SYDNEY, Australia — Ron DeSantis, the Republican governor of Florida who has made a name for himself as an extreme opponent of vaccine mandates, announced at the end of last month that Australia was “not a free country.” This was surprising news — most of all to Australians.
We have mostly spent pandemic lockdowns alternating between boredom, frustration, wine, a lot of Netflix and trying to locate our trousers before Zoom meetings. Recently, we’ve also become aware of a disturbing myth that appears to be enthusiastically fostered on the American right: Our experience of the pandemic, apparently, has been that of a violent police state. We must have been too busy taking out the bins to notice.
Last week, the myth of our enslavement propelled aspirational allies into the streets. In the United States, Poland and Britain, distinctly non-Australian protesters assembled outside Australian diplomatic missions, denouncing the country’s decline into thuggish autocracy. A #SaveAustralia hashtag trended.
If Australians on Twitter were confused about what they required saving from — the sunshine? free health care? low Covid deaths? — it was perhaps because they weren’t visiting the dark corners of the internet where the myth has taken form. There, propaganda that depicts Australia as a blasted hellscape is being generated and shared.
Confected for an American audience, it seems to be part of an international right-wing campaign to recruit those frustrated by lockdowns, unsure of vaccines and animated by appeals to personal liberty. Australians, trying to get their kids to bed before bingeing on “Ted Lasso,” have been enlisted as unwitting props in an American culture war.
For months, I and other local disinformation researchers have watched the seeds of this campaign being spread across digital platforms.
Cam Smith, a public broadcaster and independent researcher who tracks the far right, noticed videos claiming to show recent acts of brutal police violence against hapless citizens “just pinging around, devoid of context” across anti-vax and anti-lockdown channels. But the footage, Mr. Smith discovered, was re-edited recordings of incidents that took place in the country 12 months earlier, some from a provocation campaign by anti-maskers to defy restrictions and initiate confrontations with police officers.
In the Facebook groups I monitor, it’s the same thing. Right-wing American influencers with millions of followers share videos in which Australian anti-maskers stage disruptions in shops or start fights with the police. Craftily edited, the videos are made to tell stories of innocent citizens brutalized by violent state overreach.
That’s bad enough. But the malign spread of foreign influence goes beyond the internet. In July, anti-lockdown protests took place across Australia, attracting crowds in Sydney and Melbourne. Yet this was no homegrown uprising: Data analysts found the protests had been coordinated by a central group of organizers based in Germany and Britain.
These anti-lockdown protests, never attended by more than a few thousand people, are small by Australian standards. And unlike Americans, Australians are not politically inclined to demands for liberty and choice as much as we are for fairness and solidarity. (The name of the national anthem is “Advance Australia Fair.”) As Australia’s First Nations people knew and settler-colonial Australians learned on arrival, individualism is far less useful than collaboration on a continent where everything from the weather to the insects is trying to kill you, all the time.
Even as some lockdown restrictions ease, Australians continue to comply with public health orders, which even now enjoy overwhelming public support. But where lockdowns remain, far-right activists have seized a rare chance to march on empty streets.
In September, a small gathering of Melbourne workers protesting vaccine mandates suddenly swelled in size as far-right figures urged their followers to join. Images of the carnage that followed were, of course, eagerly shared by right-wing American influencers.
Once you understand the coordination at play, where content is produced and fed back in a mind-mangling loop, a strange theatrical quality to these events makes sense. The decision, for example, to gather at places like an obscure suburban gorge near an Ikea complex in Melbourne seems odd — until you realize the excellent vantage points it provides for filming protesters as they rush at unprepared police officers. That these protests are noticeably accompanied by placards in support of Donald Trump suggests their ultimate audience may not, perhaps, be local.
Yes, Australia’s lockdowns have seemed interminable to us all. Cold, crowded Melbourne recently passed the sad record of the most days in lockdown of any city in the world. Many, including me, have been cut off from loved ones by the stringent restrictions. But the reality that eludes the propagandists is that Australia’s extended lockdowns are not a ploy for greater government control, but a failure of it.
A bumbling Australian federal government did not secure an adequate initial supply of Covid vaccines in the precious window of time before the arrival of the Delta variant. The prime minister, who infamously absconded on holiday while the country was literally on fire, remains, alas, the guy in charge.
Delta circulated and lockdowns restarted — yet Australia remains a free country. Even amid the global economic disruption, Australia’s wheels of free enterprise have managed to find new ways to spin, for good or ill. Free and fair elections have continued to take place. Yet the truth has no value for those who insist on policies that undermine public health.
After all, Australia’s lockdowns, masks and social distancing have kept total nationwide deaths from the virus under 1,500. With its slightly smaller population, Florida — over which Governor DeSantis presides — has lost 57,000 already. It’s that cold reality the propaganda, lurid and outlandish and ridiculous, seeks to banish. But it can’t.
Van Badham (@vanbadham) is a columnist for The Guardian Australia and the author of the forthcoming book “QAnon and On: A Short and Shocking History of Internet Conspiracy Cults.”
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