In the remote border town of Texas in northern New South Wales last month, a police officer pulled over a truck driver after he allegedly crossed into Queensland without providing identification.
In footage posted online, the 33-year-old can be heard asking the officer whether he worked “for the corporation known as the Queensland police in all capital letters?”
He then asks: “Am I a man?”
The officer’s deadpan response – “It’s 2020 mate. What do you identify as?” – got him his own thread on Reddit, but the bizarre interaction is not unique.
Viral footage of people defying restrictions on borders, large gatherings and, in Victoria, the use of face masks, have increasingly peppered Australian news as the Covid-19 pandemic stretches into its eighth month.
This past week a woman who refused to wear a face mask in a Bunnings hardware store in Melbourne became the latest fodder for the news cycle after she described herself as “a living woman” to a bemused employee. A few days earlier, footage of a woman reading from a script as she asked an officer “have I disturbed the peace today?” while refusing to answer questions at a border stop in Victoria also made headlines.
Footage of these encounters and others like them share a similar characteristic: in them, the people challenging police appear to be reading from the same script, a pdf file that has been shared widely across various Facebook groups loosely affiliated with the so-called “sovereign citizen” conspiracy movement.
Described by the Southern Poverty Law Centre in the US as an extremist group, the sovereign citizen movement is a haphazard collection of pseudo-legal beliefs broadly coalesced around the notion that modern government is illegitimate.
“Sovereign citizens believe that they get to decide which laws to obey and which to ignore, and they don’t think they should have to pay taxes,” the SPLC says.
In extreme cases, sovereign citizens in the US have been linked to violence. In 2010 a father and son linked to the movement shot to death two police officers in West Memphis, Arkansas, who had pulled them over in a routine traffic stop. The two men were later killed in a shootout with police.
The movement is rooted in racism and antisemitism, though, as the SPLC acknowledges, many followers are unaware of its origins. Acts of deadly violence have usually directed against government officials.
The Australian wing of the bizarre movement, transplanted here with a few tweaks, is not new. One of its most well-known proponents, a Western Australian, Wayne Glew, had his property and assets seized in 2018 after refusing to pay $300,000 in council rates and legal fees because of a belief local government was unconstitutional.
But in the time of Covid-19 its adherents have found themselves a niche. As governments impose unprecedented restrictions on civil liberties in an effort to control the spread of the virus, sovereign citizens appear to be attempting to take advantage of broad community uncertainty to push their confused agenda.
They are far from alone. Experts say the pandemic has offered an umbrella under which a bevy of fringe conspiracy groups and far-right actors have found common cause. Cam Smith, an independent researcher who focuses on conspiracy theorists and the far right, says links between previously discrete groups including the sovereign citizens, anti-vaxxers, QAnon and anti-5G groups have increasingly blurred during the pandemic.
“It’s a weird moment where all of these groups who usually have their own thing have come together with Covid,” he says. “It doesn’t even really seem to matter if they don’t necessarily meld – they find ways to smooth it over.”
‘Society is obsessed with conspiracy theorists’
The most visible expression of this trend occurred in May, when 10 people were arrested and one police officer was hospitalised after demonstrators gathered in Melbourne to protest against “self-isolating, social distancing, tracking apps [and] 5G being installed”.
The protest, which was promoted on various Facebook groups linked to fringe conspiracy groups including QAnon and various anti-vaxxers, included signs about 5G, China and the Murray-Darling River. Various speakers claimed Covid-19 was a conspiracy orchestrated by “globalists”, while one of the main organisers of the rally, Fanos Panayides, invoked the “mark of the beast”.
Prof Axel Bruns, a leading internet researcher from the Queensland University of Technology, has been researching misinformation related to the planned 5G network during the Covid-19 pandemic. He agrees that under the umbrella of the pandemic, the borders between different corners of internet conspiracy have begun to vanish.
“The example of 5G gives you all of these disparate things: that it’s a dangerous technology because it’s linked to some sort of electro-fog, or that it’s the trigger for some sort of biological weapon, or that it’s linked to the coming of the Antichrist,” he says.
“There can be these five or six totally different threads that don’t really connect, but what it seems to me is that everyone who had some sort of pre-existing conspiracy theory about health, or world government, or religion, they’ve all jumped on to the Covid bandwagon and found a way to connect what’s happening with the virus to their own existing worldview.
“So if you’re against 5G, Covid is either making it worse or is caused by 5G. If you’re concerned by world government taking over, the stay-at-home orders and masks are a sign of that. Everyone is retrofitting Covid into these existing conspiracy theories.”
For the most part these online groupings have negligible impact on the real word. But the new outbreak of a pushback against Covid-19 restrictions poses a new challenge for authorities grappling with the consequences of people indifferent to the potency of the virus.
