The Melbourne conspiracy movement is traumatized, incoherent and potentially dangerous

Analysts of the growing anti-lockdown movements and the COVID-skeptical movement in Australia, particularly in Melbourne, are increasingly missing the forest for the trees as media and commentators are diligently searching for right-wing extremist influence. There is a preoccupation with the notion that COVID skepticism is a “gateway” to right-wing extremism that misses the crucial point: these movements are already extreme.

They’re just not predominantly on the far right. In fact, the movements as a whole have no coherent ideology at all. It makes them no less radical or less worrying. Over the last many months, I have seen the rapid escalation and radicalization of anti-lockdown, anti-vaccine and COVID-skeptical movements in Australia. During the long, painful lockdowns in NSWs and Victoria, anti-lockdown and conspiracy societies on social media have experienced tremendous growth.

Protesters on the steps of Victoria's Parliament.

Protesters on the steps of Victoria’s Parliament.Credit:Getty Images

Existing anti-lockdown Facebook groups and Telegram channels have doubled or even tripled in size, and a host of new groups and channels have emerged. Tens of thousands of social media users have been sucked into conspiracy theories, in some cases for the first time.

As we have seen in many countries around the world, the stress and trauma of lockdown is often accompanied by a boom in conspiracy theories. As such, it seems almost inevitable that it is Melbourne where the pain of the pandemic and subsequent, prolonged shutdowns has been felt deeper than anywhere else in the country, which is now the site of these movements in Australia.

Implicit and explicit calls for violence, especially against politicians, are becoming increasingly common. This rhetoric is bleeding from the screen and into the real world, as the streets of Melbourne and Sydney have become scenes of intense and in some cases violent protests.

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Many in the media have begun to look for connections between these protesters and the far right. They speculate, often without presenting any hard evidence, that a shadowy right-wing extremist influence was responsible for causing the protests, or alternatively using the protests as a basis for recruitment. The presence of celebrities associated with the far right at protests has been highlighted as evidence of their influence over the movement, despite the fact that these are only a handful of participants among thousands of protests.

To be clear, there is an extreme right-wing element involved in the anti-lockdown movement. Although this element is largely a minority, its role is nonetheless worrying and should be closely monitored. However, the disproportionate focus on the potential threats from right-wing extremism often seems to overlook the elephant that is already in space, trampling around and trumpeting loudly and knocking things over: Conspiracy extremism.

The tenor of the discussion in many (though not all) of the anti-lockdown Telegram channels is as heated and often as violent as many right-wing channels. The constant drumming of threats against politicians, public figures, health officials and journalists has normalized the use of violent language and imagery, much in the same way that such language and imagery are normalized in extreme right-wing social media societies. That violent language and imagery are increasingly penetrating the protests on the ground. For example, the speaker who on the microphone referred to Victorian Prime Minister Dan Andrews as a “joke”, or the protester who brought a fake gallows to the protest on 13 November in Melbourne.

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