, have melted away because 90% of the state has now been fully vaccinated. 

The Australian Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, has mimicked Trump in refusing to condemn those threatening the lives of elected law-makers.

While they claim to be only “concerned citizens”, the appearance of dozens of placards, carrying QAnon slogans – including ‘Save Our Children’ and ‘We Don’t Take Orders from Paedophiles’ – tells a entirely different story, one signalling the growing reach and influence of the US-based conspiracy movement, which has seamlessly and strategically embedded itself within anti-vaccine and white supremacist movements and groups during the Coronavirus pandemic.

QAnon is a baseless far-right conspiracy theory that posits cannibalistic paedophiles are operating a global child sex trafficking ring, which Donald Trump was working to defeat.

“COVID-19 restrictions are being exploited by extreme right-wing narratives that paint the state as oppressive, and globalisation and democracy as flawed and failing,” warned ASIO, the country’s top intelligence agency, earlier this year. “We assess the COVID-19 pandemic has reinforced an extreme right-wing belief in the inevitability of societal collapse and a ‘race war’.”

In May, ASIO director-general Mike Burgess told a Senate hearing that the threat from right-wing “racists and nationalists” represents roughly 50% of its current counter-terrorism onshore caseload, saying that “this reflects a growing international trend as well as ASIO’s decision to allocate more resources to the threat”.

This threat is metastasising in the form of both formal and informal right-wing groups and movements, including QAnon and neo-Nazi organizations, which have taken full advantage of conspiracy theories that have spread throughout the Australian community during the crisis, particularly those related to vaccines and 5G technology. 

“As these conspiracy groups have grown and inspired rallies around the country, members of the far-right are working to bring people across to right-wing extremist ideology,” observes investigative journalist Mario Christodoulou.

Cam Smith, a researcher and journalist, has monitored the growth of QAnon in Australia since he first noticed the conspiracy group popping up in local communities and in his Facebook feed in 2018. Having tracked their online conversations, he told the Guardian how a group of QAnon believers drove nearly 2,000 km from Queensland to Victoria to protest against Melbourne’s lockdown in July 2020, “filing themselves and expounding their theories as they went”.

By clicking on their posts, and engaging with QAnon believers, Smith quickly learnt how Facebook algorithms were contributing to the conspiracy movement’s rapid rise during the pandemic, observing that one click on a “small anti-vaccine community” led to Facebook recommending more extreme political content.

With Australia’s two largest cities – Melbourne and Sydney – experiencing more than 250 and 150 days of lockdown respectively during the past two years, millions of citizens have been “trapped at home with a lot of frustration – and the internet – for months at a time,” writes Van Badham in her book, QAnon and On: A Short and Shocking History of Internet Conspiracy Cults.

It is little wonder that the UK-based think tank, the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, found Australia to be the fourth-largest producer of QAnon content, globally, after the US, UK and Canada. “This content is recycled, derived from other geographical contexts – primarily the US – and often dates back to earlier in 2021 and even 2020,” it has said.

“Taken as a whole, however, the content being shared does not spin a coherent narrative. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter much whether the conspiracy revolves around Premier of Victoria Dan Andrews working with the Chinese Communist Party 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 ugly, violent and anti-democratic protests held in Melbourne in recent days have not only been the manifestation of these conspiracy narratives, but also the validation of a warning by the ASIO director-general several months ago, when he said: “Given the growth we’ve seen in nationalist and racist violent extremism, we anticipate there will be a terrorist attack in this country in the next 12 months.”

The QAnon threat did not go away after it wrongly predicted that Donald Trump would win the 2020 US Presidential election. It has changed and adopted new strategies to gain political power in the US and now Down Under.

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