As Victoria struggles to contain its second-wave outbreak, conspiracy groups continue to flout regulations. This week dozens of people linked to the sovereign citizens movement gathered in a Melbourne gym in violation of restrictions on gatherings.
“A great night together discussing the putrid conduct of the police, government and media lies,” one attendee wrote on social media after the event. “We are strong and won’t bow down to these oppressors.”
Similarly on Friday about 30 anti-mask protesters gathered at Melbourne’s Shrine of Remembrance just before 7am and held a minute’s silence.
It also poses challenges for the social media companies providing the platform on which these communities of misinformation flourish, and the media outlets struggling to come to terms with how to cover such phenomena.
After Cam Smith posted footage of the woman refusing to wear a mask inside a Bunnings store to Twitter, it was quickly picked up by mainstream news networks. An analysis by the ABC found news articles about the incident were the top two stories on social media about coronavirus in Australia over the last week measured by engagements.
She was later featured on the Seven network burning a face mask, before appearing on Nine’s Today Show where she claimed, falsely, that Covid-19 case numbers “are not true” and that the virus was “biochemically engineered intentionally”. When the Today host Karl Stefanovic abruptly ended the interview, it prompted another round of stories about the confrontation.
The public health academic Prof Julie Leask from the University of Sydney is one of Australia’s leading experts on vaccination uptake. She says she has lost count of the number of interviews she’s done on the anti-vaxx movement, and is frustrated by what she see’s as the media’s outsized focus on its hardcore proponents.
“Even the fact you’re doing this story is part of the game,” she says. “It feels like society is obsessed with conspiracy theorists and I still haven’t figured out why. I almost wonder if we’re all attracted to these neat attributions for problems in the same way conspiracy theorists are. If you have a conspiracy theorist who doesn’t want to lock down or wear a mask, you don’t have to acknowledge more complex problems like gaps in our healthcare system.”
But Leask does concede there is a “dilemma” in whether or not media should cover these issues, pointing to polling showing a perhaps larger than expected number of Australians do believe conspiracy theories related to issues such as 5G.
“There is clearly something going on in this pandemic to see so many Australians believing those views,” she said. “The general explanation in my field is in times of uncertainty people will seek more solid, clear-cut explanations to give themselves some comfort. It’s worth noting that and it is kind of concerning.”
When fringe beliefs become destructive
The challenge for media organisation lies somewhere in the tipping point: that is, when fringe beliefs and their proponents begin to slip into the mainstream. In the US, opposition to face masks has found its way into mainstream discourse as an issue of individual freedom in some cases peddled by Republican figures including Donald Trump.
In Australia that rhetoric has so far been confined to the fringes of the debate, with some notable exceptions: when Victoria mandated face masks in public, the Herald Sun columnist, Sky News host and rightwing pundit Andrew Bolt labelled it “virus hysteria”.
There is now no firm data on attitudes towards wearing masks in Australia, though the Victorian premier, Daniel Andrews, has praised the state’s compliance with the new mandate. A survey conducted by the Australian Bureau of Statistics in late June found one in eight people nationally said the pandemic had prompted them to wear face masks.
While it’s hard to know the extent to which anti-mask sentiment has crept into Australia, Leask said the danger was when an issue became divided along “ideological gradients”.
“In the same way that climate change in the 1970s and 80s started to become an issue of, not just do we believe in global warming but ‘by the way this is a lefty idea so if you’re conservative you’re not going to agree with it’,” she said.
“You start to see those leading commentators influencing a larger group of people. If part of belonging to whichever tribe is to also believe ‘it is my right to not wear a mask’ then you might see a greater amount of non-compliance”.
There is no doubt however that online communities linked to conspiracy theories can impact on the real world without necessarily bleeding into the mainstream. In countries including New Zealand, for example, anti-5G activists have been linked to the destruction of phone towers during the pandemic.
In Australia the Guardian has seen leaked Telegram conversations between members of anti-5G Facebook group openly discussing plans to destroy towers.
“Yes I hope we can take action soon, we can definitely burn them,” one woman wrote in April.
“[T]his app isn’t secure enough if we’re going to talk about damaging 5G towers,” another replied.
“I think we should take any discussions regarding physically damaging the towers to an underground level. It’s frustrating going around in circles discussing the negative effects of 5G when we could be actively planning real activism.”
Cam Smith, who has been at the forefront of watching the evolution of various threads of the conspiracy movement, believes one of the most obvious reasons for its escalation during the pandemic could be true: “People are stuck at home and online a lot more.”
“It sounds trite but I’ve seen some of them saying, ‘You know, I was a sheep and then Covid happened and I had time to research,’” he says.
“I think most of them are primed for it, though. They might have had a conspiracy they believed in already and this whole thing has happened and just set them on a path.”